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  • Charles Olson and American Modernism: The Practice of the Self by Mark Byers
  • Steven Shoemaker
Charles Olson and American Modernism: The Practice of the Self. Mark Byers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 224. $80.00 (cloth); $76.00 (eBook).

This carefully researched, insightful, and provocative study of Charles Olson's development as an American modernist of the period following the Second World War seeks to place Olson in a new context and thereby grant us a fresh understanding of his work. Rather than concentrating his attention primarily on immediate poetic precursors (and still-living contemporaries) like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Mark Byers focuses on the New York scene that gave birth both to abstract expressionism and to radical experiments in new music. Further, Byers considers these aesthetic developments in relation to the postwar, and post-Marxist, soul-searching of thinkers on the Left who sought a way forward after the political and social upheavals wrought by worldwide conflict.

Byers's innovative approach is to place Olson's work alongside the work of painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb, as well as composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman. At the same time, he attends to the critics and thinkers who were both critiquing the current state of art and culture and helping to imagine new artistic and [End Page 440] social possibilities, including Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight MacDonald, and Sidney Hook, as well as Frankfurt School émigrés like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. To this already full roster he adds twentieth-century scientists Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Erwin Schrödinger—shapers of the "new physics" who shook the epistemological certitudes that had underpinned both scientific inquiry and the Marxist historical imagination.

In Byers's reading, a widespread sense of skepticism and radical questioning ran through every aspect of postwar culture and led to a search for new forms of political agency, and, indeed, for a new "practice of the self" suitable to the times. During the war, Olson had worked for first the Office of War Information and then the Democratic National Committee, but by 1945 had begun to withdraw from political life (9). One of Byers's central areas of concern is the question of what political agency might look like after such a turn, or even "retreat," into private life. The question sparked intense debate not just for Olson, but for many artists and thinkers of the period. The technological rationality of Germany's National Socialism had come to seem like a perverse fulfillment of the dream of Enlightenment "reason" and "progress," thus calling into question the whole Enlightenment narrative that had been so central to the development of European culture. At the same time, the Marxist faith in the historical inevitability of socialist revolution seemed no less wrongheaded and useless in the face of the actual events of recent world history.

Amid this loss of faith in the ideals of "civilization" and in grand narratives more generally came an upsurge of interest in the individual rather than the class or the tribe. Writers and artists turned away from the dream of collective political action, as well as from the sorts of aesthetic commitments with which that dream was associated. Subsequent critiques of abstract expressionism as "the official style of postwar American capitalism" have questioned the triumphalism, imperialism, and devotion to self-interest of this political, cultural, and artistic moment, but Byers wants to provide a corrective to such critiques, to show that they have often "drastically simplified the fate of 'I' in the United States in the years immediately following the Second World War" (11).

Byers argues that beginning around 1945 "the first person subject was increasingly regarded as the site of radical political agency by the new independent left; a transitional formation cutting its ties with orthodox Marxism and the ambitions of the New Deal state" (11). In this reading, the Maximus of Olson's The Maximus Poems embodies a "radical 'practice of the self'" that "charts a sophisticated alternative to the Enlightenment humanist subject widely critiqued in the immediate postwar period" (19). Further, Olson's construction of such a figure positions him...