- American Literature in Transition, 1910–1920 ed. by Mark W. Van Wienen, and: American Literature in Transition, 1920–1930 ed. by Ichiro Takayoshi
Edited by Mark W. Van Wienen
Cambridge University Press, 2018. 438 pp. $110 cloth
Edited by Ichiro Takayoshi
Cambridge University Press, 2017. 510 pp. $110 cloth
One of the difficulties of reading Edith Wharton beyond the society novels lies in the complexity of contextualizing her oeuvre within the literary movements and social and cultural trends of her day. Known as a writer of Old New York, and widely regarded as someone whose permanent relocation to France in 1912 took her out of the intellectual currents of the United States, Wharton has often proved difficult to place within the American scene of the 1910s or 1920s. The essays of the American Literature in Transition series (1910–1920 and 1920–1930) offer fresh ways of contextualizing Wharton’s work in this period. Far from considering Wharton a grande dame who looks back to the 1880s and 1890s, the authors of these volumes read her work alongside a host of other writers, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kathleen Norris, Willa Cather, Nella Larsen, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, L. Frank Baum, Gene Stratton-Porter, Anzia Yezierska, and Anita Loos. Topically organized, the volumes contain helpful essays on new publishers, small magazines, and the cinema as well as economic and political history, including a fascinating article by Sean McCann about the rise of the executive presidency and another by Sarah Churchwell on the echoes of the twenties in our twenty-first-century speech. Essays do not write off popular literature like The Wizard of Oz or Zane Grey, nor do they shy away from examining the country or realism with as much panache as they examine the city or modernism. They draw together unlikely authors who have been treated separately. Scholars casting about for new essay questions to ask their students or new ways of reading Wharton will benefit [End Page 84] from consulting these articulate and multifaceted volumes. Above all, they contextualize modernism against a broad economic, social, and political backdrop and contest the predominant focus on modernism in the study of these decades.
The collections practice an exemplary historicism. Some scholars may object to this focus, editor Ichiro Takayoshi concedes, saying that the historicist approach has been associated with “vulgar materialism” or “technological determinism” (1920–1930 3). It is good to see the series editors examine the limits of their own project. Despite any misgivings about historicism, though, the historicism practiced by the contributors is flexible; it enriches a study of any one text rather than fixing it into place. “[T]he birth of modernism in US letters is by no means the only story that can or should be told about literary and cultural production in these years,” Van Wienen declares (1910–1920 1). Rather, the collection also treats the 1910s “as a decade of surprising continuity with tradition and of reaction— literary, cultural, and political” (1910–1920 1). Both introductions emphasize that many literary and cultural developments take longer than ten years to run their course. The tight focus of the thematically organized chapters enables contributors “to think through historical questions on a human scale” (1910–1920 13). Contributors assume multidirectional influence between literature, popular culture, and intellectual history and they consistently avoid historical commonplaces. Takayoshi says the series aims to offer an “intelligent blend of survey, digest, and instigation” (1920–1930 1), and in this it largely succeeds: experienced scholars will learn something new from these volumes.
Wharton features more heavily in the 1910s volume than in the 1920s volume and in more surprising and provocative ways. Robin Peel’s essay “Realist Fiction: A Resilient Mode” (1910–1920) begins by citing Theodore Dreiser’s metaphor of a fish tank containing a squid and a lobster. “In the new economic and publication environment, was realist fiction destined to the lobster, or the squid?” Peel asks (1910–1920 216). Realism was under assault from modernism, naturalism, popular vaudeville acts, cinema, and popular romance. Yet recent scholarship argues that...