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  • Modernism’s Opposite: John Galsworthy and the Novel Series
  • Matthew Levay (bio)

Men are, in fact, quite unable to control their own inventions; they at best develop adaptability to the new conditions those inventions create.

—John Galsworthy, Preface to The Forsyte Saga (1922)1

Of all the questions that have animated the field of modernist studies over the past two decades, none has proven quite so durable as that of who, precisely, counts as a modernist. As Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz observed in their provocative state of the field report in a 2008 issue of PMLA, recent criticism has routinely emphasized the “vertical” expansion of the period,

in which once quite sharp boundaries between high art and popular forms of culture have been reconsidered; in which canons have been critiqued and reconfigured; in which works by members of marginalized social groups have been encountered with fresh eyes and ears; and in which scholarly inquiry has increasingly extended to matters of production, dissemination, and reception.2

By this account, twenty-first-century critics have not only begun to abandon an exclusionary, Anglo-American modernist canon with little regard for women, writers of color, or those working at the geographical peripheries of metropolitan literary culture, but have also initiated a broader reassessment of how the early critical valuation of modernist form arose through a tangle of assumptions regarding modernism’s relationship to its audiences and the channels through which it reached them. Thus, any [End Page 543] vertical expansion of the modernist canon marks more than a straightforward effort at inclusivity—an attempt to identify more modernists—and instead reflects a critical self-scrutiny that exposes the processes by which the label of “modernist” is either extended or withheld. Building on John Guillory’s claim that literary texts represent “the vector of ideological notions which do not inhere in the works themselves but in the context of their institutional presentation,” the vertical expansion of modernist studies does not simply designate particular authors and texts as modernist, but rather thinks through the conditions that inform that designation in the first place.3

As the period’s literary history becomes increasingly diverse, critics are also revisiting the traditional estimation of modernism as a collection of aggressively experimental aesthetic paradigms, a view so dominant that it has made a work’s ability to meet exacting standards of formal innovation the primary criterion for being defined as modernist. According to Leonard Diepeveen, formal difficulty “was central to people’s sense that modernism was a sea change—not just in the properties of art works, but in the default and most useful ways of talking about and interacting with art.”4 In this way, “[m]odernism’s difficulty set up the terms and protocols by which readers read and gained access to modernist texts, and it became a litmus test: one could predict both a given reader’s response to modernism by his or her reaction to difficulty, and a writer’s place in the canon by the difficulty of his or her work” (Diepeveen, The Difficulties of Modernism, ix). And yet, as Michael North reminds us, a slogan like Ezra Pound’s “make it new,” long regarded as the mantra of a modernist avant-garde, didn’t appear in print until 1928, and was granted little critical significance until Hugh Kenner returned to it in a 1950 study of Pound’s translations.5 I do not mean to imply here that the equation of modernism with aesthetic innovations that openly announce their departures from conventional forms—and thereby alienate or otherwise discourage mass audiences—is inaccurate, but rather to stress that that perception gained its ubiquity through a series of critical adoptions that is still in the process of being historicized. Part of modernism’s vertical expansion, then, entails a renewed attention to the aesthetic values through which early twentieth-century critics defined the period and its participants, a reappraisal of the most basic terms of modernist literary production.

Less acknowledged in this ongoing reception history is the fact that several authors have not been recuperated by even the most flexible approaches to modernism, and remain firmly outside the various boundaries that still sequester works...

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Additional Information

Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 543-562
Launched on MUSE
2019-09-17
Open Access
No
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