- In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen by Alix Beeston
An important aspect of the recent scholarship concerned with literary modernism, particularly that regarding modern American literature, is focused on complex intertexualities with the visual arts. Although the subjects this scholarship considers range from vintage paintings to graphic novels, the most predominant are technological images drawn from photography, film, television, and computer art. This significant new study by Alix Beeston proves an excellent example of these contemporary developments. In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen integrates scholarly and critical theory and practice to provide innovative formulations as well as fresh interpretations of major modernist texts. Beeston's impressive first book makes significant contributions not just to the reading of literary and visual modernism but to the understanding of gender, race, and class in twentieth-century American culture.
Beeston formulates her theoretical framework in a tightly packed introduction, subtitled "Things Normally Unseen" in an echo of the "Photographic Unseen" in her title. This key concept in the critical theory of photography contrasts what is found within [End Page 560] the photographic frame with what is unseen yet implied outside of it. Evolved through the work of critics such as Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Siegfried Kracauer, the photographic unseen forms an important part of Beeston's argument here. Another key part is what Beeson adapts as "the still-moving field" (22), or those aspects of the unseen implied by the seriality between and among images, which was theorized by David Campany, Stuart Burrows, and Garrett Stewart. As Beeston puts it, "in conjoining photographic praxis and discourse to a composite mode of writing in the early twentieth century" (11), her efforts become the first "to apply the insights of the still-moving field to the detailed analysis of modernist literary texts."
The theoretical and critical analyses of In and Out of Sight reveal how the tensions of the photographic unseen and the still-moving field exist in the representations of gender, race, and class that American visual or verbal images and texts subordinate. These manifestations privilege "absence over presence, disappearance over appearance, and silence over speech" (7), especially as "the photographic composite or sequence is primed … for the disarticulation of teleological formulations and narrative syllogisms" (8). The four central chapters of In and Out of Sight then reconsider modernist narratives that reveal cultural discontinuities and social binaries in the seriality of their images. Within these theoretical and critical contexts, and as examples of her theoretically informed critical praxis, Beeston closely, carefully, and insightfully rereads Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (1909), Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925), and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (1941).
Beeston's readings build on her introductory theoretical framework, a thorough sense of earlier criticism, and painstaking archival research for all of her texts. Although earlier scholars and critics began some of this work, Beeston posits her new analyses by centering interpretive attention on the segmented presentations of character, narrative, and setting as the paramount features of these fragmented modernist texts. For example, Beeston's reading of Stein's tripartite cycle of short fiction is focused on its best story, "Melanctha," which is titled for its African American female protagonist. Stein's fragmentary narrative presentation of this sympathetic figure is accomplished by her rhythmic appearance and disappearance within the spatiality of her subordinated position in a racist, sexist, and classist society. Beeston concludes that Three Lives is closer to the imagery aligned in "the deconstructive syntax of spacing and doubling in surrealist photography" (24) rather than the "prismatic perspectival surfaces of Cubist painting" posited by earlier criticism. [End Page 561]
Cane is even more fragmentary than Three Lives, and it includes poetry as well as fiction in the narrative development of a cast that includes male and female, white and black, urban and rural characters. Like Stein's short fiction cycle, however, Toomer's taut volume is an assemblage of serial views that construct and deconstruct his female, black...