Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 82-87
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Locations of Literary Modernism:
Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry
Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry. Edited by Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2000. xi + 296 pp. cloth $59.95.
Many reevaluations of modernism in recent years have had a corrosive effect on the monumental post-war concept of "High Modernism." Such studies have begun to complicate longstanding commonplaces-for example, that modernism was an international urban movement in which heroically alienated writers turned their backs on nationalism, mass culture, philistine audiences, and stodgy and constricting social and moral norms, daringly launching formal experiments to rejuvenate the language and culture they saw as in almost inexorable decline. One of the most cherished notions of the old vision of modernism, in fact, has been its international and even supranational nature. In noting the phenomenon of expatriation among American and British writers-who typically wound their way to Paris during the 1920s-and the virulent critique of nationalism and imperialism propounded by writers like Joyce, literary critics have frequently passed over the degree to which not only nationalism, but also more specific regional affiliations, have indeed shaped British and American modernism in profound ways.
As Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins point out in Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry, however, "modernism and nationalism need not be mutually incompatible" (5). Davis and Jenkins (both at The National University of Ireland, Cork) have given the field of modernist studies an impressive and timely gift: a collection of essays by predominantly British scholars designed to showcase new work grappling with the complexity of the issue of place in modernism. In their useful introduction to the collection, Davis and Jenkins note that the essays "do not propose a single, seamless, thesis. The collection as a whole respects and attempts to represent the heterogeneous nature of the poetic modernisms it examines--and it is not our intention to attempt to define a localist-modernist counter-canon over and against an internationalist-modernist canon: if it is the case, as we suggest, that margins can be empowering, this does not preclude the centre, or the international, as a place of power" (7-8). This is a significant point. One might imagine taking, for instance, American local color writing of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (writing which, [End Page 82] lamentably, is not considered in this collection) as a starting point for a tributary of American modernism that would suggest a distinctly place-centered canon. But Davis and Jenkins have instead assembled a set of essays that chart the centrality of location even to "internationalist" modernists.
The collection not only does not argue for a single thesis about place, but the essays also do not cohere around a common methodology-an issue typical in edited collections. However, the theme they share is an important one. Biographers have often pointed out the details of location in an author's life and work, but the best essays in this collection do much more: they show why these details matter and how they might help us reinterpret the author's work. The editors themselves have contributed insightful chapters. Lee M. Jenkins, author of Wallace Stevens: Rage for Order (1999), describes Stevens' shifting engagement with the local. She explores the role of both Stevens' hero figure and his isolationism during WWII (a useful contextualizing move) and ultimately suggests that Stevens' late poetry "doesn't suggest a final reconciliation with [William Carlos] Williams' cultural localism so much as a reconciliation with, and a progression from, the ambivalent 'regional' poetic of Harmonium" (197). Alex Davis takes on a subject that has long been slighted in American universities-the Irish poetic modernism of the 30s, especially that of Brian Coffey, Samuel Beckett, Thomas MacGreevy, and Denis Devlin (the subject of Davis's recent book, A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish...