- Street Scene
The close relation between modernism and urban life has been evident since the time of modernism itself. Their material links are innumerable, but, as Raymond Williams observes, one central connection stands out: "The most important general element of the innovations in [modernist] form is the fact of immigration to the metropolis."1 Migrations, elective or otherwise, drove increasing numbers of people to cities, where they found themselves at the heart of modern urban ferment, but also as outsiders. Two recent studies illuminate this connection in highly site-specific ways. Andrew Thacker's Modernism, Space and the City and Sara Blair's How the Other Half Looks both make immigrant mobility central to their accounts of modernism. For Thacker, tracing the movement of writers and artists through several iconic European cities reveals how the dynamic circulation of the era's transportation technologies brings artists together in urban spaces and fuels their formal aesthetic experiments. For Blair, the influx of immigrants to New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries turned one particular neighborhood into an embodiment of modernity, and shaped the representational claims of media trying to capture it.
Thacker's Modernism, Space and the City offers an overview of modernism in four crucial European cities. As one of Edinburgh University Press's Critical Studies in Modernist Culture series, the book has a daunting charge: to trace major historical and institutional contexts for modernism in each city as well as address a wide range of writers rather than a few exemplary authors. A scholar of modernism and space, as [End Page 579] well as periodical culture, Thacker succeeds admirably. Modernism, Space and the City traces the connection between material urban geographies and the intense affective responses they summon in modernists. Thacker takes one inspiration for this link from Bryher, who writes in The Heart to Artemis about "geographical emotions"—the essential fusing of external place and unconscious drives (quoted in Thacker, 7). Indeed, geography is inextricable from the central theoretical category of affect itself. Drawing on recent work on affect, in particular Jonathan Flatley's Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism, and on Heidegger's theory of mood (Stimmung) as attunement with an environment, Thacker focuses on the way "intense affects flow from cities to subjects, between subjects and spaces, and between bodies and urban environments" (11).
Thacker foregrounds crucial developments in the built environment in each city—often focusing on changes in urban transport that rendered the metropolis a place of disorienting speed. He also documents the formal and informal institutions through which writers and artists circulated their work. His cities are spaces of subways, trams, and public plazas, but also of cafés, bookstores, and publishers. Thacker discusses a broad array of writers (and occasionally visual artists), focusing on figures (mostly though not exclusively anglophone) who were to different degrees outsiders to the cities in which they worked. The book is particularly compelling in its reorientation of our sense of cities through the work of writers traditionally rendered peripheral to European modernism, including Mulk Raj Anand, Hope Mirrlees, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Sam Selvon.
Modernism, Space and the City begins in Paris. Thacker discusses the work of canonical writers like T. S. Eliot, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Blaise Cendrars, but his Paris is equally a meeting place for Black diaspora writers from the United States and French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean and for literary Left-Bank artists. In discussing their work, Thacker clarifies the way some of the most familiar modernist affects—phantasmagorical disorientation and estrangement from social norms—emerge from technological developments like street lighting or the metro and find their way into literary form. Some of his most compelling readings bring these terms together in the work of writers who are only recently canonized—like Jean...