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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism, Empire, World Literature by Joe Cleary
  • Christopher GoGwilt (bio)
MODERNISM, EMPIRE, WORLD LITERATURE by Joe Cleary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. ix + 318 pp. $45.00 cloth.

Joe Cleary's rich new reading of anglophone modernism offers a kind of expert guided tour of canonical texts of anglophone modernism: The Golden Bowl and The Waste Land (chapter 3), Ulysses (chapter 4), The Great Gatsby and Long Day's Journey Into Night (chapter 5), and Omeros (chapter 6). The first two chapters chart the theoretical and historical itinerary subsequent chapters then explore with close attention to key passages in these texts. Making use of Pascale Casanova's sense of the "world [literary] system" (with a few important qualifications and adjustments), the overall argument, mapped by the three keywords of the title, shows us the way "modernism" consolidated its claim to "world literature" through the shifting coordinates of "empire" as Europe's cultural capital moved from London to New York.1 As Cleary explains in the first chapter: "'Modernism' is the name we now assign to that new aesthetic code through which the transformation in English letters that shifted Anglophone literary supremacy from London to New York was effected" (15). The book's guided tour of anglophone modernism depends, however, on an important detour through Irish peripheries. And it is this double focus—on American and Irish challenges to the British—that makes for the book's most interesting twists and turns.

In certain ways, Cleary's Irish emphasis repeats a key part of Casanova's argument in The World Republic of Letters: that it is the Irish who set a precedent for those "subversive reworkings" that "enable writers on the periphery … to take part in international competition" (328). Yet Cleary underscores an ambivalence about this Irish precedence that is both compelling and, at the same time, riddling: compelling because anglophone modernism does lean so heavily on Irish writers (W. B. Yeats and James Joyce offering only the most noticeable profiles); riddling, because American and Irish challenges to British dominance are premised on very different equations of cultural capital to political power. As Cleary puts it, "whereas the Americans took over from the British in running a world empire, the Irish broke with an empire and had the audacity to establish their own state and to cultivate a literature of some distinction in its own right" (3). This double-vision of anglophone modernism in the service of empire-building and empire-dismantling emerges as much from the economic, intellectual, and political overview of the book (laid out mostly in the first two chapters) as it does from the fine-grained attention to individual literary works. What is important, if also riddling, is the fact that the Irish and [End Page 713] American strands are not separated into two different stories but are intricately braided together as part of the same story of modernism, empire, and world literature.

Sometimes the book's double Irish and American focus is foregrounded, as it is with the pairing of Yeats and Ezra Pound in the second chapter. Sometimes it is more implicit, as with the pairing of Henry James and T. S. Eliot in the third chapter. Chapter 3's extended readings of The Golden Bowl and The Waste Land begin with a fleeting but suggestive reference to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Both are presented as figures who combine Casanova's contrasting types of the "revolutionary" and the "assimilated" writer. About Wilde, for example, Cleary writes:

Oscar Wilde, the Irishman who worked hard to shed his debasing Irish accent and cultivated the persona of a very dandified English gentleman and crafted outwardly English comedies of manners for the London stage, appears to epitomize the "assimilated writer" on several levels. Yet despite Wilde's conformity in these respects, he was a flamboyant outlaw to convention and an avant-gardist in most other respects.


This prefigures a similarly paradoxical combination of adaptation to and iconoclastic break from English cultural conventions ascribed to James and Eliot. Yet the chapter passes over the profiles of Wilde and Shaw in order to read The Golden Bowl and The Waste Land as "intimations of [the] process...