I first met the word “modernism” when I was a schoolboy in the Christian Brothers’ School in Newry, Northern Ireland. One of the most informative books we had to read, or at least to consult, was called Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, which explained, among other interesting questions, the social and religious considerations that impelled popes to issue encyclicals. For instance: in the last years of the nineteenth century, a number of dissident priests and some misled laity, calling themselves modernists, tried to force the Church to abandon some of its principles: to concede the primacy of science over faith; to acknowledge that, in the person of Christ, science and history encounter nothing that is not human; and to accept that everyone is, by definition and incapacity, an agnostic. Pope Pius X regarded those modernists as so pernicious that on September 8, 1907 he issued the encyclical “Pascendi” to rebuke them. This early episode in my education may account for the fact that I have been reluctant to use the word “modernism,” even when it evidently does not refer to a heresy.

For many years, I found it easy to avoid the word. When I arrived at University College, Dublin as an undergraduate, I did not advert to it. The word “modern” was occasionally spoken, but only to remark the coincidence that Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” were published in the same year, 1922, and that Eliot, the following year, reviewed Ulysses as a work of Einsteinian novelty and splendor: “instead of narrative method,” he said, meaning Realism, “we may now use the mythical method,” which he celebrated as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” In the review, Eliot referred to “the modern world” only once, though he alluded to “contemporaneity” and to “the present age” in saying that “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found.”

Generally, when he gave serious consideration to “the modern mind,” as he did in a chapter of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, he reflected rather wearily that “one of the things that one can say about the modern mind is that it comprehends every extreme and degree of opinion.” In the same spirit, he wrote of “the present chaos of opinion and belief.” As a reader of Eliot, then, I had no reason to think of the words “modernism,” “Modernity,” and “modern” as instruments of clear thinking or to be assured that, in using these words, I was likely to know what I was talking about. I have read the History of Modernist Magazines in the hope of clearing my head.1

To begin: I find it a little disturbing that the editors, Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, have apparently not yet settled upon their topic: Is the noun singular or plural? Is modernism one thing or a lot of vaguely related things? According to the book jacket, Brooker is co-editor of Geographies of Modernism “and of the forthcoming Handbook of Modernisms.” Thacker “has published widely upon modernism, including Moving through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism (2003).”

When I was appointed to the chair of Modern English and American Literature at University College, Dublin, I agreed with my colleague T. P. Dunning, Professor of Old and Middle English, that we would divide our jurisdictions at about the year 1500, and that I would be responsible for everything in English and American literature from then until—more or less—now. I don’t recall spending much time on ideological questions, though I had a few remarks to make about the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns in the seventeenth century. Mainly, I presented the selected poems, plays, and fictions as variants of the genres they apparently acknowledged. What does it mean to call King Lear a tragedy? What is a lyric poem? Why were certain poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge called lyrical ballads? These questions seemed to be sufficient in Dublin.

But when I came to teach at New York University, and took up a course called Modern British and American Poetry, I decided that I must try to learn what I was to talk about, and why. I could hardly start with Skelton, Wyatt, and Bradstreet. In the event, I taught the course in two parts: one, from Leaves of Grass to “The Waste Land”; two, from Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The discursive writings with which I accompanied the poems for contexts included, over the years, Matthew Arnold’s “On the Modern Element in Literature” and the preface to the 1853 edition of his poems, Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life,” Mallarmé’s “Crise de vers,” Pater’s “Style,” Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry,” Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, Lionel Trilling’s “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” and—not that I really understood this one—the second part of Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money. I have also taken Yeats’s cryptic poem “Three Movements” as a motto for the course, to indicate that modern poets felt that something in their circumstances was indeed amiss: “What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?”

Some motifs have kept coming up in teaching the course: why Free Verse?; revulsion against the modern city and its frictions (a theme cogently negotiated by Richard Lehan in several books including The City in Literature and Literary Modernism and Beyond); history as cyclical repetition and correspondence; collage as form; the desperate privilege of the stream-of-consciousness; the question—if it is an ascertainable question—of modernism; and Trilling’s theme, “the disenchantment of our culture with culture itself.” These are, I think, relevant issues, and the materials are worth reading, but I’m still not persuaded that they are decisive—they could be replaced by other ones.

Suppose, in teaching a course in modern literature, you begin with Baudelaire, and add Arnold, Pater, Mallarmé, Yeats, Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Stevens, Gertrude Stein. Then ideally you find spaces for Valéry, Kafka, Musil, Céline, maybe Beckett, although he’s regularly called postmodern. What then? Are you really assuming that these writers, so different from one another in detail, are at one on some high-posited ground to be apprehended only by Theory? In his Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, The Modernist as Fascist (1979), Fredric Jameson demonstrated, convincingly, how different Lewis’s modernism is from Joyce’s, as one would expect, considering how roundly Lewis turned on Joyce’s habits of mind and method in Time and Western Man. Eliot’s poems differ just as dramatically from Pound’s: why read them in the same breath? What do we do with writers who can’t plausibly be thought of as modernists at all: Hardy, Robert Graves, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Edward Thomas, Frost? If twentieth-century writers are supposed to have suffered so much from “the larger excruciations,” as Frost called them, why did some writers show no sign of pain?

We are driven back to small occasions. Virginia Woolf said that “on or about December 1910 human nature changed.” A vivacity, almost a joke—but she meant, it is agreed, that if you had spent a few concentrated hours at Roger Fry’s exhibition of Manet and Post-Impressionist paintings at the Grafton Galleries in London, between November 1910 and January 1911, you would have found your modes of perception transformed. Most people think that there was indeed something astir in Dublin, London, Paris, and elsewhere around that time. Robert Martin Adams has noted that Picasso began working on Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1906–7. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps had its premiere in 1913. Eliot’s “J. Alfred Prufrock” made his debut in 1915. In 1914, Joyce had just finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and was turning his full attention to Ulysses. In 1914 Lewis published Tarr. The Armory Show in 1913 introduced New Yorkers to Post-Impressionist painting. And so on until the annus mirabilis, 1922, and beyond. Adams’s conclusion is worth quoting:

modernism was an inaccurate and misleading term, applied to a cultural trend most clearly discernible between 1905 and 1925. When it is understood to refer to distinct structural features that some artistic works of this period have in common, it has a real meaning, though it still isn’t a very good term. As it departs from that specific meaning, it gets fuzzier and fuzzier, and sometimes it doesn’t mean much of anything at all. Still, it has been a prevalent and widely accepted stopgap term, with a loose, emotive tone, and one of the ways to get better terminology is to pick it apart, and see how many different things it has been used to cover. Then perhaps we can get better names for them.

I hope so.

Whatever the word “modernism” means, it means it more confidently in its bearing on twentieth-century painting, architecture, and music than it does on literature.

The notion of literary modernism does have particular problems. Whatever the word “modernism” means, it means it more confidently in its bearing on twentieth-century painting, architecture, and music than it does on literature, because it’s difficult to deflect words from their habit of embracing local referents. It’s hard to change the old affiliations of words or make them dance to a different tune. Lewis Carroll had to do a lot of uffish thinking to make “Jabberwocky”; Joyce had to ransack the foreign dictionaries to make Finnegans Wake. But paint, concrete, glass, steel, and reproducible sounds are ready for all occasions. I’m not surprised that art critics, for instance, write about modernism with a certain dash, as if they knew their minds and could show cause. I recall, too, being impressed and intimidated by T. W. Adorno’s The Philosophy of Modern Music and his reasons for holding Schoenberg and Alban Berg superior to Stravinsky. Clement Greenberg was not timid in his essay on “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”; nor was Suzi Gablik in “Has Modernism Failed?” T. J. Clark begins his Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism by referring to “the book’s deepest conviction, that already the modernist past is a ruin, the logic of whose architecture we do not remotely grasp.” He continues:

This has not happened, in my view, because we have entered a new age. That is not what my book title means. On the contrary, it is just because the “modernity” which modernism prophesied has finally arrived that the forms of representation it originally gave rise to are now unreadable. (Or readable only under some dismissive fantasy rubric—of “purism,” “opticality,” “formalism,” “elitism,” etc.) The intervening (and interminable) holocaust was modernization. Modernism is unintelligible now because it had truck with a modernity not yet fully in place. Post-modernism mistakes the ruins of those previous representations, or the fact that from where we stand they seem ruinous, for the ruin of modernity itself—not seeing that what we are living through is modernity’s triumph. Modernism is our antiquity, in other words; the only one we have.

I don’t know any historian of twentieth-century literature who would introduce his book so strongly, noting his “deepest conviction,” continuing with “on the contrary,” and flourishing “ruin,” “ruins,” and “ruinous.” There are no such audacities in the History of Modernist Magazines.

The idea for such a book seems to have arisen in conversations between Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker. Brooker, I see from the same book jacket, “currently holds posts as Professorial Fellow in the Centre for Modernist Studies, University of Sussex and as Special Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Nottingham.” Thacker “is currently Professor of Twentieth Century Literature and Director of the Centre for Textual Scholarship at De Montfort University, Leicester.” They decided to study the periodical writings that surrounded the literature of modernism, and to publish the research in three volumes. The first volume deals with Britain and Ireland, 1850–1955. The second will cover North America, 1880–1955, the third Europe, 1880–1940.

For the first volume, Brooker and Thacker assembled thirty-eight scholars and assigned one magazine or a group of magazines to each of them. The categories invoked are the standard ones: the Arts and Crafts Movement, Aestheticism, Symbolism, Decadence, Vorticism, the Celtic Revival, Bloomsbury, and so on. I surmise that the project began with a particular interest in the “little magazine,” a social formation arising from a coterie, a few friends coming together to assert that something must be done—“we must march my darlings.” Then they would gather some money, elicit a few stirring poems and essays from their own company, think up a memorable title, concoct a manifesto, publish the first number, sell or give away some copies, and watch the magazine sink quietly to its death: “They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.” Scott McCracken writes of such “little magazines”:

A more enlightening way to think of such publications is in relation to the way Walter Benjamin thinks of the ephemera of modern culture in The Arcades Project. Like many of the transient objects and practices Benjamin discusses, “little magazines” are destined for ruin, failure, and defeat; but like a momentary fashion or a passing style in architecture the magazines only become historically legible at the point of their obsolescence. At which point, they can be reconfigured in relation to a broader field within the history of modernity. It is, therefore, their incompleteness rather than their coherence that signals the ways in which they contribute to a broader cultural history.

That, in itself, is worth studying: it is more than sixty years since the publication of The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography by Frederick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen, and Carolyn F. Ulrich. But Brooker and Thacker decided to extend their coverage beyond the heyday of the “little magazine” to survey a much longer period. The first volume begins with the Rossettis’ Germ in 1850 and ends with Cyril Connolly’s Horizon (1940–1950). The editors also decided to divide the western world into three parts.

These decisions have had awkward consequences. The first volume is strikingly provincial; it gives an impression of having been written for Little Englanders, even if its presiding spirit is the late Raymond Williams. (Brooker has been Chair of the Raymond Williams Society and is on the editorial board of Keywords.) You would never guess that big events were taking place away from London, Oxford, and Cambridge. The chapters on Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are perfunctory. By covering a hundred years, the editors have had to include magazines that had no connection whatever with modernism, however loosely defined. Obvious chapters in such an Oxford History include The Yellow Book, The Savoy, The English Review, Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST, The Egoist, The Calendar of Modern Letters, The Athenaeum, The Adelphi, Scrutiny, and Gordon Craig’s The Mask. These are germane to modernism, generously interpreted, and their chapters are well done, informative, and cogent. But J. C. Squire’s London Mercury, one of several questionable cases, had no relation to modernism, however defined. Squire was well enough represented by this sentence:

As convenient descriptions we do not object (save sometimes on grounds of euphony) to the terms Futurist, Vorticist, Expressionist, post-Impressionist, Cubist, Unanimist, Imagist: but we suspect them as banners and battle-cries, for where they are used as such it is probable that fundamentals are being forgotten.

Nor would I regard Eliot’s Criterion as a modernist periodical; it was a literary periodical, but not modernist. Eliot’s primary interest was in getting international figures to write for him, keeping open the idea of Europe till the war confounded it.

Nor would I regard Eliot’s Criterion as a modernist periodical; it was a literary periodical.

There is another problem arising from the editors’ decisions. Many of the most far-reaching episodes in the reception of modern literature took place in books, not—or not only—in magazines. I. A. Richards asserted that “The Waste Land” effected “a complete severance between poetry and all beliefs.” Eliot rejected the claim by pretending not to understand it. The exchange took place in two books, not in a magazine. By dealing with magazines and excluding books—think of Lewis’s The Lion and the Fox, Eliot’s Selected Essays, Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Pound’s ABCof Reading, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel—the editors give the impression that interventions on modernist literature were always punctual to the occasion. John Middleton Murry was a vigorous participant in the rhetoric of modernism, if not quite “the most influential literary critic of the day” as his biographer F. A. Lea describes him, but his influence over a longer period is to be gauged from his sixty-eight books, not only from his editorship of The Athenaeum and The Adelphi.

The editors of Modernist Magazines have allowed their colleagues to write much as they pleased. Most of the essays are excellent, but a few of the writers—notably Paul Edwards, Jason Harding, Rod Mengham, Ann L. Ardis, and Jean-Michel Rabaté—cram into a single essay much material they have approached more freely in their books. Ideological positions are not obtrusive. The editors take for granted “the materialist turn in modernist studies” and endorse “an historicized and materialist deconstruction,” but they haven’t insisted that the essayists toe this party line. They have undertaken to “investigate the relations between artistic forms, techniques, and strategies and prevailing social and economic conditions” [italics not mine].

The essayists have not, in my opinion, kept this promise. I find almost no engagement with artistic forms: in any case that would have required a more concentrated critical intelligence than is in evidence, starting with an interest in distinguishing literary works in terms of value, which is something the editors have largely disavowed. None of the essays compares well with Q. D. Leavis’s “Fiction and the Reading Public.” There is also a lot of wobbling on the definition of their project. The editors refer to “the period between the fin de siècle and the emergence of modernism sometime between 1910 and 1914,” a much shorter period than the one announced in their title. Ann L. Ardis, writing about The New Age under A. R. Orage (1907–1922), murmurs the adjective “material” in the same editorial tone:

In concluding her recent study of the “little magazine” Others, Suzanne Churchill notes that current scholarship on the “little magazines” is “remind[ing] us of the necessity of remaining embedded in the muddle of modernism, even as we continue to seek more expansive and inclusive paradigms.” The muddle of modernism, I would suggest, only becomes thicker, and productively so, as material historical research on Anglo-American modernism’s first emergence in the public sphere expands beyond the “little magazines.”

J. Matthew Huculak, writing about The London Mercury, also sings an editorial song:

This chapter is undertaken in the spirit of the “New Modernist Studies,” which challenges the reductive definition of “modernism” primarily seen as an avant-garde movement; rather it seeks to map the shifting geograph- ies of an often contentious, ideological battleground.

Jane Goldman, on Desmond MacCarthy’s Life and Letters, refers to “that most contested of modernist spheres: gender politics.”

The object of this large exercise, I deduce from its editorial tone, is to undermine the standard distinction between High Modernism and popular culture and to dislodge the privilege of masterpieces. This is acceptable if the book belongs to the sociology of literature and makes no claim to literary criticism. It seems likely that modernism will stay in its muddle. I still wonder what Yeats meant by saying, in his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, “I, too, have tried to be modern.” What impelled him to try?


  1.  The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Volume 1: Britain and Ireland 1880–1955, edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker; Oxford University Press, 955 pages, $180.

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