Am I a Snob?: Modernism and the Novel

Overview

Is there a "great divide" between highbrow and mass cultures? Are modernist novels for, by, and about snobs? What might Lord Peter Wimsey, Mrs. Dalloway, and Stephen Dedalus have to say to one another?Sean Latham's appealingly written book "Am I a Snob?" traces the evolution of the figure of the snob through the works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Dorothy Sayers. Each of these writers played a distinctive role in the transformation of the literary snob from a vulgar...
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Overview

Is there a "great divide" between highbrow and mass cultures? Are modernist novels for, by, and about snobs? What might Lord Peter Wimsey, Mrs. Dalloway, and Stephen Dedalus have to say to one another?Sean Latham's appealingly written book "Am I a Snob?" traces the evolution of the figure of the snob through the works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Dorothy Sayers. Each of these writers played a distinctive role in the transformation of the literary snob from a vulgar social climber into a master of taste. In the process, some novelists and their works became emblems of sophistication, treated as if they were somehow apart from or above the fiction of the popular marketplace, while others found a popular audience. Latham argues that both coterie writers like Joyce and popular novelists like Sayers struggled desperately to combat their own pretensions. By portraying snobs in their novels, they attempted to critique and even transform the cultural and economic institutions that they felt isolated them from the broad readership they desired.Latham regards the snobbery that emerged from and still clings to modernism not as an unfortunate by-product of aesthetic innovation, but as an ongoing problem of cultural production. Drawing on the tools and insights of literary sociology and cultural studies, he traces the nineteenth-century origins of the "snob," then explores the ways in which modernist authors developed their own snobbery as a means of coming to critical consciousness regarding the connections among social, economic, and cultural capital. The result, Latham asserts, is a modernism directly engaged with the cultural marketplace yet deeply conflicted about the terms of its success.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this concise work on the relationship between snobbery and modernism, Latham traces the transformation of the word snob, which once meant a lower-class person trying to copy his superiors and now means a person aware of artistic values. . . . Although some of Latham's observations are highly debatable, they are always intriguing and thought-provoking. Recommended for literature collections at academic and larger public libraries."—Library Journal, 15 March 2003

"Because Latham addresses the important question of elitism inherent in modernism and, in particular interest to us readers of this periodical, the elitist aura of intellectual snobbery in the marketing and reading of Joyce's works. Joyce is both an ideal test case for Latham's analysis of the elitist and the marketplace and the best proof of his argument. Latham succeeds in his claims, to his credit and to our discomfort. . . . In this convincing and perceptive book, Latham demonstrates that the readers of this journal are snobs."—Roy Gottfried, James Joyce Literary Supplement, Fall 2003

"The book is extremely readable, and its subject matter is so that undergraduates as well as the most informed modernist scholars will find it offers original and helpful insights. Latham uses the question Virginia Woolf posed in the title of a paper she delivered privately to her Bloomsbury friends—"Am I a snob?"—as an instigation for his analysis of the ways Thackeray, Wilde, Woolf, Joyce, and Dorothy L. Sayers tried to navigate their way through the literary marketplace as authors who participated in a modern literacy project that inevitably found itself beset by the problems posed by aesthetic snobbery. . . . One of the greatest strengths of Latham's book is that is promotes active reading, whether one is an undergraduate or an experienced scholar. For example, it would be impossible, of course, for Latham to offer a thorough discussion of the issue of snobbery and the literary marketplace in every text in which these issues are present. At the same time, it is impossible as one reads—because Latham's book is so engaging—not to consider how snobbery and the literary marketplace function for Dickens, for example, or for Charlotte Bronte, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West, Katherine Mansfield, or E.M. Forster. This is the most enjoyable kind of reading, reading which invites one to become an integral part of the meaning-making process at the same time it instructs, informs, and promotes collaboration between reader and author. Latham's book is therefore a valuable pedagogical tool and an important critical contribution to Woolf and modernist studies."—Shannon Forbes, Woolf Studies Annual, 2004

"Sean Latham provides a concrete, nuanced account of the ways modernist literature confronts itself from the start as an economic, and not merely an aesthetic, phenomenon. He shows that the most searching texts of literary modernism are those that begin to achieve a reflexive knowledge of snobbery, which is to say, a level of self-knowledge as regards their own participation in the collective scramble for scarce rewards that is euphemistically known as 'culture.'"—James F. English, University of Pennsylvania

Library Journal
In this concise work on the relationship between snobbery and modernism, Latham (English, Univ. of Tulsa; editor, James Joyce Quarterly) traces the transformation of the word snob, which once meant a lower-class person trying to copy his superiors and now means a person aware of artistic values. Arguing that the snobbery that emerged from modernism still clings to it and that it represents a problem of cultural production, Latham traces the evolution of the snob through the works of various modernist writers (e.g., William Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce). Carefully considering social, cultural, and economic uses of elite art in life as well as literature, Latham discusses such issues as Oscar Wilde's use of the decadent dandy both in literature and in his personal life, Virginia Woolf's idea of the elite artist as a way to escape the cash nexus of modern publishing, James Joyce's desire to unify high and low in Ulysses, and the symbolism behind Dorothy Sayers's popular protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey. Although some of Latham's observations are highly debatable, they are always intriguing and thought-provoking. Recommended for literature collections at academic and larger public libraries.-Gene Shaw, NYPL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801488412
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2003
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
Pt. 1 A Genealogy of Snobbery
1 The Logic of the Pose: Thackeray and the Invention of Snobbery 11
2 The Importance of Being a Snob: Oscar Wilde's Modern Pretensions 31
Pt. 2 The Work of Snobbery
3 Elegy for the Snob: Virginia Woolf and the Victorians 59
4 "An Aristocrat in Writing": Virginia Woolf and the Invention of the Modern Snob 90
5 A Portrait of the Snob: James Joyce and the Anxieties of Cultural Capital 118
6 Deadly Pretensions: Dorothy L. Sayers and the Ends of Culture 169
7 The Problem of Snobbery 214
Bibliography 225
Index 237
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