The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth-Century American Literature

The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth-Century American Literature

by Michael Soto

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ISBN-13: 9780817380502
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 11/15/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 459 KB

About the Author

Michael Soto is Assistant Professor of English and Interim Director of African American Studies at Trinity University.

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The Modernist Nation

Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth-Century American Literature

By Michael Soto

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5467-1


Generational Rhetoric and American Avant-Gardism

Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.

Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920)

Emerson and the Entente des Anciens et des Modernes

The monumental and today much-maligned Literary History of the United States (1948) begins with a prominent trope in American literary historiography, one with deep roots: "Each generation should produce at least one literary history of the United States, for each generation must define the past in its own terms" (Spiller et al. vii). Since then virtually every major contribution to this field — including The Literature of the American People (1951), the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), and the Cambridge History of American Literature (1994–) — invokes more or less explicitly the notion that the act of historical revision remains the prerogative of each succeeding generation, a kind of institutional birthright whose metaphoricity gets lost in the presence of other, more pressing areas of theoretical contestation ("American," "literary," "history"). The most famous example of this generational rhetoric, one regularly but casually cited by literary historians, is Ralph Waldo Emerson's so-called declaration of cultural independence, the "American Scholar" address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard in 1837, roughly the moment when the earliest American literary histories were being published. The passage in question develops a metaphor for books as peculiar as it is complex. Books are imperfect, Emerson argues, like nineteenth-century vacuum chambers: "As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to contemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this" (Works 1:55–56).

The larger context for this crescendo of figurative language, which accelerates wildly from one metaphor to another, generally escapes notice by critics eager to seize upon the cultural nationalist implications of the oration or to see the American scholar as another version of the Emersonian freethinking individualist. These metaphors (for books, artists, and periods) make up one small facet of Emerson's appropriation and ultimate dismissal of the centuries-old querelle between the ancients and moderns, rendered in English as the "battle of the books" since Jonathan Swift. Rather than draw the expected strict comparisons between ancient and modern, or between pagan and Christian, or even between more and less perfected, Emerson sets up an opposition between a solipsistic self-understanding ("the ancient precept, 'Know thyself'") and an environmentally located self -consciousness ("the modern precept, 'Study nature'"). However, the distinction rings hollow, as these modes of analysis "become at last one maxim." Not only has Emerson the naturalist introduced a measure of scientism absent from previous versions of the ancients-versus-moderns debate (even if he remains ironically distanced from an aesthetic of "efficiency" and the science of vacuums), but he has also introduced a subtle historicism into an equation that normally privileges the "either" (antiquity) or the "or" (modernity). Moderns, he suggests, look to nature because all knowledge and all cultural artifacts remain grounded in, stained by, their immediate historical circumstances. Modern literature is not inherently superior to that of the past; it is simply less remote, more relevant. Although he never defines "generation" with any precision, we can be sure that it signifies a time span far briefer than any referenced during the heyday of the querelle.

I find myself drawn to this example from Emerson because it incorporates two important elements commonly found in generational rhetoric. First, it focuses attention on the local, on a geographically and chronologically palpable sociohistorical milieu. Emerson's artist, and presumably his cultural historian, measures progress as a succession of discrete generations, not as ages or epochs. Here Emerson's literary historical chronometer is more in synch with Ezra Pound's than with Samuel Johnson's. And as a theorist of literature, Emerson resembles those counterparts in the United States and elsewhere — Herder, Scott, and Bancroft, for example — who argue that a literature of universal significance can only be distilled from "local" (which is often synonymous with "national" and "ethnic") cultural traditions. Second, and just as important, Emerson's use of generational rhetoric elevates local forms of knowledge against any pseudo-universalist bookishness in what amounts to an avant-gardist repudiation of received tradition. This is one of the key reasons Emerson serves as a rare hero for America's most famous literary generations, the Lost and the Beat. Even if the vying precepts become in the end "one maxim," Emerson alludes, after all, to a battle between ancient and modern books. Scholarship makes use of books and book learning, but the American scholar bursts through the library's walls like a runaway intellectual train: modernity dictates that the "sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close" (Works 1:52).

Generations and battles go hand in hand, although these so-called conflicts rarely contribute to any lasting damage. Because generational conflict and succession bear so much metaphorical weight throughout human history, it is no surprise that the concept of literary generations has also proven considerably powerful. This chapter explores the profound impact of generational rhetoric first on significant contributions to the sociology of knowledge, and later on U.S. literary modernism and avant-gardism more generally. The Lost Generation proves a particularly lasting mythology, one with far-reaching theoretical and practical effects, so it will be the object of first concern. Our understanding of the Lost Generation, and its varied applications over the years, play out in the organization of literary histories and anthologies; in the publication of journals and critical studies; and in the conceptualization of films, plays, and musicals (there's even a Lost Generation cookbook). Theorists of American modernism routinely take for granted this ubiquitous and powerful discursive object, often at the expense of those authors who lie outside the Lost Generation rubric. An obvious problem can be detected in the unacknowledged and typically hard-and-fast distinction between the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance (a fallacy addressed throughout this study), but the myth also fails to account for other important literary figures, mostly women and "regional" writers, who do not quite fit the Lost Generation mold.

I am also drawn to Emerson's example because the "one maxim" forged out of antiquity and modernity, out of the self and nature, out of books and life, might be taken as a friendly note of caution. Even in his most messianic celebrations of a life removed from the fetters of books and empiricism, Emerson pays homage to an ancient tradition of world literature. And he can be downright bookish at times. In the second number of the Dial he published his "Thoughts on Modern Literature" (1840), a meditation on the role of "subjectiveness" in modern literary history, what we now refer to as the rise of the romantic ego during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Emerson applies his idealistic worldview to an evaluation of individual literary works and to the idea of literary tradition in general. Literature expresses what is best in humankind, reflecting centuries of learning and a multiplicity of discourses. All of these are available to the individual reader: "Another element of the modern poetry akin to this subjective tendency ... is, the Feeling of the Infinite. Of the perception now fast becoming a conscious fact, — that there is One Mind, and that all the powers and privileges which lie in any, lie in all; that I as a man may claim and appropriate whatever of true or fair or good or strong has anywhere been exhibited; that Moses and Confucius, Montaigne and Leibnitz are not so much individuals as they are parts of man and parts of me, and my intelligence proves them my own, — literature is far the best expression" (141).

This notion that literature embodies the infinite derives from a presumed dialectic of literary history (or the history of ideas) and individual growth. Culture proceeds biologically, like an organism with a card catalog, while biology proceeds culturally, like a library composed of brain tissue. To be sure, Emerson holds no special place for modern literature other than to acknowledge its belatedness — the library of the present age is an "immense miscellany," it "prints a vast carcass of tradition." Nor does he privilege the modern reader, who must wade through this mess. But significantly, only the modern library contains "all books":

[Modern literature] reprints the wisdom of the world. How can the age be a bad one, which gives me Plato and Paul and Plutarch, St. Augustine, Spinoza, Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher, Donne and Sir Thomas Brown, besides its own riches? Our presses groan every year with new editions of all the select pieces of the first of mankind — meditations, history, classifications, opinions, epics, lyrics, which the age adopts by quoting them. If we should designate favorite studies in which the age delights more than in the rest of this great mass of the permanent literature of the human race, one or two instances would be conspicuous. First; the prodigious growth and influence of the genius of Shakespeare, in the last one hundred and fifty years, is itself a fact of the first importance. It almost alone has called out the genius of the German nation into activity, which spreading from the poetic into the scientific, religious, and philosophical domains, has made theirs now at last the paramount intellectual influence of the world, reacting with great energy on England and America. Society becomes an immense Shakespeare. (141–42)

Were he forced to take sides in the battle of the books, Emerson would surely choose the moderns — at least judging by this example. After all, the modern reader has the shoulders of the past on which to stand. But Emerson's logic necessarily sacrifices the individual (the dwarf) to the ideal of individualism (the view from the shoulders of giants). Subsumed under a broader generational identity, the Emersonian reader experiences the infinite: he or she figuratively becomes not only Shakespeare but Plato, Paul, and Plutarch as well — an experience shared by Chapman and Spinoza not so long before. Rather than lament the gulf between individual experience and the human spirit, Emerson advances a generational model of literary history because it offers an organic alternative to static notions of ages, epochs, or other more "objective" alternatives to periodization. One is not born into a generation, he suggests; one lives into it, one reads into it. Emerson's generational model also bridges individual and collective historiography, each of which lends metaphorical potency to the other — just as each of his representative men stands for something greater than a single life. Individual growth and intellectual development mirror the evolution of the world spirit. After all, ages cannot literally quote from texts, but individuals can and do. Conversely, as the library of the imagination grows, so too does the reader.

Nothing, it often seems, could be more natural than generations. Everyone, with one or two well-known exceptions, was born of a biological mother and father, and most children have at least figurative parents. Like the concepts "nation" and "race" — the latter is a close etymological cousin to "generation" — generations simply are. But as omnipresent and powerful as these concepts may be, a great difficulty lies in providing anything but reductive or romantic definitions for them; it is especially difficult to achieve a semblance of critical distance, to locate a place outside their magnetic force. "As a vast, solid phalanx the generations come on," Emerson wrote in his Journals in 1841, not too long after his "American Scholar" address. "All wear the same expression, but it is this which they do not detect in each other. It is the one life which ponders in the philosophers, which drudges in the laborers, which basks in the poets, which dilates in the love of the women." Writing of the need to surrender the self to the larger social good, to the "great destiny which comes in with this as with every age" (8:81), Emerson anticipates the rhetoric of the historical avant-garde ("solid phalanx") and rehearses the views of a number of generational theorists since the Enlightenment, many of whom adopt a similarly romantic view of generations. A generational identity — the one that ponders, drudges, basks, and dilates — inescapably defines the individual self.

Generations cannot and should not be avoided, Emerson insists; at the same time, their "expression" is lost in translation from one age to the next. It proves difficult to fix lived experience — in particular the unavoidable facts of birth, maturation, and death — as an object of critical discourse. Before continuing, then, it is appropriate to summarize the Emersonian position and, finally, to provide a definition of literary generations by invoking the twentieth-century writer who perhaps more than any other embodies the Emersonian tradition, Octavio Paz. He applies an almost identical understanding, at once persuasive and puzzling because it relies on the romantic conflation of social and biological forces, to his succinct definition of literary generations:

The history of a literature is the history of select works and the authors of these works. But in between the works and the authors there is a third position, a bridge between the writers and their social location, between the works and their first readers: literary generations. A literary generation is a society within a society and, at times, in front of it. It is a biological and also a social fact: the generation is a group of youth of the same age, born into the same class and the same country, readers of the same books, and possessed of the same passions and aesthetic and moral interests. ... [T]he vital roots of their members are the same; what distinguishes one generation from another isn't so much the ideas as the sensibility, the attitudes, the likes and dislikes; in a word: the mood. (94; my trans.)

Generations, along with the literary products that record and transmit their vocabulary, form "a bridge between the writers and their social location" and thus embody revolutionary probes into future social formations. This is a tremendous weight for any artist to bear, and indeed many have chosen to shirk the responsibility; American literary history, however, reads like a catalog of those men and women who have chosen otherwise.


Excerpted from The Modernist Nation by Michael Soto. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments 000 Introduction: America, Modernism, and All that Jazz 1 Part 1: Inventing the Modern 000 1. Generational Rhetoric and American Avant-Gardism 000 2. Renaissance Rhetoric and American Cultural Nationalism 000 Part 2: Living the Modern 000 3. American Modernism Is Born: The Rise of the Bohemian Artist Narrative 000 4. The Modernist Generation: Growing Up in the American Race000 Epilogue: Good-bye, Jazz Age 000 Notes 000 Works Cited 000 Index 000

Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication: American literature 20th century History and criticism, Modernism (Literature) United States, Avant-garde (Aesthetics) United States History 20th century, National characteristics, American, in literature, Conflict of generations in literature, Nationalism in literature, Artists in literature, Beat generation

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