Teaching Notes: Transatlantic Modernism

This spring I taught a new graduate course at Lehigh on Transatlantic Modernism. 

As a bit of back-story: Several Ph.D. students I have worked with in recent years have expressed interest in defining their Modernism reading and teaching fields along transatlantic lines, but neither my colleague Seth Moglen (who does American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance) nor I (generally w/ British modernism and postcolonial literature) had looked closely at the historical premises of this. Nor had anyone taught a course with a specifically transatlantic focus.

That resistance to Transatlanticism in English literary studies comes from some deep-seated professional biases. Transnational research projects have become increasingly encouraged and common in literary studies in recent years, but generally speaking regional and period grounding has remained pretty much constant: for the purposes of the academic job market, you are still either an Americanist or a British literature person. One incidental goal of teaching this particular course was to test out whether a transatlantic approach to the writing of this period is in fact intellectually coherent -- rather than simply convenient for students aiming to pitch themselves broadly.

So my query going into this course was: does the "transatlantic" designation -- equal parts British and American -- actually fit modernism as I would like to see it defined? Many readers will be familiar with the transatlantic careers of major American figures such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Nella Larsen. Here I wanted to cross-reference these American writers' approaches to England and Europe against several key British writers who ended up as expatriates in the United States, most prominently D.H. Lawrence, Mina Loy, and W.H. Auden. The hypothesis is that modernism unfolded in the 1910s and 20s as a singular, transnational literary movement not seriously hampered by the vast distance between the two ends of the Atlantic Ocean.

The conceptual hypothesis might have major pedagogical implications: is it perhaps time for English literary studies to dispense with the traditional segregation of "British" and "American" writing from this period? Despite the major changes in literary methodology that have occurred over the past few decades – the rise of new modes of literary theory, and new sensitivity to issues of social justice and gendered and racial inclusiveness – for the most part, American and British literatures are today thought of and taught as separate from one another. While a certain amount of overlap is acknowledged (writers like T.S. Eliot are generally taught in courses on both British and American modernism), the idea that modernism in English might have been effectively a single event occurring nearly simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic hasn’t really hit home yet.

As I was designing the course, I was especially interested in focusing on the social networks, friendships and literary magazines that linked the various writers to one another. Who travelled where, when? What was everyone reading? In many cases writers who were living in Paris or London published their work in American journals. An American magazine called Little Review, for instance, was the first to publish Joyce’s Ulysses; it was also the defendant in the first obscenity trial against the novel. Similarly, the American magazine Others was the first to publish the provocative early poems of British writer Mina Loy.

I have been interested in whether it's possible that the changing dynamics of transatlantic travel and communication may have played a role in helping modernism play out as it did. Since the advent of faster and larger steamships starting in the 1870s and 80s, transatlantic travel had become considerably more common and manageable. Henry Adams has a great line about boarding a new transatlantic steamer called the Teutonic (on the Cunard / White Star Line) in 1892:
The voyage was less trying than I expected. The ship was so big and so fast, and relatively so comfortable, that as I lay in my stateroom and looked out of my windows on the storm, I felt a little wonder whether this world were the same that I lived in thirty years ago. In all my wanderings this is the first time I have had the sensation. All the rest of the world seems more or less what it was, and Europe is less changed than any of the rest; but the big Atlantic steamer is a whacker. (Henry Adams, cited in Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships)

By the 1910s, of course, with the advent of the HMS Mauretania and the HMS Lusitania, the experience was even better and faster than it was in 1892. One cannot help but think that the fact that it took less than a week to cross the Atlantic in person -- not to mention the ease of circulating and disseminating both magazines and books -- may have had ripple effects, and helped to allow new aesthetic styles and ideas to proliferate with new speed in the early 1910s in particular. Could the HMS Mauretania been one of the hidden historical "whackers" that helped put transatlantic modernism in motion? (One might also mention the role of transatlantic telegraph cables, though by the 1910s these were nothing new.)

(More after the break.)

Modernist literary magazines circulated the new literature and ideas across the Atlantic divide, often well ahead of book publication; we spent a considerable amount of time looking at modernist periodicals, mainly using the digital archives at the Modernist Journals Project: Here we have some of the key magazines of the period archived, including Blast (British; 1914), The Egoist (British; 1914-1919), The Dial (American), The Little Review (American; 1914-1922), The New Freewoman (British; 1913), Others (American; 1915-1919), and Poetry (American; 1912-1922).

We were also using two recent works of criticism, Suzanne Churchill's excellent monograph, The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of American Poetry, and the anthology edited by Churchill and Adam McKible called Little Magazines and Modernism. (There were a number of other critical sources we looked at as well, but those were the two we relied on most extensively.)

Looking at these magazines, I found the smaller, scrappier magazines like The Little Review and Others more interesting to read than more conservative venues like The Dial, though the latter was by far more consistent and more broadly influential at the time. Little Review in particular is a really wild ride for the three years before Margaret Anderson effectively turned the magazine over to Ezra Pound (as "Foreign Editor") in 1917. I would particularly recommend readers to the April 1917 issue of the magazine, where Margaret Anderson prints an entire blank page as her op-ed on America's entry into World War I, followed by a little quip: "We will probably be suppressed for this." (In fact she had good reason to worry, as earlier issues of Little Review had in fact been suppressed for supporting the anarchist Joe Hill, executed in 1915.) In the same issue, Anderson also prints the results of The Little Review's Free Verse (Vers Libre) contest, often with snarky commentary about even the supposed winners of the contest. Her harshest critique is, however, reserved for a rhymed patriotic poem called "A Mother's Sacrifice" (she deems it "involuntarily humorous"). I tried to approach this particular issue of the magazine as a singular text, and I tried to demonstrate to students that these difference facets of the magazine -- political protest alongside aesthetic judgment -- show a different alignment of the aesthetic avant-garde with left-wing political radicalism than has generally been accepted by critics, at least since Georg Lukacs' "Ideology of Modernism."

I also found studying biographies of the editors of these magazines as interesting as the material they were publishing. Some figures who were somewhat new to me going into the course, but who I now find to be central to my story about modernism in the little magazines, include Alfred Kreymborg (Troubador), Margaret Anderson (My Thirty Years' War), Jane Heap, and Carl Van Vechten (see Emily Bernard's new book, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance).

Ezra Pound's role as a kind of "Modernist At Large" figure is inescapable. He worked closely with the editors of several of the magazines mentioned above -- including Little Review, the Egoist, Blast, and Poetry -- and arguably his aesthetic preferences helped shape the direction those magazines took in the mid 1910s. Interestingly, he was able to have a determining influence on several American magazines, and be central to the advent of literary modernism in Chicago and New York, while residing in London. Pound's egotism and tendency to be contemptuous of other writers were well in evidence in his contributions in the 1910s, though his later turn to reactionary (fascist) political positions was not yet visible. I was surprised to see that despite what I felt was Pound's starring role in modernism in American poetry in the 1910s, were several poems openly dismissive of the arts and literary scene in the U.S. at the time. (One thinks of the reference to the "mass of dolts" in "To Whistler, American," for instance.) I find Timothy Materer's reading of Pound (in his essay, "Make It Sell! Ezra Pound Advertises Modernism") as a marketer of modernism particularly helpful as a way of explaining Pound's several abrupt shifts of focus and method.

Another writer of the 1910s little magazine who has perhaps not been fully recognized as being a product of it is Marianne Moore. Because she is seen as an unambiguously American writer, I had never taught her before. She does have an early transatlantic experience in the form of a visit to England and Europe in the early 1910s that seems to have had a major impact on her development. (European and British motifs and reference points are widespread in her poems from the 1910s, including "Critics and Connoisseurs," "To Statecraft Embalmed," and "To a Prize Bird." Particularly with her little magazine poems of the 1910s, Moore combines radical forms with linguistic economy and precision. To my ear, she is a far better master of the free verse form than someone like Pound, whose poetry remains interesting intellectually but not compelling aesthetically.

I also gave a week to Mina Loy, a British woman who started her literary career with the Futurists in Italy, but ended up in New York. I have often struggled with Mina Loy in the past -- she has many quite memorable lines, but I had earlier had trouble finding coherence in her poems as whole objects. Here, we used a significant chunk of Carolyn Burke's biography of Mina Loy, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. In fact, this made a big difference for the class in terms of making her poems from the 1910s more accessible, especially poems like "Sketch of a Man on a Platform" and "Three Moments in Paris." The famous "Songs to Joannes" also gain from seeing them in light of the rich account Burke gives of Loy's intimate links with several key futurist sculptors, including most famously F.T. Marinetti. Another important discovery here was that Loy wrote several of her most influential and provocative early poems in Italy and France -- but had them published in the U.S., with the help of Carl Van Vechten.

A week was also assigned to Tender Buttons and Gertrude Stein in Paris. My approach to Stein here, as in the past, was on getting students to actually try and decode the poem when and where they can. To give them an example of how it might be done, I use William Gass' essay "Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence," which I remains the ambitious attempt to decipher Stein I know of. (Does anyone know of anything better?

We also did a little bit of exploration of the transatlantic components of the Harlem Renaissance -- intentionally very briefly, as my colleague in the department, Seth Moglen, was also teaching a grad seminar on that specific subject this spring. Here the most salient figure (given my emphasis on writers of the 1910s and 20s for this course) seemed to be Nella Larsen, whose Quicksand is based partly in Harlem and partly in Denmark. If I did the course again, I might also assign more writing by Carl Van Vechten; his early novel Peter Whiffle (1922), is largely an account of an American would-be writer who spends much of his life in Europe. And Nigger Heaven (1926) may be a flawed, somewhat voyeuristic novel about black life in Harlem, but it helped set the stage for greater receptivity for Harlem Renaissance writers who were actually black, including Larsen herself.

It should be said that we started the course with two weeks on Henry James' Portrait of a Lady (1882). While James' book should by no means a modernist novel, it struck me as a relevant jumping-off point because of its intense interest in the various identities and affiliations of Americans in Europe. Interestingly, we saw surprising areas of commonality between that novel and a novel that is arguably more directly relevant to the title of the course, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. This was my first time teaching (and indeed, reading) Fitzgerald's late, France-centered, novel, and I was struck by how psychoanalytical it was; it's first and foremost a novel about trauma (related to the childhood sexual abuse of the protagonist's wife). There are also at least some passing, but not trivial, references to racial themes, as well as a traumatized, alcoholic American veteran of World War I in the novel. Still, the prose in this particular Fitzgerald novel sometimes felt flat and contrived to me; I'm not sure I will be assigning it again anytime soon.

We did do a week of Ernest Hemingway, here focusing on his first book, In Our Time, in large part because it was so clearly impacted by the high modernist moment, as well as by Hemingway's interactions with modernist figures in Paris in the 1920s, including Ezra Pound (of course) and Gertrude Stein. This seemed to work quite well, with students gravitating in particular to "Big Two-Hearted River." I've not taught this collection to undergraduates before, but I will probably use it in the future. Our experience with D.H. Lawrence was, as experiences with Lawrence often are, a bit frustrating. Lawrence wrote a few books in his later years in New Mexico, including the maddening, endless, and deeply flawed novel The Plumed Serpent. For this class I used St. Mawr, which centrally foregrounds the decision to leave England, and is therefore psychologically satisfying -- though Lawrence seems to run out of steam in the final chapters.

And the course ended with a week on a writer from a slightly later period, W.H. Auden, who also had a distinct transatlantic trajectory to his career. I am not sure how successful this was, however, since to my eye Auden's best poetry was pretty much all written in the 1930s -- before he emigrated from Britain. However, one particular cluster of themes that I find particularly interesting is the link between Auden's softening of his left political orientation (in 1937-1938), and his growing interest in leaving England for the U.S. I see the trajectory hinted at particularly in poems like "As I Walked Out One Evening," as well as the poem Auden later removed from his collected works ("A Communist to Others"). The story is told quite directly in Auden's "New Year's Letter" (1940).

I am still processing the course -- in fact, I'm still awaiting final papers from the students -- but I do have a couple of preliminary conclusions from teaching the course with this particular slate of authors;

1) If the question is still "does transatlantic modernism lean more British or more American?" my sense this spring is that the most interesting kind of Transatlanticism from this period is probably a bit more rooted on American soil. It was the American literary magazines of the 1910s that seemed most dynamic and experimental in the 1910s, even if some of the key editors and authors actually lived in England at the time. Writers like Loy, Lawrence, and Auden lived very important chapters of their careers in the U.S., but they are nowhere near as cohesive as the group of Americans who came together in the early 1910s in London (and then again in the early 1920s, in Paris), and initiated some of the key ideas that would come to define modernism.

2) While there will still be room for me to do courses on key British and Irish figures (Virginia Woolf and James Joyce aren't going away any time soon), I may try and use the Transatlantic focus more in the future, with both graduate and undergraduate courses. It simply seems to give a richer picture of what was really happening -- and how the different names and faces fit together -- to do it this way. In fact I tend to be a bit dissatisfied with designing courses just on British modernism, in part because so many of the best "British" writers of the period were actually Irish (Yeats, Joyce, Beckett) or American (Eliot, Pound, H.D.).