Book Review: Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry

Josh Phillips, University of Glasgow

Lise Jaillant, ed. Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 2019)

‘Modernism is not capitalism’s useful idiot,’ John Xiros Cooper argues in his contribution to Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry. Instead, ‘modernism and a fully deployed market society emerge from the same gene pool and are in fact one and the same’ (p. 91). This provocation serves as a good elevator pitch of sorts for Lise Jaillant’s edited collection, which makes a strong case for viewing Anglo-American modernism not as a purely literary phenomenon but as one with an inescapable material and commercial dimension. Jaillant notes in her introduction that, of late, scholars have displayed a renewed interest in the little modernist magazines that initially published the big modernist names, but that publishing houses remain ‘nearly invisible in New Modernist studies.’ Small wonder, then, that this volume represents the ‘first edited collection on book publishers that sold modernist texts to a wide range of readers across the Atlantic and elsewhere’ (p. 2).

This collection is divided into three sections: Part One, ‘Pioneers’ contains five essays which each focuses on a different Anglo-American publisher. Catherine Turner’s essay, ‘Modernism, Reform and the Traditional Business of Books: The B. W. Huebsch Imprint’ argues that Huebsch took a decidedly ‘conservative vision of publishing and commerce that allowed [him] to legitimise modernist works by connecting them to older values’ (p. 31). Amy Root Clements’ essay ‘Young Americans: Transatlantic Connections in the Early Years at Knopf’ sketches the networks of modernist authors that the New York-based Blanche and Alfred Knopf encountered in their tours of Europe and discusses the ‘lavish’ production values of the press’s Borzoi Pocket Books (p. 47). ‘“Glad to be in the Fold”: Boni & Liveright’s Multifold Marketing of Modernism’ by Jennifer Sorensen picks up on Clements’ discussion of materiality, examining Boni & Liveright’s dust jackets and arguing that these dust jackets were instrumental in constructing a readership for the company’s books, including an ‘entirely white readership’ for the company’s Harlem Renaissance novels (p. 65). In her essay on the Hogarth Press, Claire Battershill notes that the Woolfs’ press is perhaps the only publishing company to receive much attention in modernist studies. Battershill devotes much of her essay to the process by which Hogarth Press books made their way into the world: this portion of her essay is divided into five parts, ‘Selecting,’ ‘Editing,’ ‘Making,’ ‘Publishing,’ and, most tantalisingly, ‘Reading.’ The final section analyses the Press’s Order Books as well as correspondence to trace the reception history of Hogarth publications. John Xiros Cooper’s essay, ‘Bringing the Modern to Market: The Case of Faber & Faber’ is the final essay in this part of the collection. Cooper traces ‘modernism’s steady migrations from margins to the mainstream’ (p. 88). He writes that T. S. Eliot’s work as editor at Faber was crucial to this migration, making the case that Eliot was a canny marketer with as fine an ear for sales copy as for free verse.

The second part of Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry, ‘Fine Books’ is perhaps less conceptually convincing than the first section. It is briefer, with three essays – albeit the only essays to dip their toes into the waters of European publishing. The first of these essays, Joshua Kontin’s ‘Shakespeare and Company: Publisher’ is an exhaustive examination of Shakespeare and Company’s founder and sole employee, Sylvia Beach, and her relationship with her press’s sole author, James Joyce. The depth of Kontin’s research is impressive – he details the eleven printings of Ulysses that Beach produced, discussing the novel’s printing, marketing, and afterlife, but it is difficult to see why this essay should be categorised under ‘Fine Books’. The next two essays in this section, Mercedes Aguirre’s ‘Publishing the Avant-Garde: Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press’ and Lise Jaillant’s ‘“Flowers for the Living”: Crosby Gainge and Modernist Limited Editions’ are on safer ground. The trajectories of these two presses, contemporaneous with each other but on the opposite sides of the Atlantic, are largely similar. Both presses were small, personal concerns that published luxurious editions of contemporary works: Cunard’s press published Beckett’s Whoroscope and Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos while Gaige published the American edition of Woolf’s Orlando – albeit to Woolf’s displeasure. However, while Cunard’s press was closely associated with the surrealists, and made pioneering use of photomontage and collages on its covers, Gaige’s books were decidedly more conservative in form, if not in content, radical modernist work bound in neatly-tooled leather (p. 164).

The first two essays in the last section of this book, ‘Publishing Modernism after the Second World War’ are largely devoted to the construction of the American modernist canon as instantiated on college campuses. Greg Barnhisel’s essay on New Directions Books argues that the press, under the leadership of James Laughlin IV, came to be synonymous with modernist literature, ‘its list steering [young Americans’] understanding of modernism itself’ (p. 176). Barnhisel traces Laughlin’s early associations with Ezra Pound, whose work he printed and vigorously championed, and Laughlin’s post-war attempts to distance himself from the poet as his politics became increasingly toxic – and building a list that would gain a quasi-canonical status in the process, in no small part due to canny positioning as the GI Bill vastly increased the number of American college students. Loren Glass’s essay ‘Grove Press and Samuel Beckett: A Necessary Alliance’ also focuses on the post-war US college campus, through the lens of student drama. By acting as the sole American publisher not only for Beckett’s prose and plays, but also for a significant quantity of Beckett criticism, Grove Press managed to shape Beckett’s image and legacy. The final two essays in the collection, ‘Calder and Boyars’ by Adam Guy, and ‘Cape Goliard’ by Matthew Sperling discuss small presses that produced and promoted self-consciously difficult work influenced by high modernist ideals at a moment when modernist aesthetics were becoming eclipsed.

In discussing the institutions that did so much to fashion modernism, the essays in this collection all tack sharply away from the theoretical towards the historical and the archival. Each of these essays focuses on one individual publisher, operating almost entirely on one side of the Atlantic or the other, to the detriment of transnational and transcontinental currents in modernism. However, this does not detract from the fact that Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry makes a valuable and timely argument: that the materiality, the haptics, and the economics of modernism cannot be ignored, and that publishing is a crucial lens through which to view these.

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