Book Review: Transatlantic Modernism and the US Lecture Tour

8th November 2021

Francesca Mancino, Case Western Reserve University

Robert Volpicelli, Transatlantic Modernism and the US Lecture Tour (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)

In his study of the transatlantic lecture circuits of Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, Gertrude Stein, and W. H. Auden, Robert Volpicelli explores the difficulty of balancing one’s role as a writer with that of a lecturer. In spite of divergences in personalities and lecture topics, this juxtaposition is attributed to how one adjusts to their wavering sense of ‘personal dislocation’ (2). Volpicelli suggests that this sense of dislocation is particularly personal and spatial, seen in his description of Auden as a ‘poet-turned-projectile’ (2). Aside from the evident physical aspect of transatlantic travel, this ‘projectile’-like movement is applicable to self-dislocation and the transition from writer-to-lecturer. 

Though somewhat divorced from their roles as writers, Wilde, Yeats, Tagore, Stein, and Auden are elevated to the status of literary celebrities, where a ‘hybrid position’ of writer and speaker become fused (9). Despite lectures serving as an evident form of ‘authorial labor’ (given their financial remuneration), each writer strived to attain a sort of balance between their literary and performative selves (9). In defining this balance, Volpicelli differentiates each writer in sectioning their experiences into chapters characteristic of both their personalities and newfound roles as ‘celebrity lecturers’ (13). Their celebrity, for Volpicelli, is as follows: Wilde as curiosity, Yeats as diplomat, Tagore as guru, Stein as documentarian, and Auden as correspondent. This characterization stems from Mark McGurl’s concepts of ‘autopoetics’ and ‘self-authorizing genius,’ which Volpicelli cites as a source of aesthetic autonomy (6). Volpicelli’s main argument, however, lies in that he ‘examines the way the US lecture tour functioned as a far-reaching system of literary and cultural distribution during the modernist period,’ though his focus more narrowly concerns the self’s grappling with the ‘multifaceted social and cultural terrain of a rapidly modernizing American landscape’ (3). Volpicelli’s biography-meets-criticism text, thus, allows readers to conceptualize how writers internalized modernity within a transatlantic context. 

Aside from the book’s introduction, Volpicelli mostly neglects to put the writers’ own ideologies and experiences in conversation with one another. His decision to do so presumably regards how he characteristically labels each writer as being a different type of lecturer in spite of several unmentioned similarities that are worthy of discussion. For example, it is unclear why Wilde faces racial backlash, but Yeats does not, even though they are both Irishmen. Also, Yeats and Stein both consciously wrote about how lecturing impacted them, yet this thread is not elaborated upon. 

Further, labeling Wilde as curiosity, Yeats as diplomat, Tagore as guru, Stein as documentarian, and Auden as correspondent poses limitations on how the reader can apprehend a writer’s lecturing practices and persona. As a result, Volpicelli makes it difficult to converge the various aspects of a writer’s personality. For instance, his discussion on Auden’s practice of incorporating Shakespearean allegory appears disjointed when looked at alongside Auden’s role of “correspondent.” Nonetheless, in clearly demarcating each writer from one another, Volpicelli makes the reader responsible for making connections between writers, rather than illustrating them. 

 Volpicelli chronologically orders his chapters, beginning with Wilde and likening his appearance to the circus craze created by P. T. Barnum. Standing at over six-feet, Wilde’s ‘aesthete “costume”’ seemed incredulous, consisting of a ‘purple velvet jacket, stockings, and buckled shoes’ (26). This contributes to Volpicelli’s argument that Wilde was rather ‘an object’ or ‘an attraction’ (30, 27). Yet, Volpicelli is cautious in comparing Wilde’s appearance to that of someone in a freak-show, since he earnestly controlled his impersonality: a figurative self-contortion that allows Wilde to adapt to his surroundings. Volpicelli, then, briefly and therefore somewhat contrivedly, draws on Paul Saint-Amour’s theory of ‘authorial “ventriloquism”’ (41). In what appears as an attempt to correlate his findings to Saint-Amour’s, Volpicelli suggests that there is a ‘necessity’ in maintaining a sense of self amidst ever-changing venues and audiences (39). 

Nonetheless, Yeats is depicted differently than Wilde, attributed to Yeats’s ability to ‘[channel] the voice of Ireland’s ancient bards’ (56). Though viewed as a sort of diplomat, the folklorish aspects of Yeats’s poetics further play into ‘Irishness as a form of amusement’ (56). As previously mentioned, Yeats was not perceived like Wilde as a sort of spectacle. Due to the seemingly inconsequential features of Yeats’s appearance and personality, Volpicelli’s rendering of Yeats does not thoroughly juxtapose Wilde’s experiences with Yeats’s.

In opposition to both Wilde and Yeats, Volpicelli posits that Tagore had ‘extremely limited agency in crafting his international persona’ (82). Subsequently, this chapter serves more as a summary of how Tagore was fetishised as a ‘symbol of Eastern mysticism,’ perpetuating his reputation as a guru weighing above that of a poet (97). While Volpicelli focuses on Tagore’s fluctuating persona, he uses the following chapter on Stein to highlight her attitude toward the lecture genre and her audience’s perception. Moreover, he subverts the commonplace perception that Stein was conceited in her intellectual pursuits. Instead, he presents her anxieties in regard to public performances, as she would rehearse her lectures in front of ‘private parties’ and seek their advice (110). Additionally, he takes an insightful approach to the relationship between Stein and the documentary genre (best-seen in her novel Everybody’s Autobiography (1937)). Her focus, thus, encompasses a jointly-embodied system of shared experience—almost Whitman-esque in her aspiration to converge ‘a “complete” American history’ (121). 

While Volpicelli misses the opportunity to connect Stein’s democratic pursuits with Yeats’s integration of Irish culture in America, Stein’s chapter is particularly strong in Volpicelli showcasing her lucid capitulation of the hardships of lecturing. While he does not extensively elaborate on Stein’s insights that are critical to understanding her conceptualization of lecturing, self-objectification lies at the crux of it: ‘the person doing the seeing is always also an object to be seen’ (131). In contrast, Auden does not objectify the audience, but seeks to destroy the barrier between him as speaker and the audience as listener—seen in that ‘he wanted the audience to forget that he was a poet […] so that he could talk to them as simply as human beings’ (136). In likening the audience to himself, he could maintain ‘a dialectical balance between the individual and society’ (136).

With the variety of personalities and perspectives given by Volpicelli, he fundamentally unites Wilde, Yeats, Tagore, Stein, and Auden in two ways: (1) the adjustment of writer-turned-lecturner, or the adaptation to the expectations of modern audiences, and (2) spatial discontinuities stemming from transatlantic travel and modernity. In doing so, Volpicelli’s study balances a biographical and critical perspective that enables readers to collocate the lecturing experiences of modernist figures. 

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