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Book Review: Historicizing Modernists: Approaches to ‘Archivalism’

28 February 2022

Emily Bell, University of Antwerp

Historicizing Modernists: Approaches to ‘Archivalism’, edited by Matthew Feldman, Anna Svendsen and Erik Tonning (London: Bloomsbury, 2021)

This study of new turns in modernist archives in all their guises represents an admirable effort to bring together research with a central paradox: the implied emphasis on (literary or creative) process in the analysis of archives requires a destabilization of such process. This collection of essays overcomes this, however, casting its net far, wide and deep into the possibilities furnished by archival documents and the potentialities within ongoing archive formation. In this way, the study is not afraid to expose the vulnerability of the discipline. The archivist’s desire for comprehensiveness is confronted by the concomitant inevitability that such comprehensiveness renders the archive ever more diverse, disparate and unwieldy. This is all useful, however, for affirming the contextualising matrices that surround an author and their work, as endorsed by the new modernist studies. 

The book’s structure is twofold, comprising chapters on canonical modernists (such as Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound) and new perspectives on how archives historicise modernism through various approaches – queer, transnational and feminist, for example. The focus on the usual suspects in the first part of the study implicitly reflects the state of funding and historical preservation habits (favouring heteropatriarchal whiteness) but the views given on these archives push back on these traditional structures. This weight given to canonical archives is equally aimed at redressing assumptions made about the status of so-called ‘High’ modernists. Archival reckonings come to the fore in chapters on Pound by Svetlana Ehtee and Alec Marsh especially, where accessibility to the most document-rich archives means seeing the good alongside the bad, in moral as well as aesthetic terms. Ehtee highlights a significant portion of archival materials that dialogue with Marsh’s proposed ‘fourth phase’ of Pound’s critical reception in which the poet’s fascism is accepted but we must determine its depth and impact on his work. The place of correspondence in the archive arguably centres highly questionable relationships Pound entertained (with Graham Seton Hutchison, for instance), forcing the realisation that we cannot ignore nor sanitise the person that is preserved in an archive.

The study tackles practical difficulties, too, touching on precedents of canon formation and accessibility problems (p. 3) as well as academic precarity (p. 7). Keeping one eye on the pragmatics of archival work and scholars’ own circumstances ensures the relevance and pertinence of the observations in this essay collection. The touches, then, of digital realities encompassed by this collection speak to the recent global forced closures of archival facilities which themselves prompted general conversations around overlooked issues of accessibility. The new concurrences of Woolf’s reading and writing revealed in Michèle Barrett’s chapter, for example, highlight the provisions of WoolfNotes, the (forthcoming) online archival facility of Woolf’s reading and research notes. The digital is implicit in Archie Henderson’s chapter, too, which provides a meta-archive built out of finding aids. Henderson’s chapter is one of the broader views of the future of archival approaches as interdisciplinary, and it is to its credit that his conceptualisation of the ‘deep archive’ (p. 175) is informed by the digital but not eclipsed by it. 

Even without recurrent emphasis on the digital, Historicizing Modernists is not, as some might expect of the field, a homage to materiality. Rather, it posits that an emphasis on the materials of modernism necessitates recognising the difference between the archival documents as separate from the metaphorical (or metonymic) life they assume in the critical imagination. This is largely achieved through the variety of the materials consulted and the views facilitated, rather than tackling the theoretical questions head-on. Anthony Paraskeva’s chapter on Beckett and Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory, for instance, expands archives beyond text and paper to consider the machine – specifically, the Moviola – and its formal reflections in Beckett’s late prose. This question of what goes into the archive is under constant revision as the remit of historicism and the structures it accounts for continue to grow. It is an issue germane to reconstructing archives for modernists who never had them. Gerri Kimber writes about this for the surprising case of Katherine Mansfield, providing the story of the collected works edition. This in itself is a case in point of the paradox of archival systems: the idiosyncrasy of writerly methods necessarily influences the way in which we choose to preserve them. Kimber describes Mansfield’s ‘mass of notebooks and loose papers used indiscriminately … with some notebooks abandoned and then reused ears apart’ (pp. 189-90). Seeing and reconstructing the living history of an archive in this way challenges the very idea of a ‘modernist archive’. We arrive at this same question in the final chapter on Q. D. Leavis by Miranda Dunham-Hickman. The archival materials employed for this essay are particularly intriguing, turning from Marshall McLuhan’s occlusion of Q. D. Leavis’s sex (to favour the assumption of her husband, F. R. Leavis) in the intellectual debt he feels towards certain Cambridge critics to the diaries of Leavis’s daughter, Kate Varney. The chapter takes off with the readings of these diaries and their description of the domestic spaces of the Leavis residence. Dunham-Hickman’s methodology and analysis exemplifies the networked ways in which archives of modernism beg to be read; Varney’s diaries are rich with the documentary work of archival records, as well as forming an archive in their own right.

For all the successes of this volume, its essays are for the most part author-centred. The archives of the institutions of modernism – the bookshops, publishing houses, little magazines or small presses – remain mostly out of sight. These are important forces and epitomise the networked views of modernism that are central to intersectional conceptualisations of these histories. That said, there are traces of these networks as mentioned above. Alexander Howard’s chapter, ‘Gossip from Abroad, or, Why Historicize Modernism?’, also addresses the modernist little magazine, Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms (1929-30), but this is ultimately to the ends of biography, specifically of Charles Henri Ford.

Nevertheless, this study is a timely retrospective for demystifying – or deconstructing – the notion of a modernist ‘archival turn’, as well as a toolkit for anyone working with pre- or para-publication materials. It has interest, too, for overviews of some modernist archives and thus the benefit of reading comparatively between the essays.


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