Book Review: The New Wallace Stevens Studies

6 December 2021

Domonique Davies, University of Reading

The New Wallace Stevens Studies, Edited by Bart Eeckhout and Gül Bilge Han, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Wallace Stevens’s well-known adage, ‘It Must Change’, has been continually reflected on through critical discussions of his work.[1]  Over the last twenty years, socio-political movements have been echoed in literary criticism, with the development and expansion of ecocritical studies, queer studies, and re-evaluations of imperialism and colonialism. The New Studies in Wallace Stevens signals that it is time to effect change in Stevens studies and reevaluate his works and thought. As Bart Eeckhout comments in his chapter on Stevens and Queer Studies, ‘there may be some value in attempting to redraw a number of circles around Stevens’ (p. 178). Even so, while a paradigm of fresh perspectives is set out in this text, it is not without remembrance of how Stevens criticism has evolved, and a particular strength of the contributions is the acknowledgement of key work by Helen Vendler, J. Hillis Miller, Frank Lentricchia, and Alan Filreis, helping to situate the development of Stevens studies over the years.

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Book Review: The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company/Compagnie

6 December 2021

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

Georgina Nugent-Folan, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company / Compagnie (Brussels: University of Antwerp Press, 2019).

Tried to get going again in English to see me through, say for company, but broke down. But must somehow.

Samuel Beckett to Ruby Cohn, 3 May 1977.[1]

One of the arguments often levelled against genetic criticism is the following: tracing the composition of an artwork tells us little about the significance of the work itself. The most concise formulation of this critique of which I know is given by the late Roger Scruton: ‘what a thing is and how it came to be are two different questions, and the answer to the second may not be the answer to the first’.[2] For this reason, one critic has unreasonably argued that ‘genetic criticism explains nothing, and never has’.[3] But Georgina Nugent-Folan shows that there are substantive intellectual reasons for pursuing a compositional analysis of Beckett’s work. Of relevance to my review is the processual nature of his prose, which foregrounds the pursuit and motive of reading and writing creative texts. What genetic criticism allows scholars to do is offer tentative answers to the questions of how and why we go about these strange activities. 

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Book Review: Commemorative Modernisms

8 February 2020

Iro Filippaki, Johns Hopkins University

Alice Kelly, Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death and the First World War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020)

Anyone who has ever dealt with a close bereavement knows that it inevitably begs the harrowing question of what to do with the body. This question, Alice Kelly writes in her book Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death and the First World War, is the primary concern of modernism. Kelly’s monograph is an articulate, well-researched, and amply-evidenced study that combines history, material culture, and brilliant close-readings to trace the ways through which women writers reclaimed the realm of World War I and its dead from masculine, combatants’ experience.

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Jim Crow and the Birth of Modernism

9 November 2020

Adam McKee, Elizabeth City State University

James Smethurst, The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)

            James Smethurst’s argument in The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance (2011) establishes the African American experience in Jim Crow as essential to the birth of what might be called an American modernist experience. Modernism as a field has often dealt with issues of racism, sexism, and anti-semitism. However, now in the midst of a sort of reckoning in America about our racist history, institutions, and ideologies, arguments like Smethurst’s seek to explode the concept of American modernism and the cultural institutions behind its development. This essay is a reassessment of Smethurst’s work in light of the particular moment in American literary studies and how the book has been received over the last decade. In place of the Armory Show and contact with the European avant-garde as precursors and initiators of modernist themes and tropes, Smethurst finds the experience of African Americans in the Jim Crow Era a central marker in the birth of American modernism. Early in the text Smethurst writes that “a crucial objective of this book is to suggest how African American literature first raised many of the concerns, stances, and tropes associated with U.S. modernism” (3). The text sets out, on a near granular level, to document the development of authors such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Fenton Johnson and many others “not to prove that black literature at the turn of the century is worth reading because it is “modernist”…but to rethink the relationship of black literature during the early Jim Crow era, North and South, to a broad sense of “American” artistic modernity as well to the development of significant “American” artistic avant gardes or countercultures anchored territorially or geographically” (25). In his detailed analysis, Smethurst thoroughly documents how writers of the “Nadir” worked to develop concepts central to modernism. In “nadir,” Smethurst adopts the term originated by Rayford Logan to refer to the lowest point for African Americans in the United States in his work The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 (1954).[1] In the current racial climate in the United States, Smethurst’s claim that “In general, white authors in the United States have long been reluctant to acknowledge being influenced by black writers” (3) warrants further review as black writers have long been devalued or neglected as literary forefathers in American writing, which Smethurst notes is not the same for fields such as American music.

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Book Review: Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica: The Biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916-1963

9th November 2020

Christopher Wells, University of Sheffield

Gemma Romain, Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica: The Biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916-1963 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)

Gemma Romain’s biography of Patrick Nelson, a queer Black migrant in interwar London, offers an extensive account of both Nelson’s childhood in Jamaica and the fascinating intersectional sites, spaces and subjectivities that Nelson experienced after his arrival into Britain in 1937. Romain’s archival research on letters, paintings, drawings and newspaper articles, including Nelson’s personal letters to his lifelong friend and lover Duncan Grant, sensitively portrays the fascinatingly intersectional experiences of Nelson in both Jamaica and Britain. Romain’s prodigious research is receptive to the multifaceted sites and spaces that Nelson inhabited: as an aristocrat’s valet in rural Wales, a Black queer man in 1930s London, an artist’s model, a law student, a recruit to the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and as a Prisoner of War during the Second World War. These diverse experiences, particularly Nelson’s relationship with Bloomsbury artist Duncant Grant, offer a much-needed addition to known history of queer Black identities within both queer and global modernist studies. Romain’s attention to the various ‘queer and black social spaces’ (p. 77) that Nelson inhabited offers a refreshing study of same-sex intimacies because Nelson’s experiences capture those queer modernist histories undocumented by the medical institutions of sexology (the early twentieth-century study of human sexuality as a science). In doing so, Romain departs from an authorial inclination to frame homosexual histories in modernism within this sexological context, a critical framework deployed by other biographers such as Thomas Wirth. In his introduction to Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance (2002), an edited collection of the works of Richard Bruce Nugent, Wirth is limited by an over-reliance on the influence of sexual science on Nugent’s literary aesthetic. He makes various references to German psychiatrist Richard von-Krafft Ebing to examine Ebing’s sexological influences on Nugent. In contrast, Romain’s focus on the intersectionality of the everyday reminds us that complex and fractured experiences of queerness, immigration and class-based limitations are crucial components that comprise the universal themes of love, community and belonging. In this context, Romain offers a biography of Nelson that ‘does not attempt to recreate Patrick’s life in its minute and complete detail but instead it focuses on what the archive tells us and what it does not tell us about Patrick’s experiences of life in Britain and contextualizes Patrick’s life experiences within its broader historical context’ (p.55).

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Book Review: Samuel Beckett in Confinement

4 August 2020

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

James Little, Samuel Beckett in Confinement: The Politics of Closed Space (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

In October 1960, Samuel Beckett began his move into an apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris. From his new study window, he had a view of the sinister building of the Santé Prison. He wrote to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy of this detail prior to the move: ‘the view of the Santé Prison from the den I’ll have is beginning to upset me in prospect. I’ll learn to raise the eyes to Val de Grâce, Panthéon and the glimpse of Notre-Dame’.[1]But over the following years Beckett found his eyes drawn time and again to the prison blocks and exercise yards opposite his window, even on occasion attempting to communicate with inmates through hand gestures and a mirror. It is said that he came to know the panoptic layout of the prison extremely well.[2]This gestures towards Beckett’s abiding interest in confined spaces and his sympathy for the incarcerated, though, as James Little shows, he also remained acutely aware of his own distance from such experiences of suffering.[3]As early as his 1931 essay Proust, Beckett had written of the complications in speaking with or for the other: ‘Either we speak and act for ourselves – in which case speech and action are distorted and emptied of their meaning by an intelligence that is not ours, or else we speak and act for others – in which case we speak and act a lie’.[4]Looking and gesturing towards the prison across the Rue Jean-Dolent from his window, this gulf between self and other must have seemed vast. Continue reading “Book Review: Samuel Beckett in Confinement”

Book Review: Mirrored in a Glowing Cover: Carl Rollyson’s The Last Days of Sylvia Plath

3rd July 2020

Aleksandra Majak, University of Oxford

Carl Rollyson, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2020)

Content warning: violence

In his preface to The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Carl Rollyson says that every biography is also an autobiography, expressing an implicit belief that something in the author’s own life qualifies them to speak to the life of another. As I read this line, I recalled my first encounter with Sylvia Plath, opening the blue Faber volume of her lyric on the ‘Morning Song’. The poem’s simultaneous seeking and rejecting of motherly love felt instantly familiar, yet also deeply uncomfortable. Later, I have come to believe that to write about Plath is not only to confront the public myths and tropes of her life, work, and suicidal death, but also one’s own psychobiographical motives. In other words, to ask: what is it that speaks to me personally about the author known as, in the words of American critic M.L. Rosenthal, a ‘confessional’ poet? Through trying to answer this question, the readers of biography could not only discover something new about the most well-known American female poet, but perhaps also about themselves.

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Book Review: Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain

3rd July 2020

Nell Wasserstrom, Boston College

Sarah Collins, Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Within literary studies, the growing body of critical work dedicated to “late modernism” has tended to define the term in more or less two ways: first, as the “cultural turn” of modernism in the 1930s, and second, as a late (1930s-50s) reflection on the (failed/flawed) project of so-called “high” modernism. These two discourses are by no means mutually exclusive, as the many studies over the past few decades have shown: Tyrus Miller’s seminal work, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (1999); Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (2004); Marina Mackay’s Modernism and World War II (2006); and, more recently, Thomas S. Davis’s The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (2016). Despite differences in context, periodization, and choice of figures, texts, and method, these critical works attribute the late modernist “turn” to a specific historical event (the General Strike of 1926, for example, or the contraction of empire), and each event marks the particular way in which late modernism forms a “break” from modernism “proper.”

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Review: The T. S. Eliot International Summer School

Cécile Varry, Université de Paris

The 11th T. S. Eliot International Summer School (London, 6th to 14th July 2019)

I attended the T. S. Eliot Summer School for the first time in 2018, and it was a revelation. I was in the first year of my PhD — a year of people asking me (in a spectrum of tones ranging from irony to genuine concern) what on earth was left to be said about T. S. Eliot, and frankly, I was starting to wonder. In this context, and coming from a higher education system in which one gets regular friendly reminders that the Author is Dead, I was surprised to discover that T. S. Eliot, and T. S. Eliot studies, were very much alive. I left with renewed enthusiasm and unprecedented levels of confidence in my project.

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Book Review: Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority

J.D. McAllister, University of Cambridge

Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan & John McCourt (ed.), Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017)

S. E. Gontarski (Florida State University) has coined the term ‘the grey canon’ to denote the vast cache of archival material that has become available to Beckett scholars over the past two decades.[1] The publication of Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority (2017) marks a comparable archival turn in scholarship on the riotous (post-)modernist author Brian O’Nolan, demonstrating the scholarly approaches to what may be termed, following Gontarski, the O’Nolan grey canon. This expands the remit of modernist studies to complicate and develop a critical understanding of O’Nolan as an adept writer of a number of literary forms. Although some of this material is unavailable outside of specific archives, the publication of The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien last year makes some of the material drawn on in this collection more accessible to scholars and students.[2]

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