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The Trouble with Modernism: a Dialogue Continued

15 September 2020

In 2019, the Modernist Review published a dialogue on the state of Modernist Studies in several instalments, taking as its namesake the title of BAMS’ own conference: Troublesome Modernisms. It began (as so many things do) with a series of tweets in 2018 from Luke Seaber (UCL) who conjectured that ‘current Modernist Studies has something of an academic Ponzi scheme about it’. This sparked a dialogue between he and an independent researcher, Michael Shallcross, about the ‘New Modernist Studies’ and the professional demands of the modern academy. We published responses to this dialogue by Nick Hubble (Brunel University), who believed that ‘it’s time to move…to more democratic conceptions of modernity that lie beyond modernism’, and Emma West (University of Birmingham), whose own encounters with troublesome modernism found her ‘draw[ing] up a pros and cons list for including the word “modernist” in the title of [her] first monograph’. Naomi Milthorpe, Robbie Moore and Eliza Murphy intervened with their own reflections on being Modernism-Adjacent at the University of Tasmania, where ‘the spatial politics of the New Modernist Studies are particularly acute’. Luke and Michael reflected on both of these thoughtful interventions in their own final responses.

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The Trouble with Modernism: Author’s Response

In one of our most popular recent articles Luke Seaber and Michael Shallcross held an in depth discussion of our namesake, institutional and anchor and bête noire, modernism. This was followed by important interventions by Nick Hubble and Emma West, who, while agreeing in part with the observations made, suggested some rather different points of departure. Naomi Milthorpe, Robbie Moore, and Eliza Murphy, of the University of Tasmania, join this dialogue in their own answer to the question from an ‘adjacent’ perspective. In this third and final installment of this series, Luke and Michael reflect on Emma and Nick’s observations.

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The Modernist Review Issue #10: Troublesome Modernisms

The Modernist Review is a magazine which wears its heart on its sleeve when it comes to the use of that troublesome word. Like its parent association the British Association of Modernist Studies, its title commits it to the interrogation and exploration of a cultural phenomenon which has been discursively constructed since its origin. Unlike a ‘movement’ with a concrete set of personnel and aims, such as suffragism or even futurism, ‘modernism’ has always been multi-faceted and loose, its conditions and qualities contested from its inception. Its dominance as a cultural descriptor of strands in Twentieth Century writing and art has oscillated, its fate linked to its terminological adoption by institutions. Examples of this latter fact are increasingly common as empirical archival work plays an ever-larger role in contemporary criticism: the conjoining of method and canon by F. R. Leavis et al. in the pages of Scrutiny; the association, by publisher John Calder, of Wyndham Lewis and Samuel Beckett as opposite temporal ends of a continuous stream; the coining of the term ‘New Modernist Studies’ by academics in a position of considerable influence and status through the editorial apparatus of an institutionally-supported academic journal. It is therefore not priestly navel-gazing or a weakness for arcane nomenclatorial bickering that leads us to focus on the trouble of this word. We are still very close to modernism by historical standards, and its skull still chatters away in the ossuary.

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The Trouble with Modernism: a Dialogue

28th June 2019

Luke Seaber and Michael Shallcross


In early 2018, Luke Seaber (UCL) took to Twitter to share his suspicion that ‘current Modernist Studies has something of an academic Ponzi scheme about it’. This comment caught the eye of Michael Shallcross (an independent researcher), who contacted Seaber to see if he might be interested in initiating an email exchange on the state of contemporary modernist studies. Seaber and Shallcross are perhaps well-placed to provide semi-detached commentary. They are both scholars of the seemingly anti-modernist figure, G.K. Chesterton, but their research has focused upon Chesterton’s relationships with writers more closely associated with modernism (T.S. Eliot and George Orwell for Seaber; Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and Ezra Pound for Shallcross). Similarly, they each occupy a position of relative professional remove: neither has a lectureship in modernism, but each is employed within academia (Seaber is Tutor in Modern European Culture on the international foundation year at UCL; Shallcross works in academic and student support at York).

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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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Review: The Modernist Revue

Josh Phillips, University of Glasgow

The Modernist Revue was a celebration of all things modernist, held in King’s College London’s chapel, whose ornate splendor proved a fitting backdrop for the proceedings. The evening was compered by Zeb Soanes, whose voice might well have been familiar to anyone who wakes up to The Today Programme or falls asleep to The Shipping Forecast. Composer Elena Langer and librettist Emma Jenkins’ opera Rhondda Rips it Up! kicked off proceedings. Performed by soprano Stacey Wheeler and mezzo-soprano Kate Wolveridge, and accompanied by Satoshi Kubo on the piano, Langer and Jenkins’ opera pays tribute to Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda, a suffragette who was imprisoned for arson, was force-fed in prison, and on her release went on to found the magazine Time and Tide. She also found time to jump on Asquith’s car, and survive the sinking of the Lusitania. The Modernist Revue featured all-too brief snippets from the opera, ranging from the comically pompous Asquith enumerating the reasons why women were incapable of serious thought in a Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter, to a prison soliloquy on hunger strikes, to tipsily conceiving Time and Tide.

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Differential Diagnosis and Surrealism in Leonora Carrington’s Down Below

Marie Allitt, University of York

In 1940, Leonora Carrington suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a treatment facility in Spain, where she underwent convulsive shock treatment. In Down Below (1943), Carrington offers an account of her experience, from the retrospective point of 1943, where narrative, memory, and mental health are interwoven in significant, yet complex ways. A significant surrealist artist and writer throughout her life, Carrington was born in Lancashire, England in 1917, but spent the majority of her life living in Mexico City. From early on, Carrington rejected the authority, Catholicism, and upper-class values of her family, and this rebellion, alongside her fascination with Surrealism, dictated the subject matter of much her work. By 1937, she was fully estranged from her family, moving to Paris and living with Max Ernst. With rising tensions across Europe and hostilities within France, in 1940, Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien, and interned in a labour camp, leaving Carrington alone. She was persuaded by friends to leave France and travel to Madrid, Spain, where the events of Down Below took place.[1] The beginning of the novel explains the journey from France across Spain, the onset of her breakdown and political paranoia, before being committed into the asylum against her will. The rest of the (short) novel depicts the experience inside the asylum; convulsive treatment; cruelty and abuse; her delusions and hallucinations, all of which are framed by her retrospective narration three years later.

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The Evergreen Review: Populism, Pornography and ‘Vulgar Modernism’

James Baxter, University of Reading

Two years prior to the sensational American release of the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959, the Grove Press would publish the first issue of Evergreen Review as a signal of the publisher’s growing backlist of innovative literature. Led by the ‘iron whim’ of Barney Rosset and co-edited by Donald Allen (who would go on to oversee the publication of the seminal 1960 volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960), the review would become an unlikely vehicle in the somewhat awkward transition of American and European modernism into the primarily male subculture of transgressive sexual politics and corporate sponsorship typical of the American sixties.[1] As Loren Glass argues in his quintessential study, Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (2013), Grove and Rosset would be responsible for the orchestration of a developing canon of ‘vulgar modernism’ in which hitherto unpublishable modernist curios would be defended for their elite critical cachet, before transitioning into popular and perverse bestsellers. Perhaps more than any individual Grove title, the Evergreen Review—particularly its glossy commercial iteration from 1964—provides an unparalleled glimpse into Rosset’s ‘vulgar’ aesthetic, acting as a melting-pot of erotica, comics, New Left commentary, as well as a venue for counterculture-adjacent late-modernists such as Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

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