Modernism in a Global Context

By | October 30, 2018

Guest post by Peter Kalliney

When series editors Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers first approached me about doing a book on Global Modernisms, I was eager to accept but I was also a little nervous about the whole idea.  Was I up to the task?  I did what I usually do when faced with an intellectual challenge: develop a few courses on the topic and see if I have anything to contribute to the discussion.  In preparation for this book, I taught a couple of courses at different levels of the curriculum.  I designed an introductory course on global literature, for first-year students who were not studying English but instead meeting general education requirements, and a graduate survey course on different theories of world literature.  This combination of pedagogical experiences changed my perspective on what the book could become.

In teaching some of my ideas to first-year students with no intention of studying literature beyond my course, I confronted a simple question: who cares?  To my surprise and delight, I found that many students do care about some of the issues we considered, even if the writers we encountered were new to them.  While teaching the stories of Eileen Chang and Katherine Mansfield, I discovered that many students intuitively understood the aspirations and frustrations of characters who feel stuck in the provinces yet hesitate when given the opportunity to leave their small towns.  Working at a large public university in a so-called flyover state helped me in ways I did not anticipate: my students could teach me as much about feelings of cultural marginalization as I could teach them about British colonialism in China and New Zealand.

At the graduate level, my students helped me understand what the up-and-coming generation of scholars could contribute to the study of modernism.  I found that they were much less defensive about the concepts of modernism and modernist studies than many of the scholars of my own generation.  When coming through the ranks, I felt I had to repeatedly defend my classification of Kamau Brathwaite and Aimé Césaire as modernists.  What would modernism become if we expanded the geographical and temporal definitions of it–would we be left holding an empty, shapeless bag, good for little more than filling with a random assortment of artefacts?  Conversely, do we depoliticize Brathwaite’s and Césaire’s anticolonial messages if we associate them with modernist aesthetic practices?  Graduate students nowadays are less anxious about such position-taking.  The old textual litmus test–this is from the twentieth century, but is it genuinely modernist?–does not worry them all that much.  They showed me that studying modernism across national borders can be fruitful as long as we continue to explain what borders we cross and in whose company we cross them.


Peter Kalliney is William J. Tuggle Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, USA. His previous publications include Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (2013) and Cities of Affluence and Anger: A Literary Geography of Modern Englishness (2006). He is the author of Modernism in a Global Context, part of Bloomsbury’s New Modernisms series.

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