Guest Post by Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers
What exactly is modernism? A movement, a style, a field, an attitude, an epoch? That question has troubled everyone from Pope Pius X to midcentury urban planners to contemporary students. Something new, something different transformed the course of Western arts—and some argue, the whole of Western life—in the late nineteenth century, but its nature and effects remain subject to fierce debate. There are thousands of courses on this topic across the arts and humanities in nearly every college and university. And yet we have no satisfactory answer to that very simple question, no basic definition for something that preoccupies teachers, artists, scholars and students. Indeed, the literary figures most often associated with the term—T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound—used the term but could not agree on its sense, leaving Pound to lament in 1932 that they had launched a movement “to which no name has ever been given.”
Our book, Modernism: Evolution of an Idea (2015), doesn’t attempt to answer that question definitively. If we learned anything from our research, it’s that such an ambition would be doomed to failure. Instead, we set out to explore the many ways in which the question of modernism has been posed and answered across the last century. We traced its early use as a term of condescension—a “modernist” was one who blindly followed contemporary fads, foolishly ignoring the wisdom of tradition—and then as a badge of honor among Bohemian Parisians and aesthetes. By the 1920s, we saw, “modernism” coherently named an emerging style of literature, art, architecture, and music, while at the same time alerting readers to its possible dangers.
The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, for example, wrote in 1924 that no living author could “escape” the restrictive confines of “modernism,” which he equated with the dense, difficult, allusive poetry of Eliot and Pound. In the first full-length study of this trend, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), Robert Graves and Laura Riding championed this mode of writing—which was dismissed elsewhere for antagonizing average readers and disdaining the literary marketplace—but were ambivalent about its successes and its future prospects. And, to make things even more complicated, this early coherence of the term occurred while “modernism” also described a dissident movement within the Catholic church, innovations in technology and scientific advances, and much more.
By the 1950s, we show, “modernism” had been consolidated and as an academic field, mostly in literary studies, only to find itself attacked vociferously in the 1980s by postmodernists, who claimed that it represented an elitist, often extremist mode of understanding our complex modernity. The response to the dismissal of modernism created, in essence, what is now called the New Modernist Studies. Our book introduces and surveys this rapidly changing field and points to the other volumes in our series, New Modernisms, that will elaborate on the transformations that have taken hold in various subfields of modernist studies: globalization, gender, technology, race, environments, print culture, and much more. We offer glossaries, bibliographies, and historical resources for those who want to dig deeper. All of these books seek neither to define modernism nor to settle any debates, but rather, to understand and historicize why this capacious, slippery term has meant so much to so many people for over a century.