The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


As I plan my fall graduate course in modernism, I've been reading both texts of the time (Fitzgerald, Woolf, and so on) and secondary sources on the period. Recently I finished Michael North's READING 1922: A RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE MODERN, which he published in 1999. (North is also the author of the classic study THE DIALECT OF MODERNISM.) In READING 1922, North is primarily interested in performing a type of reception study/contextualization of the works of high modernism of that year (ULYSSES and THE WASTE LAND), but he spends very little time actually talking about them. Rather, he focuses on popular works of the day and on other, often-ignored intellectual and cultural developments. He pays close attention to works by Willa Cather, Wittgenstein, Bronislaw Malinowski, Charlie Chaplin, and others, but also has really done his research and brings to light some forgotten gems, such as the serially published work PEOPLES OF ALL NATIONS, a pictorial supplement to Alfred, Lord Northcliffe's newspapers that people could collect and then have bound. North's larger argument is one that I think most people accept by now--that modernism should not be understood as representing High Culture on one side of the "great divide" with Low/Popular Culture, but rather that in its time modernism's innovations (which readers now see as intentional obscurity and difficulty) were read as being influenced by or even advancing such ominous trends of the low culture as "syncopation," the breakdown of Victorian gender identity, and a willingness to appreciate popular entertainments such as burlesque, movies, and music-hall performance (as in Eliot's essay "Marie Lloyd").

The book is vastly impressive for the breadth of its research: North is equally comfortable close-reading the best-sellers of 1922, drawing on the biographical details of writers like Lawrence and Cather and Hemingway, alluding to technological developments such as sky-writing, and intertwining all of this with the larger social and intellectual innovations of the day (the triumph of fieldwork as the dominant mode of doing ethnography, for example, or the invention of the field of public relations by Edward Bernays, or the move to put a quota on Jewish students at Harvard). I'd like to use this book with my students as an example (like Eric Sundquist's fantastic TO WAKE THE NATIONS: RACE IN THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LITERATURE) of literary-cultural studies at its best, but I'm almost afraid that it's too intimidation. It sure is to me.


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