Writer's for the Nation: American Literary Modernism, by C. Barry Chabot
(Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997): 290 pages.
Reviewed by Mike LeMaster
C. Barry Chabot's Writer's for the Nation is a provocative attempt to redefine the notion of American literary modernism. Chabot feels that previous efforts to provide a cogent definition of American literary modernism have failed in one of two distinct ways. Some critics attempt to define American literary modernism in terms of one major author (e.g., Stevens or Pound), and therefore fail to appreciate the full range of American modernist literature. A definition of modernism based on the work of Pound is likely to leave no room for the work of Stevens, surely an author to be characterized as 'modernist'. Other critics, notes Chabot, attempt to define American literary modernism in terms of its relation to international movements in other arts, therefore making the definition so broad as to fail to capture the distinctively American aspects of modernism in the works of Eliot, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, et al.
Chabot's solution to the inadequacies of such definitions is simple but radical: rather than concentrate on the aesthetic or philosophical issues which seem to inform so much of modernist writing, Chabot proposes that we redefine American literary modernism in terms of the social concerns of its authors. Chabot believes that American literary modernists had a "self-appointed charge" (3) to "restore some sense of community to the nation" (5). "...These writers and their contemporaries," he urges, "share a common project that we can now see resulted in the emergence of American literary modernism as a distinctive and unusually strong body of literature. That project took form around a shared dismay about the character of American social and cultural life in the early years of the century" (2). Chabot thus construes modernism as a cultural debate over "alternative possible futures for social life in the United States" (255) rather than a movement with primarily aesthetic motivations.
The immediate effect of Chabot's proposed redefinition is the inclusion of many authors of the period who are not generally considered to be 'modernist'. Chabot's choice of authors to discuss in his study reflects this. Concentrating on the literature written between the two World Wars, his chapters are dedicated, respectively, to Van Wyck Brooks, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate, the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Stevens, and finally the "proletarian" writers of the 30s. Chabot himself admits that this is an unusual and perhaps marginal selection of writers with which to make his case. Brooks and Cather are rarely classified as modernists, Tate belonged to the Agrarian movement of the 20s and early 30s, and the proletarian writers of the 30s are most commonly viewed as an interruption rather than a continuation of modernism. Chabot chooses such an unusual cast of characters because he believes that they each represent a distinct "cultural strategy" (13) devised to restore America's lost sense of community. Chabot conceives of these cultural studies along two axes: "first, whether the imagined alternatives to a lamentable present were to be found in the past or in the future, and second, whether they involved primarily personal or more thoroughly social changes" (3). For example, Chabot sees Willa Cather as offering a 'solution' that is "simultaneously personal and oriented toward the past" (3). In her advocacy of the simplicity of Nebraska frontier life, Cather implicitly indicts contemporary American society and its inability to provide satisfying lives for its members.
The individual chapters of Writers for the Nation are models of erudition and lucidity. Before reading the book, I knew very little about Van Wyck Brooks or Willa Cather and the specific visions they had for American social and intellectual life. Moreover, there is no question that Chabot's reading of modernism succeeds in making a connection between the authors he discusses. The question, however, is whether a definition of American literary modernism based mainly on its authors' response to the "felt needs of the nation" (4) is sufficient to capture the distinctive qualities of American modernist literature. Although Chabot shows that American literary modernism did not occur in a social vacuum, he almost completely ignores the aesthetic and otherwise philosophical issues with which moderns such as Eliot, Pound, and Stevens were often concerned. Moreover, he leaves it to the reader to see for him/herself how his definition of American literary modernism is able to accommodate the more central authors of modernism (e.g., Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Pound) and their often disparate projects. Chabot sometimes seems to suggest that American modernists were all working together for the accomplishment of a collective social goal, thereby providing the modernist movement with a superficial unity that it does not actually possess.
My own impression is that Chabot's redefinition of American literary modernism, although provocative, is so broad as to risk losing its explanatory power. Although I think Chabot's book makes a successful case for a definition of American literary modernism which includes an account of the social and political leanings of its authors, my personal opinion is that a definition based mainly (Chabot sometimes suggests solely) on authors' various responses to 'shared cultural dismay' is insufficient to capture fully the distinctive character of American literary modernism. After all, what literary 'movement' since the beginning of literary history was ever fully satisfied by the current state of its culture? A robust definition of American literary modernism must also be able to account for the aesthetic and philosophical issues which inform the works of its authors. As it stands, Chabot's definition seems far too inclusive: any writer who was even mildly concerned with the state of American culture in the first half of the twentieth century would be classified as a modernist. While such a claim seems a little too strong to me, I think a weakened version of Chabot's thesis would add an important dimension to the critical debate about the nature of modernism. In short, I wholeheartedly recommend Writers for the Nation as an insightful exploration of the sometimes overlooked social and cultural aspects of American literary modernism, but I have my doubts about the ability of Chabot's reconstrual to capture what is distinctively 'modern' about American literary modernism.
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