Six hands at an open door

David Trotter on Modernism

  • Intertextual Dynamics within the Literary Group: Joyce, Lewis, Pound and Eliot by Dennis Brown
    Macmillan, 230 pp, £35.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 333 51646 X
  • An Immodest Violet: The Life of Violet Hunt by Joan Hardwick
    Deutsch, 205 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 233 98639 1

Dennis Brown concludes his celebration of Anglo-American Modernism with an account of Ezra Pound’s death on 30 October 1972. ‘That year I ended an obituary of Pound in a Canadian student newspaper: Pound is now dead and no poet remains of his stature. But poetry is “NEWS that stays NEWS”. READ him: Read HIM.’ The capitalisation is very much of the period, and it may he that the message is as well. For the poet’s death was shortly followed by a critical work, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1974), which placed him at the head of the ‘Men of 1914’, and chronicled in elegiac terms his lifelong struggle to reanimate a moribund literary culture. Brown shifts the emphasis from Pound Era to Group Era, but his approach is otherwise remarkably similar – remarkably, that is, when you consider how much has been written on the subject since 1974, some of it tending to a qualification of Kenner’s thesis. Criticism, after all, is news that doesn’t necessarily stay news.

Brown begins modestly, stating that insofar as his book is concerned with literary influence it belongs to ‘quite conventional academic criticism’. In this respect, his chief contribution is ‘to argue for the stylistic influence of the early Vorticist prose of Wyndham Lewis on key texts of Joyce, Pound and Eliot and to reaffirm Lewis’s important role within the Modernist venture’. However, his study of these texts has led him to the ‘distinctly unconventional hypothesis’ that they should be considered ‘less in terms of individual stylistic development than as a series of moves within an overall intertextual group-game’. Each of the four writers played his part in ‘a concerted project to create new literature for the new age, our own’. Two claims – for the radicalism of the ‘Men of 1914’, and for their mutual influence – combine to form an ‘innovative theoretical thesis’ which will exceed the limits of ‘normal literary scholarship’.

But what are the limits of ‘normal literary scholarship’, where Modernism is concerned? During the 1980s, a generation of American scholars – Ron Bush, Reed Dasenbrock, Michael Groden, James Longenbach, Lawrence Rainey – set those limits by mapping in great detail the relations between the various literary Modernists and examining the genesis of their major writings. Mutual influence is by no means the sole topic of such enquiries, but it certainly features. Brown does not seem to he aware of them.

He is right to draw attention to Lewis’s striking and influential Vorticist prose: the short stories about Brittany and Spain begun in 1909 and finally collected as The Wild Body in 1927; the unstageable play, The Enemy of the Stars, published in the first issue of Blast (1914); and the Vorticist novel, Tarr (1918). But normal literary scholarship is no stranger to Lewis’s strangeness. In The Literary Vorticism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (1985), Reed Dasenbrock argued that The Enemy of the Stars, although practically unreadable, had ‘a large (if previously undiscovered) impact on other writers’, precisely on account of its ‘difficult style’. He analyses the strengths and weaknesses of that style, and its impact on Eliot, Pound and Joyce. His efforts lessen the impact of Brown’s claim that the play has been given little room in accounts of Modernism, and that ‘its importance lies not in some autonomous value but in its fertilising power.’ Dasenbrock’s account of its style is the more detailed, his account of its influence the more nuanced.

Brown adds to our understanding of such matters in one respect. Inside a had book about Modernism, there is a potentially good book about the relationship between Lewis and Joyce, the two most rebarbative members of the group. Their mutual influence has long been a matter of claim and counter-claim, but Brown does give some substance to the various assertions. His excavations of The Apes of God and Finnegans Wake reveal the presence in each text of a feared and respected rival.

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[*] In Fin-de-Siècle and its Legacy, edited by Mikulas Teich and Roy Porter (Cambridge, 345 pp,. £35 and £11.95, 13 December 1990, 0 52134 108 6).