Section 5 National, Transnational, Global Perspectives

Modernism in the United States and Canada

Jutta Ernst


As a multivalent term that either denotes a contemporary phenomenon regardless of time and place or, in a more specific sense, relates to a period of paradigmatic shifts in Western cultures (Gove 1986, 1452), "modern" and its derivatives have spurred the scholarly debates for more than a century now. Definitions and periodizations differ widely from discipline to discipline and vary even within individual fields. In literary and cultural studies there is a broad consensus that around 1900 major changes made themselves felt in Europe and North America—among them technological advances and the development of cosmopolitan centers—and that these, in turn, made artists look for new topics and innovative modes of representation. Nevertheless, continental European scholars on the one hand and British and North American scholars on the other hand tend to prefer different terms and partitions of cultural history. Whereas the former speak of "the modern," an entity that includes symbolism, aestheticism, and naturalism, or of "the avantgarde," often referring to Futurism, Dadaism, or expressionism, British and North American scholars usually employ the designation "modernism," having in mind a period that starts slightly later than "the modern" and encompasses influential movements like imagism or Vorticism. In short, "One of the major obstacles encountered by critics of Modernism, particularly by comparatists, is the semantic confusion generated by the term itself" (Chefdor 1986, 1; see also Eysteinsson 1990, 6).

But even if the term can be agreed upon, conceptualizations of modernism vary with respect to its beginning and ending, its geographical point of origin, its defining qualitative features, as well as to its major representatives. Frank Kermode has reacted to this conundrum by proposing the plural form modernisms (Kermode 1967, 93) and by stressing the idea of dynamic concepts (Kermode 1968, 28). Along the same lines, Joseph N. Riddel argues: "Modernism is another name for some moment of transition, or for the unnameable and uncanny, an apparently stable term for an instability" (Riddel 1996, 124).

The problem of naming and thereby trying to grasp a complex, fluctuant cultural phenomenon links scholars of modernism to its early practitioners. Initially, artists used the term "modern" in the sense of "contemporary" and, for want of a better name, referred to their group and its thrust of renewal simply as "novel." Thus, in her 1917 Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, American poet Amy Lowell speaks of the "New Movement" (Lowell 1971 [1917], 237, 343) and deplores: "This movement has as yet received no convenient designation. We, who are of it, naturally have not the proper perspective to see it in all its historic significance" (ibid., 237). Over the next ten years, however, "modern" and "modernist" came to designate an artistic epoch with controversially debated stylistic features. This is apparent from Laura Riding and Robert Graves's comment in their 1927 A Survey of Modernist Poetry: "May a poet write as a poet or must he write as a period? For modernism, in this perverted sense, likewise becomes a critical tyranny, increasing contemporary mannerisms in poetry instead of freeing the poet of obligation to conform to any particular set of literary theories" (Riding and Graves 1969 [1927], 155-56).

Having its roots in processes of modernization and in altered outlooks on life, modernist themes and forms of expression developed in and affected all realms of Western art. However, there are differences with respect to the involvement of single arts or genres in, and their ultimate impact on, the movement as a whole. For the domain of literature, poetry has repeatedly been claimed as the pathbreaker or, alternatively, as modernism's prototypical genre, by both Europeans and North Americans.1 It comes as no surprise, then, that many studies on modernism either concentrate on poetry or at least reserve a considerable part of their scope for the treatment of this genre. The same holds true for this chapter, which, however, will reach out to other genres whenever this might be of help for the overall argument. As many of the US-born instigators of the "New Movement"—most prominently Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, H. D., and T. S. Eliot—settled in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe, where they formed artistic alliances or competed with their British, French, or Italian peers, American modernism, from its inception, has been pictured as a transnational venture—with the Anglo-American variant being the most widely used paradigm. But American expatriatism was not solely responsible for this configuration. The fact that British-born authors published in American magazines and moved to the United States, as did, for instance, Mina Loy (C. Burke 1980, 259), also paved the way for a transatlantic approach to American modernism. Conversely, Canadian modernism, until very recently, has been conceptualized on a national scale (Trehearne 1999, 9) and a truncated one at best, for critics have usually limited their discussions to English-language examples, ignoring developments in Francophone Canada.

The aim of this chapter is to combine research paradigms that have long been disconnected—Anglo-American modernism and Canadian modernism— and to exemplarily show how a comparative North American perspective can modify our view of this artistic movement as a whole. Such a linking of critical discourses promises, moreover, new insight into a phase that was crucial for the formation of Canadian literature. The idea of Canadian cultural belatedness, of a clear time lag with respect to European and/or American developments (Irvine 2005, 6-7), might, in the end, be no more than a myth, fostered by the limited focus of the observer. At the same time, thanks to a cross-border perspective, seemingly antimodern tendencies within Anglo-American culture may appear in a new light.

Changes in concepts and theories of modernism can be more clearly identified as two procedures that, while occurring at the same time, veer into different directions and might thus seem to contradict each other: first, there is an opening up, a proliferation of modernist concepts and theories, and second, a narrowing down through valorization, selection, and canonization. The result is an unequal distribution of modernist concepts and theories at a given point in time, with some occupying a more marginal position within the critical field than others. Both processes began at the time of modernism itself. Many literati, be it in prefaces, magazine articles, reviews, or letters, served as the first interpreters of the "New Movement," thus shaping the public's idea of it and laying the groundwork for later critics (P. Faulkner 1977, 19-20; Hollerer 1965, 420; Hoffman and Murphy 1992, 6-7). A crucial role was played by anthologies: reaching a wider audience than individual poetry collections and being less ephemeral than periodical publications, they ultimately turned into archives of modernism (see Diepeveen 2004, 137, 140). How influential representative compilations and accompanying commentaries were in the long run might be illustrated by The New Poetry: An Anthology (1917), edited by the two American poets Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson. The poems selected for this publication were mostly taken from the Chicago-based magazine Poetry, founded in October 1912 by Monroe and coedited by Henderson. Ezra Pound, H. D., Richard Aldington, Amy Lowell, and other imagists loom large in this collection of contemporary verse, but poets with different modes of modernist expression such as Grace Hazard Conkling, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg are also represented, a fact that, together with the alphabetic arrangement by author's name, suggests an unbiased stocktaking. Correspondingly, in her "Introduction" to the anthology, Monroe seems intent on stressing what the modernist poets have in common rather than pointing to the uniqueness of individual writers or specific groups. However, some of the poetic principles she mentions as typical of modernist poetry, for instance "simplicity of form" or "organic rhythm" (Monroe 1919 [1917], vi), adequately describe the work of the imagists but not, say, Vachel Lindsay's. Monroe's critical vocabulary, which includes "new austerities" (ibid., xiii), "direct" (ibid., vi), "objective" (ibid.), and "crystal clarity" (ibid., xi), is indeed clearly modeled on the aesthetic terminology of the imagists as put forth, among others, in F. S. Flint's "Imagisme" and Ezra Pound's "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," two texts that appeared in the March 1913 issue of Poetry. In trying to summarize and systematize, then, Monroe reduces the multifariousness of early modernism, representing the whole movement in terms of imagism. This curtailment had a considerable impact on the further course of modernist poetry and its conceptualization, not only in the United States, but also in Canada.

Within the field of modernist studies, certain trends are discernible, and the question poses itself whether the scholarly treatment of Anglo-American and Canadian modernism went through similar stages. Given the separateness of the two discourses, I will look at them individually first before presenting the research potential of a broader North American perspective.

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