Article Index


Linda Wagner-Martin.

The Routledge Introduction to American Modernism.

London: Routledge, 2016.


review by Kevin Kiely



‘I Hear America Singing’


Wagner Martin


While Wagner-Martin co-opts fellow critics to explicate the vast structure established in her central argument, privileging “the African American achievement” of the Harlem Renaissance (110), the stalwarts of modernism, Williams, Pound, Eliot and Moore are given satisfactory treatment. No one movement holds singular status in this study however: the democratic vistas of prose and poetry are praised, but never amalgamated, and the copious examples cited, occasionally in shaded textboxes, are given swift analysis. The treatment of modernism also draws on Frost, Masters, Crane, and of course, Vachel Lindsay. The book has much to achieve in a small space, and particularly highlights the second-wave modernists, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Cather, (Sinclair) Lewis, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Wolfe. Her elaboration of poetry and prose as merged-obsession by writers in all genres is the leitmotif in what concerns absolute origins, while the overall focus seems to fall on the 1930s and 1940s. HD is analysed in both genres through Poundian dictates on the “constant labor of the prose artist” (46), he being “one of the earliest to include prose in his discussion of the poetic” (47). Prose is given infinitely more space than poetry, which is a serious imbalance. Realism, being presented as modernism’s definitive facet, also makes for a lopsided approach.

The target audience is the widely-read student and reader, provoked into stimulation within her vast prose-dominated terrain. Beckett’s noted phrase about Pound’s ABC of Reading “education through provocation” is the subtext. Realism in modernism is, shown to be a Jamesian hallmark. She sticks by this through Pound’s respect for HJ as “the basis of shared emotional experience,” and emphasizing that James “had never written an unnecessary word” (57). The relegation to pre-history and airbrushing out of Whitman is wholly incorrect, despite her comments that “Dos Passos was more likely to see himself as Walt Whitman instead of Prufrock” (76) and that Agee and (Thomas) Wolfe were “sons” of Walt (143).

African-American glory is well done via Jonathan W. Gray’s landmark The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) edited by James Weldon Johnson, which found ardent readers in the likes of Stein and Hemingway, Paris-based authors far from home who benefitted from “the versatility of black writing.” The émigré American writer is given due benefit in being able to fructify fabulously away from home. Her collectivism of all the writers exemplifying modernist realism is a salient feature, and at its best intoxicating as a theory of literature engulfed in the Zeitgeist.

However, it is not all plain sailing, Sheri Benstock is brought on board for gender balance since “the hegemony of masculine heterosexual values have for so long underwritten our definitions of Modernism” (61). Yes and no – certainly there is equal billing in this book and readers not in the know can discover some brilliant females alongside the long-established bulls. 

Her writers are discussed as multi-genre and being involved with “painting, sculpture, photography, and music” (3). Style becomes the focus of this study where the “image” is central and based by many writers on the impetus from journalism (5). Time is never linear as author prefers fluidity and “imaginative durée” (6) in many of the referenced works. Content tends to be political with stark social commentary: for example, in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), influenced by Madame Bovary and Ibsen’s Ghosts, the heroine chooses “death by drowning” (fearlessly!) rather than domestic life (12). Traditional lines and antecedents are thus noted. However, Dreiser’s realist gloom is hallmark “American,” and is “tinged with sufficient idealism” according to the author (14).

Social history is underpinned by occasional, engaging commentary, as in 25 million immigrants arriving in the US “between 1880-1930” (27): Wagner-Martin footnotes Emma Lazarus’s line “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” on the plinth of the Statue of Liberty as “ironic” (29). For many immigrants, Lady Liberty turned out to have feet of clay, like Shelley’s colossal wreck of Ozymandias. Anzia Yezierska typifies life “being much worse than expected” (28), in her novels Salome of the Tenements (1922) and Arrogant Beggars (1927). The poets’ mission is to be realistic, as in Lola Ridge’s “The Ghetto” and Ruth Lechlitner’s “Lines for an Abortionist’s Office” (30). Wagner-Martin quotes extensively, contrasts, develops in a strongly chronological approach, as if Modernism rolled along, reflecting a coast to coast journey, decade by decade. At least that is the feel of it, as some holdall that had to be pushed onto the disparate material.

Standard modernist poetry is discussed as evolving through the “mythic method” shadowed by “Freud, Jung, Frazer” of The Golden Bough and significant others (49). Whitman is not elevated enough as the vital father and setting off point for “performance and choral” through Robinson, Sandburg, (Vachel) Lindsay, and St. Vincent Millay (52). Wagner-Martin is agreeable and convincingly rooted when commenting on Stein’s aesthetics of cross-genre prose-poetry. Surprisingly, James and O’Neill are skimmed past, while Hemingway is granted exciting pages for the story collection In Our Time (1925) and his method of writing strongly influenced by “Cubism” (66). She highlights the story “Now I Lay Me” (69). Dos Passos is elevated higher than Hemingway by showing that the latter was “inspired,” and moved to create a “mirror image” of Dos (71).

Parallels abound as in Anderson’s Wineburg, Ohio (1919) with Lewis’ Main Street (1920) all referenced through Van Vechten’s “The Revolt from the Village.” Indeed, small town America and the flight from it is a refrain in these texts (82). Faulkner is shown as self-serving, solipsistic, in the best sense, with “that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from. But that’s all right too. It’s America too” (93). His poems are shown as important to his novels – they had taught him “the essentials of writing good prose from his collecting poems into meaningful sequences” (96) and to “create the fiction that used every word” (97). And this fully supports her cross-genre theory that poetry enabled the prose of novelists.

Back up North, the Harlem Renaissance is given full volume in Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Mountain and the Racial Mountain.” Jean Toomer’s short story collection Cane (1922) is hailed as an authentic work, as it was by Countee Cullen, like a “real race contribution, a classic portrayal of things as they are” (116). The chapter is a montage of fine material invoking Hughes’s lines (115):

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?   

It rolls on like the American plains, as she sections the 1930s and 1940s into two neat chapters as closers. Theatre is shown as dialect-authenticated, like for instance Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (1935) is social and political cutting edge and “even Red” like Hellman’s The Children’s Hour; Elmer Rice Street Scene; Dos Passos Airways Inc. (131)

As the catastrophic economic climate emerges in both fiction, (Tom Kromer’s devastating Waiting for Nothing, 1935) and non-fiction (Louis Adamic’s My America, 1928-1938) a statistical approach describes “the ravages of the Depression” (141). James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) accentuates the state of American prose always approaching the poetical: “incremental sentences suggest the writing of both Thomas Wolfe and, more directly, Walt Whitman” (143). Her own irony enters with offside remarks: when FDR was elected president in 1932 she remarks that “beyond any doubt that America was in grave trouble” (153). Her patience will not abide the popular James T. Farrell’s Young Lonigan (1932) “ranked next to the scandalous novels of Henry Miller” (151). Hey, come on, Miller is good.

Altogether, Wagner-Martin brings the reader along without gasping in disbelief, however, close to incredulity occasionally, while s/he is pushed from one critical pronouncement to the next as in “the literary progress of having the Joads leave the desiccation of the Dust Bowl (with its echoes of Eliot’s The Waste Land)” (159). These parallels often make sense eventually, either by time or acceptance, and the same is often expressed of the road to Gatsby’s as a waste land between West Egg and NY, where the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg billboard peers down in a kind of contemporary SpecSavers. She suggests that American Modernism evolved in part from the original frontier wasteland just as literature itself evolved from it, and through it. This is its appeal to the psyche, as in Carlos Williams’s “These” (160):

The year plunges into night
and the heart plunges
lower than night

Jeffers’ “The Answer” addresses the questions of the twentieth century, both as backward glance and forward perspective through modernism: “To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before” (160). She sobers up entering war literature, including Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) “a ‘war novel’ only in the way state and national politics had the power to usurp the rights of private citizens” (164). Realism is political, in this instance.

There is a parade of glorious literature surveyed with perceptions, collisions and strange collusions. She is not prone to wallowing in these, as her closing salient remarks come from Elie Wiesel on the early reception of his Holocaust memoir Night: “the book sold poorly. The subject was considered morbid [...]” (169). Her logic is that the age not so much demanded, as bred the modernist approach to literature as purely realist—but this logic ultimately limits her discussion.