The Modernist Effect

Maybe Walter Benn Michaels is right after all? Gordon Hutner, an English professor at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and founding editor of the journal American Literary History, has just published a book, What America Read: Taste, Class and the Novel 1920-1960, arguing that many American novels dealing with day-to-day life have been neglected in favor of modernist writers whose rhetorical acrobatics were more appealing (and perhaps more remunerative) to academics. In an interview [PDF] facilitated by the publicity department at the University of North Carolina Press, Hutner lists a few of the authors he researched, critically acclaimed in their time but largely ignored now. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of writers I’ve never heard of: The female writers alone include Margaret Barnes, Josephine Lawrence, Margaret Culkin Banning, Caroline Slade, Maritta Wolff, and Margaret Halsey. (It may say something that Elaine Showalter‘s lively, comprehensive history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers, makes no mention of any of these authors.)

As for why they fell by the wayside, Hutner says that their novels address “middle-class experience from a middle-class point of view,” counter to prevailing critical thought. He goes on:

[A]cademe, since the 50s and 60s, has not exerted much interest in this kind of fiction. Such novels do not typically lend themselves to the subtleties of rigorous rhetorical analysis, the methodologies of close reading that form a professor’s specialty. The disciplinary emphasis on major writers or representative writers militates against professors developing too much curiosity over less familiar names. Scores of books on Faulkner, for example—and not all of them consequential—but not very many on intriguing careers like T. S. Stribling or Hamilton Basso. In fact, a junior scholar would have been discouraged from writing a book like mine…

I imagine reviewers and literary bloggers in academia will have plenty to say about this. (I haven’t seen any formal reviews appear online yet.) Regardless, I would love to see Hutner follow through on his suggestion at the end of the interview that his next book might look at fiction from the last ten years through the same filter.

(h/t Neglected Books)

(Brief programming note: Due to travel, review deadlines, laptop malfunctions, a few hiccups in my schedule, and, not least, the happy acquisition of a shelter dog, my blog time has been restricted more than usual for the past few days. Anticipate strangeness here for a bit. But I plan to have the D.C.-Area Readings list updated as usual, and should be back into something resembling a rhythm next week.)

2 responses to “The Modernist Effect

  1. This sounds exactly like the kind of topic that Franco Moretti’s approach to literary study would cover well.

    Thanks for the heads-up on this book–it sounds fascinating and very valuable!

  2. Interesting.

    I’m not sure I see how Hutner’s argument vindicates Mr. Michaels– the implication is that our current criteria for literature (evidently, some combination of a lust for memoir and works that offer an easy, self-serving affirmation of the terrible history of racism and sexism) ignores important work on the evils of capitalism, just as a focus on difficult modernists ignored the meaningful work of writers focused on the ‘day to day, middle-class life’? That sounds good until I consider the ‘who’ of it… Hutner’s claim is that academics preferred the rhetorical hijinks of modernism because there was more fun to be had in interpretation. Isn’t Michael’s call for books concerned with the evils of an ism– really, a Marxist call for Marxist-crit. affirming didacticism– an impulse most associated with, and originating from, the Academy?

    Or, was that your point?

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