African, Native, and Jewish American Literature and the Reshaping of Modernism.
Reviewed by Rachel Leah Jablon, University of Maryland
Alicia A. Kent examines six novels of the early twentieth century through the lenses of modernity and Modernism in African, Native, and Jewish American Literature and the Reshaping of Modernism. While Kent considers "modernity" to be the advent of technology and industry represented by significant migrations, intercultural interactions, and artistic experimentation, she names "Modernism" as the specific cultural movement that responded to such changes (163m). Her main argument is that those artists previously thought to provide an "antithesis" to the Modernist movement (4)--those who seem to conform to conventional artistic forms and narratives rather than resist them--are actually quite modern in their own right. She claims, "African, Native, and Jewish American writers confronted a crisis of representation parallel to that of the Modernist writers, and, also like the Modernists, they envisioned art as a response to the fragmentation of the modern world" (17). Even though most scholars, according to Kent, may understand that these three communities wanted to conform rather than experiment, their art takes the shape of novels that appropriate and challenge the genre's status quo and should thus be considered Modernist in its own way.
Buttressed by a thorough introduction and a relatively meager conclusion, five chapters on African, Native, and Jewish American literatures--all published between 1901 and 1937--offer exegeses of six novels Kent believes are paradigmatic of both the period and the respective ethnic American communities they primarily portray. Discussions of Charles Chestnutt's The Marrow of Tradition and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God comprise the chapter on African American literature, Mourning Dove's Cogewea, The Half-Blood and D'Arcy McNickle's The Surrounded the chapter on Native American literature, and Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky and Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers the chapter on Jewish American literature. These texts, according to Kent, "reshaped modernism" by blending and blurring cultures, languages, genres, literature and anthropology, rural and urban sensibilities, and gender roles (25).
In fact, gender would seem to be of importance to Kent, considering that women authored three of the six novels in Kent's discussion. Unfortunately, because Kent's project surrounds the writers' choices to employ a literary form usually thought to alienate the members of their respective ethnic American communities, she does not address the significance of the authors' gender (7). Yes, Their Eyes Were Watching Cod, Cogewea, and Bread Givers do epitomize Kent's argument that Modernism is not necessarily indicative of a chasm between the present and the past and that, perhaps counterintuitively, it is an acknowledgement of the past's inescapability. Yet another reason for considering these texts together could be that their female authors took especial advantage of the opportunities afforded them by modernity. For example, Kent reports that Yezierska "benefited from Modernist experimentation" because it validated her desire to write about Jewish immigrant women (147), but she does not expound on the alternative, which would be Yezierska being silenced by the normative chauvinism of the time.
Central to Kent's work is Michael T. Taussig's redefinition of "mimesis." Kent's interests do not necessarily lie in the understanding that mimesis is "realism's attempt to represent a direct imitation of reality in writing" but in "the human tendency to imitate and be like the Other in situations of cross-cultural contact" (47). Each of the six novels depicts such mimetic behaviors of its characters--the protagonists all, in some way, attempt to embody their societies' ideals--ranging from adopting a particular vocabulary to performing certain work. Yet, ironically, Kent does not apply this concept to women writing novels, as one might expect. She writes that the six authors "offer alternative portraits [of their compatriots] that countered the dehumanizing, static images that were portrayed" in mainstream art forms (21). If Hurston, Mourning Dove, and Yezierska felt the need to represent women as sophisticated, sentient beings (as they do in their novels), perhaps they mimicked male writers--the women's "Other"--in the exertion of their literary voices. By extension, then, their novels forge even more complex shapes out of concepts of Modernism than Kent articulates. The role of gender for Hurston, Mourning Dove, and Yezierska may therefore be an interesting topic for Kent's next exploration of nonconventional Modernist work.
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|Author:||Jablon, Rachel Leah|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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