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American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism, 1885-1917.

In one of the often piquant asides addressed to his readers, Robert M. Crunden complains off-handedly that "too much literary history has text speaking to text in a contextual vacuum". This unobtrusive homily is, in fact, the premise for Crunden's monumental kaleidoscope American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism, 1885-1917. For Crunden envisions modernism as a rich canvas of individual personalities, interacting and influencing each other in cities as provincial as Baltimore and as cosmopolitan as Paris. His work reflects his enthusiasm for the individual artist in his concrete "contextual" place, just as his ideological basis is a deliberate decision to avoid the pitfalls of poststructural theorizing. These choices are the focus for a very compelling, well peopled, and, at times, provocative book. But they bind Crunden's study as well. American Salons fails, in the end, to address the ambiguity of modernism itself, just as the book's actors often fail to fit into the parameters of Crunden's definition of a modernist.

American Salons is based on the format of Crunden's Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1910 (1982), an analysis of progressivism as a "climate" of cultural creativity that is grounded on biographical sketches of the major Progressives. In Ministers of Reform, Crunden's affection for his cast and his propensity for the artist signals his inclusion of seemingly unaligned "modernists" in American Salons. Crunden creates a schema dictated by his definition of the modernist (chiefly the profile of the avant-garde iconoclast) and manipulates this profile to embrace figures as diverse as Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry in Chicago; Jelly Roll Morton, the innovator of ragtime in New Orleans; Mack Sennett, the creator of slapstick comedy in Los Angeles; and Robert Frost, the New Hampshire poet. Crunden explores the late nineteenth century too, naming James Whistler, and William and Henry James as "precursors," thus extending his thematic argument into the Victorian epoch. There are, of course, the stock characters we might expect: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Leo and Gertrude Stein, Alfred Stieglitz, Mable Dodge, Sherwood Anderson, and Walter and Louise Arensberg.

What holds such a wide-ranging and inventive epic together is Crunden's thesis: American modernists were inheritors of an "oppressive bourgeois democracy"; as such, they were "outsiders . . . a collection of the excluded" who, by necessity, needed a connection to Europe as "alternatives to conventional American life". "One good definition of modernism," writes Crunden, "is thus a collection of various languages, or means of expression, which outsiders developed to express their sense of alienation." Modernism, for Crunden, was a "stance," which, in its American version, "distrusted authority, scorned politics, and feared boredom more than hell". American modernists borrowed most of their ideas from Europe, Crunden asserts (though admitting the exportation of film techniques and jazz improvisation to Europe), and American Salons is the chronology of American rebellion, vignettes of groupings, friendships, and the correspondence of an artistic avant-garde that nurtured its belief from European models.

Crunden frames his argument in five episodes. Book 1, "Three Precursors," is dedicated to Whistler as an innovator in personal style and to the James brothers as purveyors of a new sense of consciousness and moral drama. Book 2 traces the origin of "modern" in the "provincial" cities of America--Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Hollywood, and in "German Baltimore." Crunden targets the beginnings of three poets in Philadelphia (Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, and William Carlos Williams) as he traces the development of the "marginal institutions" in Chicago, the Friday Literary Review, Poetry, and the Little Review. Crunden explores the innovative experiments in jazz and film in New Orleans and Hollywood, as he reviews "German Baltimore" as the nurturing sphere for Gertrude Stein and Henry Louis Mencken.

With this grounding, Crunden shifts across the ocean in books 3 and 4, following Ezra Pound's connection to the London salons of William Butler Yeats and Ford Maddox Ford and the Paris milieu of Leo and Gertrude Stein. This umbrella format allows Crunden to introduce such personalities as the English poet F. S. Flint, the photographer Edward Steichen, and the little known Morgan Russell, a Synchromist painter, and, as might be expected, Max Weber and Marsden Hartley. Within this cosmopolitan setting, the European "modernists" (Picasso, Matisse, Rousseau, Kandinsky) make brief but salient appearances.

Following his chronological narrative, Crunden returns to the New York scene in book 5. Interesting accounts of the worlds of Alfred Stieglitz, Mable Dodge, and the Arensbergs up to 1917 complete a picture of Crunden's modernists. The wide-ranging New York set include Gertrude Kasebier, the photographer, Wait Kuhn and the Armory Show contestants, Georgia O'Keeffe, Eugene O'Neill and the Provincetown Players, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, and William Carlos Williams. With the advent of World War I, however, "grim times were ahead," concludes Crunden. "Art would never recover the certainties of nineteenth-century form, content, or diction," he adds.

Such an overview can accommodate a variety of characters, but it contains as well its own internal weakness. Crunden's referral to nineteenth-century "certainties," for instance, is an example of the glib oversimplification which sometimes punctuates this impressive book (America, to Crunden, is placidly homogeneous, "a cultural backwater in art, and a society devoted to the accumulation of wealth," p. 288). Crunden's use of a static antithesis, the "oppressive bourgeois democracy" of the late nineteenth century, to highlight his modernist actors fails to gesture toward the complex interrelationship between society and the artistic avant-garde as it denies the contradictory (and rebellious) impulses in early-nineteenth-century thought (Cesar Grana in Modernity and Its Discontents, for instance, finds a literary defiance of modern culture as early as the 1830s). Crunden speaks in general terms of "the moral chaos of modernity" and catalogs his modernists as a uniform band "forever on the fringes of bourgeois society, but never feeling at home anywhere", as thriving on "hostility to institutions, to authority, to hypocrisy". Yet, aware of paradoxes too, Crunden lists the "modernist experience" as "non-conformity within conformity, deviance within normality, of hostility to capitalism within capitalism, of cosmopolitanism within provincialism". Crunden explains later in the book, "The theme which recurs so often in the study of modernism: the same only different"(1)

Perhaps Crunden's ambivalence toward his framing ideology is a cursory nod to the larger debates on modernism which Crunden fails to address (or to footnote). I suspect this may have been deliberate, for the literature on modernism is often contradictory and diffuse. Daniel Joseph Singal, for instance, challenges Crunden's view of modernism as "negative and rebellious in character," seeing modernist thought, not as "moral chaos" but as "an attempt to restore a sense of order." But Singal too cannot avoid the tendency to generalize about a static Victorianism (an era of "illusion, gentility . . . innocence") when confronted with the "'reality' [of modernism] in all its depths and complexity." Certainly the thrusts at Victorianism so commonplace today (I am thinking of Richard Wightman Fox's subtle attack on Victorian "innocence" with his analysis of the Beecher-Tilton affair) make any simplistic dichotomy between a bourgeois middle-class Victorian ethos and an avant-garde modern rebellion suspect.(2)

Indeed, to some historians, the role of the avant-garde has often been seen as complementary to bourgeois society, a role denied to Crunden's intellectuals. The avant-garde can be a source of bourgeois renewal, as Jerrold Seigel points out in his study of nineteenth-century Parisian bohemianism; Andreas Huyssen argues that the late-nineteenth-century avant-garde aimed, not at alienation, but at a "relationship" between high art and mass culture. Certainly the plethora of works linking the avant-garde to the culture industry (Tom Crow labels the avant-garde as the "research and development" of the culture industry) might have been addressed. Similarly the rebel as "scientific intellectual," men like John Dewey and even William James, represent another strain of protest grounded in, not the alienated artist, but in a communal (and bourgeois) faith in science (a "community of knowers," notes David A. Hollinger).(3)

This lack of nuance is, one suspects, derivative of Crunden's biographical bent and of his heavy reliance on archival sources. This study is a monumental tour de force in research, and the decision to ignore a complicated ideological argument may be correct when foregrounding so many individuals. Crunden makes extensive use of the resources at his University of Texas, as well as the Yale Library and the Smithsonian Institution. Since primary sources (especially quotations from correspondences and journals) form the bulk of the text, American Salons emerges as a social narrative. The detail is fascinating and the cast of characters changing and diverse. But, because Crunden highlights the intricate movements, the links of gossipy letters, the off-hand comments from journals and diaries to portray his personae, one cannot expect the sharper analytic texture of, say, Christopher Lasch's compelling sexual odyssey of Mable Dodge Luhan nor the intricate dialogue Jackson Lears spots in Sherwood Anderson between what Jurgen Habermas labels as "undistorted speech situation" and what Lears tags as "the developing culture of chatter."(4)

Moreover, there is scant description of the physical milieu of the salons. One has little feeling for the urban spaces themselves and little conception of what "salons" are per se. Since Crunden has defined his modernists as those alienated from bourgeois society, there is a strange sense of suspension--no grounding in popular culture nor in popular art forms that were also countermovements during this time, the Arts and Crafts Movement, for example. Crunden, in fact, dismisses popular culture as irrelevant ("yet as is so frequently the case in cultural history," Crunden notes of Henry James, "the work seemed influential almost in inverse proportion to its public acceptance," p. 78). The title is somewhat misleading as well, for Crunden fails to define European modernism anywhere in the text, nor does he underscore the significance of the "encounters" between Americans and Europeans. There are tantalizing gestures toward, for instance, the effect of jazz on Ravel or the consequences of the visual distortion of Sennett's films on the styles of e.e. cummings, Apollinaire, and the Dada group in Switzerland, but these interesting connections are dropped after one sentence.

Yet these omissions should not obscure the contributions of this book, a compelling digestion of masses of primary material--a major feat in itself. The author is widely read in secondary sources, primarily background material on art and film history, literary criticism, and biography. It is refreshing to have attention devoted to music, an area sometimes marginalized by historians, and the introduction of new locales and new perspectives provides a moving narrative. The reader is introduced to a myriad of fascinating human detail, indicative of the infectious mind of the chronicler (extracted from William Carlos Williams's journal is a vignette of Hilda Doolittle taking boiling water to her astronomer husband "to thaw the hairs of his whiskers that during the night-long vigil had become frozen to the eyepiece of the machine," p. 98). Crunden has plumbed some well-known relationships with wonderful new insights: there is a very convincing analysis of Gertrude Stein's introduction of William James's work to Picasso and Crunden foregrounds F. S. Flint (over T. E. Hulme) as an important figure in the story of Imagism and Ezra Pound. Crunden's idiosyncratic writing style can be both refreshing and annoying. By flinging startling juxtapositions (researchers in universities are "harmless drudges" while Pound cleans up "the slosh of English prose" and produces "occasional howlers", Crunden predictably enervates the analysis of his exhaustive, and perhaps tedious, archival research. The sheer enthusiasm of the author, in the end, pardons him from his admitted inclusion of figures that barely fit into the mold of his modernist definition: Crunden himself confesses that adding Mack Sennett to a study of modernism has "problematic elements" and the introduction of New Orleans is a means, I suspect, to include ragtime and jazz--which might be better understood as popular social movements rather than as "intellectual salons." But for those who accept Crunden on his own terms (and even for those who won't), American Salons offers a compelling, well documented story of both personalities and ideas that conveys the complex connections between European and American intellectuals as they began a modern age.

1. Cesar Grana, Modernity and its Discontents, French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century (1967).

2. Daniel Joseph Singal, "Towards a Definition of American Modernism," in Singal, ed., Modernist Culture in America (1991), pp. 3, 13. Richard Wightman Fox, "Intimacy on Trial, Cultural Meanings of the Beecher-Tilton Affair," in Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Power of Culture, Critical Essays in American History (1993), pp. 103-35.

3. Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris, Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930 (1986). Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide, Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986), p. viii. Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1992). Thomas Crow, "Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts," in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbaut and David Solkin, eds., Modernism and Modernity (1983), p. 253. David A. Hollinger, "The Knower and the Artificer," in Singal, ibid., 43.

4. Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963, The Intellectual as a Social Type (1965), pp. 104-40. T. J. Jackson Lears, "Sherwood Anderson, Looking for the White Spot," in Fox and Lears, ibid., pp. 13-39. Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle, A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1991, reprint of 1931 edition), pp. 237-56. Carolyn Burke, "Getting Spliced: Modernism and Sexual Difference," in Singal, ibid., pp. 126-57.

Mary W. Blanchard, Department of History, Rutgers University, is the author of "Anglo-American Aesthetes and Native Indian Corn: Candace Wheeler and the Revision of American Nationalism," Journal of American Studies (December 1993) and is completing a manuscript on the Aesthetic Movement as popular culture in America.
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Author:Blanchard, Mary W.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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