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High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture, 1889-1939.

MARIA DIBATTISTA and LUCY MCDIARMID (edd.). Pp. x+260. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. [pounds]37.50.

Choose a month in modern English literary history, for our purposes between 1889 and 1939. Choose then, at random, half a dozen journals and original sources through which to examine that period of time. We might find, among other things, T. S. Eliot and the author of Mary Poppins on the board of the New English Weekly, or Thomas Hardy suggesting titles to Ezra Pound. We might find a number of well-known writers expressing admiration for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: not only Galsworthy, Wells, Bennett, and Strachey, but Eliot, Joyce, Aiken, Faulkner, and Hemingway as well. What emerges is unsettling to the anthologist, the critic, the historian. Prior to their efforts of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance - which is primarily how the period is studied - it is possible to see the immense panorama upon which their intelligence must make provisional discriminations. After our experiment, the firmament is more cluttered than we are comfortable with. The new bearings in English poetry appear, perhaps, less new and less like bearings than some would have it. If this spatial paradigm fails to satisfy - as does the opposition of the terms 'high' and 'low' in modernism - the vocabulary of hypertext is here auspicious. There is a vast, complex, and largely unmapped web of links between the high modernists of the textbooks, and the hundreds of influences, proclivities, and flirtations common to the social economy of any period. Making the connections of high and low explicit and navigable will revitalize those categories for literary study. It should be the ongoing project for serious research in this field.

The introduction to High and Low Moderns proposes to inaugurate 'a "new" cultural studies'. The word 'culture' is called upon to 'diffuse the hostility between high and low' or, in the cant of the introduction, its 'conflictual binarism'. Culture here becomes grounds and occasion (lately presumed lost) for speaking about aesthetic values, and recognizing literature 'as both an imaginative act and a historical fact of expression'. 'Binarism' aside, this is a refreshing idea. What we expect next is a new dispensation for high and low in modernism to be founded upon the plenitude of facts: to bring into the light the uncharacteristic affiliations between monumental works of the 'old high moderns' and their profuse, eccentric, and often shocking surroundings. Such a manoeuvre warrants a much-needed return to primary sources. It means a reconsideration of high and low within a fuller account of their intersections.

Half the contributors to High and Low Moderns rise to this challenge. The editors certainly understand the project. Lucy McDiarmid's essay on Lady Gregory and popular poetry begins by extricating her from the Yeats-Synge-Gregory formula and placing her amid 'demotic' Irish nationalism from the late 1880s. The essay shows us crowds of poets, publishers, and politicians in Lady Gregory's vicinity, and interprets her part in a way which expands those links without attempting to minimize the Yeats-Synge connection. In fact, the best essays of the collection illuminate new areas without playing at irrelevant point-scoring. Maria DiBattista's essay on modernism and detective fiction is another exemplary contribution. Detective novels interested a surprising number of modernist writers (Eliot reviewed over three dozen), and this is an area that should be rigorously explored.

An equally helpful piece is Wait Litz's brief essay on Florence Farr, not only revealing her scarcely mentioned creative connections to Yeats, Shaw, and Pound, but also outlining her activism in the early years of the century and reprinting related literary reviews from the New Age. It is precisely the kind of expansion of high and low advocated by the book's editors.

A number of the essays do not take on the purview of the book's introduction, however, failing to extricate us from that regrettable 'binarism' of high and low creativity without making pronouncement 'on the character of the age'. Almost immediately we are confronted by Ulysses, 'the quintessential modern novel' and (two pages later) Lytton Strachey, the 'modernist' capable of having 'finished off Queen Victoria'. If there is a quintessential definition of modernism which encompasses both Strachey and Ulysses, its argument betrays the theme of the book. Similar statements, arising again and again, hinder the kind of diverse recognitions about the period which the editors rightly encourage. An essay applying the new ecological criticism to Edward Thomas argues a familiar 'binarism' - that modernism fetishizes the city and 'neglects nature poetry'. A straw target is hit but an opportunity missed. The student of the period needs to know that, after Thomas, the urban little magazines of the 1920s and 1930s (on the right and left) perpetuated an international organic revival, and that many high modernists fostered eclectic ecological interests. On a similar note, the several passing references to cinema in the collection miss - in this age of film studies - the opportunity to re-examine the interest of the high moderns in popular film: Joyce's establishment of the first Dublin cinema, Eliot's writings on Charlie Chaplin, and Woolf's theory of a film aesthetic are only the obvious examples. Dozens more are worthy of the book's attention.

The generalizations about high and low modernism in much of this collection distract from the admirable and much-needed research outlined and given example by the editors. An over-reliance upon secondary interpretations may be one explanation for the tendency of some essays to fall short of this ideal. The approach advocated in the introduction depends largely upon a scholarly return to the sources connecting the modernist web, sources often masked by secondary criticism. For such an ambitious project, the book's somewhat scatter-shot coverage of the period raises the question whether a more restricted subject-matter, or a more comprehensive collection, would have been preferable.

JOSEPH DINUNZIO Christ Church Oxford
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Dinunzio, Joseph
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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