Marketing Modernism Between the Two World Wars.
In the years since Andreas Huyssen posed his theory of modernism's complex and often oppositional relationship to mass culture in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism (1986), scholars have challenged the idea that literary modernism transcended the commercial concerns central to mass marketing in the early 20th century. With attention to the practices of patronage, the publication of high-priced limited editions, and the proliferation of little reviews, books like Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Stephen Watt's collection Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading (1996) and Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (1998) give currency to the notion that even authors most vocally opposed to mass culture marketed themselves and their work. Marketing Modernism Between the Two World Wars places Catherine Turner among the ranks of critics who respond to Huyssen by exploring the commodification of modernist texts. While some work has been done tracing the relationships between individual authors and their publishers, Turner, looks at five American publishers side-by-side, usefully and interestingly analyzing their ideas about the dissemination of modernist fiction. By making the publishers and not the authors the primary points of comparison in this important contribution to modernist studies, Turner finally shows us the other side of the coin that modernism made.
Publishers used advertising to convince their readership that modernism Is good for you if used correctly, Turner explains. But who this "you" was and what constituted correct use varied according to publisher. Benjamin Huebsch believed that in the market for culture, face-to-face exchange was the only appropriate form of promotion. He encouraged booksellers to bring modernist literature to the proper readers and advertised less than other publishing houses. When he did advertise, Turner argues, he did not try to expand his readership, but "tailor[ed] his appeals depending on the type of highbrow reader he felt the advertisement would reach" (57). While Huebsch's "unwillingness to commercialize art" garnered him cultural capital, he was "not able to convert it to economic capital" (46). Alfred Knopf also revered literature, Turner writes, but he sold it like Campbell's soup by using catchy slogans and his very own brand, Borzoi Books, to reach more readers. He believed that American literary taste was improving, and he crafted his firm's idea of quality to meet the literary desires of the middle class. By building a name and persona for himself, Knopf was able to bring Thomas Mann, an obscure German writer, into the American mainstream. Alfred Harcourt, of Harcourt Brace and Company, shared with Knopf the idea that more Americans sought good literature, and he believed that modernism was widely marketable. After the war, readers hoped to put their education to use, he thought, and they wished to read authors who would "challenge European dominance of culture" (112). But, Turner claims, Harcourt knew these readers Weren't ready for the formal innovations of Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos, so he marketed their books as "novels of ideas." He used The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to ease readers into The Making of Americans, and offered up Dos Passos's 1919 as an historical novel about the present and not as a piece of experimental fiction.
Turner turns next to Charles Scribner's publication of Ernest Hemingway's fiction, in a chapter that credits Scribner's not just with promoting modernism's already palatable features, but with changing Americans' very taste for modernism. Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins, in other words, did not hide what Turner calls the modern aspects of Hemingway's fiction, but carefully convinced readers that these aspects made Hemingway's novels good. Rather than playing down, for example, Hemingway's association with expatriates, his taboo subject matter, or his direct style--all of which Perkins believed would clash with Americans' idea of good literature-Perkins made these features seem necessary to worthwhile reading. He did this, of course, using a highly orchestrated marketing campaign. Perkins afforded Hemingway integrity by presenting his writing as "from experience" (151). He capitalized on Hemingway's public persona and adorned Hemingway's books with classical images to promote him as serious and masculine, but "not overly literary or intellectual" (151). Perkins used Scribner's Magazine and the testimony of "distinctly un-modern critics" to legitimate Hemingway's subjects and style (152). Perkins saw, Turner argues, that Hemingway could have easily been consigned to an elite readership, but taught the public to appreciate what they might otherwise shun. It is in this chapter that the implications of Turner's analysis are greatest; for it is here that she grants her subjects--the publishers of modernist literature--the most agency in changing how modernism was consumed.
In "How to Enjoy James Joyce's Great Novel Ulysses" Turner tells the now-familiar story of limited and pirated editions at length. More interestingly, however, she examines the reader's guide to the novel that, to Joyce's dismay, Random House published in the form of an advertisement. One more instance of how publishers coached readers to take on modernism, this guide leaves us with the important reminder that though publishers sold modernism and authors reaped the royalties, authors' attitudes toward marketing were often ambivalent.
What was common to all five publishers, according to Turner, was their commitment to "literature of quality," which they needed to disconnect from the idea of highbrow literature in order to sell books. Proving that marketing practices--particularly advertising--were consistent across brow levels, Turner explodes, once and for all, the idea that the interesting stories about marketing modernism are all about little reviews and limited editions. It is surprising, therefore, that in spite of Turner's effective devaluing of brow distinctions, and her unflagging commitment to the idea that publishers could influence which texts were seen as quality literature, Turner treats the category of modernism as a remarkably stable one in Marketing Modernism. She seems to write as if modernism existed fully-formed before it reached editors and publishers. In "Harcourt and the American Avant-Garde," for example, Turner compares Harcourt's marketing of the work of "modern writers" to his advertising of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. Whether or not we now read Lewis as a modernist--and we don't, usually--the distinction deserves further interrogation here. Turner defines her use of the term modern--anchoring her definition in the writings of Marshall Berman, Rainey, and others--but she just begins to theorize the concept in the context of her own argument. It is only due to the strength of Turner's analysis that conclusions about publishers' power to determine not only what got read, but also what counted as modernist then and now, seem strangely absent.
Marketing Modernism consolidates a great deal of biographical and archival material and presents it in the form of a highly readable yet nuanced argument. In Turner's careful close reading--and reproduction--of a host of intriguing advertisements, she fruitfully examines assumptions about the new movement in literature held by both publishers and readers in the 1920s and 1930s. Turner is rightfully wary of drawing direct causal relationships between publishers' specific marketing strategies and sales of modernist fiction in the United States. But she affords convincing weight to the cumulative strength of these strategies--and the powerful personalities and value systems of the publishers who implemented them--to determine how, when, why, and to what extent Americans would read the authors who today firmly hold positions in the canon of modernism. The book is, indeed, a very significant contribution to recent criticism that dismantles the idea of modernism's antagonistic relationship with consumer culture in which selling books always means selling out.
--Rebecca Berne, Yale University
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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