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Peter Nichols, Modernisms: A Literary Guide 2nd edition (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2009), Page 406, ISBN 97802305067563.


The book Modernisms is Peter Nicholls's analytic account of the main modernist movements. In the book, Nichols offers a close reading of the conceptual accounts of Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. In the writer's own words: "I have tried to provide a conceptual map of the different modernist movements" (from preface). The new edition in 2009 (first edition in 1995) includes discussions of recent interest in modernisms, its developments in the United States, and an additional chapter on African-American modernism. This inclusion easily gives readers a sense of ever growing diversity and fascination toward modernist studies in recent years. As Nichols clarifies in his preface to the second edition, he has concentrated on the European modernist movements even though he is aware that there are voices for "geomodernisms" and "alternative modernitites."

Literally, modernism is a European and Anglo-American phenomenon. But what cultural contacts modernisms made in European colonies is a huge and tough question. I cannot ask this question to the writer here because as he made clear in the preface, his aim is to focus on what forms of experimental practices and concepts were entailed in each major European modernist movement. Nicholls brings us great experiments of the modernist movements with a greater clarity and insight. It is not easy to grasp such a complex phenomena like European modernisms. So, Nicholls' greatness in this book lies in his critical effort to map out the histories and "metaphysics" of avant-garde movements. Nicholls dazzlingly explores the complex relationship between "politics and literary style" in the construction of various modernisms. The writer does not put emphasis on Anglo-American modernisms such as neoimpressionism, neocubism, neorealism (however, I believe that such movements are global phenomena rather than mere Anglo-American ones as some tend to think, because such movements especially in art are still going on in geographies like Nepal, India etc) etc . So the book cannot be said to be complete without incorporating comprehensive discussions of these forms of modernism even if I agree it is not possible to accomplish such an ambitious project in a single book. However, I am not making this an issue because Nicholls has sufficiently clarified his position in the preface that his aim is to concentrate on "formation and evolution of early [European] modernism. . .prior to those of the thirties" (from preface).

What really impressed me about the book is Nicholls' capacity to offer a compact and comprehensive yet in-depth critical analysis of histories of various avant-gardes. This is part of the reason the book is classic. Maybe this is why Nicholls has license to claim that the book is not merely a "documentary survey." While it is not a survey, it is certainly, as an acclaimed modernist scholar Marjorie Perloff writes on the blurb, "the single biggest study of literary modernism."

The other aspect of the book that fascinates me is that Nicholls successfully counter-argues to all postmodernist and other claims that modernism is a monolithic, reactionary and even anti-social movement. As we clearly observe in the book book's treatment of the radical political ambition of young and enthusiastic avant-garde artists, evident in their dazzling combination of political radicalism with artistic innovation, we find that modernism is widely diverse and essentially social. Nichols states "... the achievement of the avant-garde ... is to call into question the very institution of art, to undermine aesthetic autonomy by seeking to make art part of the 'praxis of life'" (107). As the writer has illustrated, modernism is an ever diverse, radical and unique movement in the European history.

In the end, I hope that Peter Nicholls will incorporate ever emerging diverse forms of modernism on the global screen (certainly not only on European and Anglo-American screen) in his oncoming editions(if any) of the book. Maybe add new chapters on Asian-American modernism, Asian modernism, African modernism, Caribbean modernism etc.

Reviewed by Yubraj Aryal, Purdue University
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Author:Aryal, Yubraj
Publication:Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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