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The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language and Twentieth-Century Literature.

Michael North, New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 255 pp. $39.95 cloth/$16.95 paper.

Reviewed by

Susan M. Marren University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

A decade ago, Houston A. Baker, Jr., famously noted that even the most sympathetic chroniclers of the Harlem Renaissance have frequently labeled the period a failure when considering whether it produced "vital original, effective or 'modern' art." The reason for the resoundingly negative assessment, Baker argued, was that the reigning critical paradigm derived from so-called high modernism, which bears no "family" resemblance to "modern Afro-American sound," which is "a function of a specifically Afro-American discursive practice." Baker offered in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) an alternative approach commensurate to the distinctive character of Afro-American expressive culture and its unique history. Since then, a number of studies have emerged that take issue with the ethnic absolutism of such approaches as Baker's, seeking instead to discover how Zora Neale Hurston's "crayon enlargements of life" might teach us about T. S. Eliot's "Shakespeherian Rag."

Michael North's insightful, intelligently argued book The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language and Twentieth-Century Literature is one such study. It explores the relation between black and white modernisms, identifying in these works aesthetic (and political) strategies, many of which recall Baker's brilliant "mastery of form" and "deformation of mastery." Taking stock of white and black modernists' "different stakes in the same language," North argues persuasively that "it is impossible to understand either modernism without reference to the other, without reference to the language they so uncomfortably shared, and to the political and cultural forces that were constricting that language at the very moment modern writers of both races were attempting in dramatically different ways to free it."

North takes a fairly familiar idea - that dialect as a literary form felt liberating to white writers but imprisoning to black - and presses upon it until it reveals broader and deeper implications than were apparent before. He tells the fascinating story of the myriad ways in which white writers modernized themselves by acting black; Pound, Eliot, Stein, Conrad, and Williams strove, he argues, to make modernism into dialect in order to challenge the Anglophilia of their elders. North's investigation of the vital part that racial masking played in the development of modernism exposes the unsavory connections between Anglo Modernism and the imperialism with which it coincided historically. As he points out, following Sara Suleri, European notions of other continents have wavered between the "linked opposites of identity and difference"; "assimilation of the other has no alternative but blank incomprehension." Imperialism could not be justified if the colonial subject could not be articulated as either completely assimilable or completely other. In the imperialist moment it was nearly inevitable that white modernists would choose black dialect and the African mask as signs of their rebellion against the standard English of their elders, and it was also inevitable that this masquerade would replicate the imperialist objectification of the racial alien. In this inhospitable context, North argues, black writers such as Hurston, Toomer, and McKay, trapped by dialect, struggled to make of it a modernism, to use the disjunctive rhythms of dialect to create a modern art.

North unfolds this argument in three sections. The first explores the ironies of the triangular relationship between standardization, dialect, and aesthetic modernism. At the same time that the standard-language movement began to thrive (the 1880s), he points out, so did dialect literature. By 1920, dialect had become solidly established in its equivocal role: On the one hand, it served as the corrupt opposite of "pure" English and, on the other, bewilderingly, as its "natural" form. The second section of the study treats modern expatriates, who share with one another an acute sense of linguistic and cultural disaffinity with their native lands and, born of that sense, an awareness of the "condition of spiritual truancy" in which language exists. The third section deals with American modernists who were not expatriates, but who felt similar linguistic pressures because they insisted on embracing a "plain American" language at this time of "linguistic Anglophilia."

Both black and white writers are discussed in each section of The Dialect of Modernism, yielding some unusual and revealing comparisons, as when Jean Toomer and William Carlos Williams both prove "Strangers in the American Language." North joins a whole wave of critics working on this period who seek to discover how race is a generative category for aesthetic modernism, black and white. The same Oxford University Press series that has published North's book issued Laura Doyle's Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture (1994), a study of the formative influence of nineteenth-century notions of racial patriarchy on modern fiction. Walter Benn Michaels has produced a densely argued and illuminating study entitled Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1996), which argues that the artistic movement of American modernism and the social movement of nativism shared in the 1920s a common purpose: to forge a racially pure American identity. But North's effort may have most in common with Paul Gilroy's insistently transcultural The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993). Indeed, one of the most resonant images in The Dialect of Modernism recalls what Gilroy terms his study's "central organizing symbol": the ship at sea. For both North and Gilroy, the ship under sail captures the spirit of intellectual, geographic, and linguistic mobility characteristic of modernity as their studies imagine it. In The Black Atlantic, the image of the ship calls to mind the history of (forced and voluntary) migrations and the circulation of ideas, activists, and "key cultural and political artefacts" through the Atlantic region. Out of this ferment, vibrant Black Atlantic modernity emerges. In North's rich discussion of Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the "Narcissus" early in The Dialect of: Modernism, the figure of the ship gives rise to a sparkling reflection on the condition of linguistic displacement so commonly shared among modernist writers,' white and black. According to North, The Narcissus is for Conrad a mobile, polyglot linguistic community in which language properly belongs only to "linguisters," castaways whose position between the cultures they translate gives them insight into the infinite fungibility of language. But at the same time, North notes, Conrad's ship is a metaphorical England, which will be safe only when racial aliens have been thrown overboard.

For North, the paradox figured by The Narcissus - that it represents both a space of racial-linguistic purity and a space wherein no such purity whatsoever can exist - is paradigmatic of modernism. Aesthetic modernism arose, North argues, from white artists' deeply ambivalent feelings about race. Stein and Picasso adopted African masks, and Eliot and Pound "black" dialect, in order to free themselves from domination by European tradition. But he points out that the mask of the racial alien enticed them for two contradictory reasons: because African art and Afro-American dialect represented to them the most crudely primal of all accessible realities and thus could defend them against the artificiality of modern life and because, conversely, that same art and dialect struck them as the height of arbitrary convention. Masking themselves as black enabled them to play at recreating their identities - implying that racial identity itself might be only a matter of masking, pure convention. On the other hand, the most subversive implications of this idea were blunted because these white artists could at the same time rest easy in the assumption that in fact they had not sacrificed the privilege of their whiteness; after all, these were only masks Thus the mask functions, North notes, to "focus the natural and the arbitrary in a single spot" When critics fail to recognize this paradox, as when we read these artists' uses of the black mask as either crude racism or aesthetic sophistication, we blind ourselves - as the artists themselves did - to the truly "radical effect of racial difference on the representational schemes of modern art."

North's discussion of this radical effect culminates in an exposition of the linguistic theory that Zora Neale Hurston's essays and fiction advance. This theory refuses to recognize the nature and convention dichotomy according to which black culture - even by the measure of its most sympathetic critics, as Baker has observed - fails to produce "vital original, effective or 'modern' art." The Negro lacks originality, the prejudice asserts; but Hurston rejects the very notion of originality on which this judgment rests, and so turns the tables. The origin, she argues, is irrecoverable; all modernity inescapably suffers from belatedness. Thus, the most original artist is the one who most thoroughly modifies the derivative material at hand. In this light, dialect can never be dismissed as merely an inept imitation of the standard. Hurston thus effectively obviates the nature-convention polarity that tyrannizes over aesthetic and political judgment and traps black writers.

Over the course of The Dialect of Modernism, a number of concepts that have become central to the study of modernism and modernity emerge newly constellated: principally dialect, expatriation, and masquerade. All of these are border phenomena, each implying the "linked opposites of identity and difference" in its own way: standard and nonstandard language, native and foreign lands, authentic self and assumed disguise. The very notion of masquerade implies the existence of a natural identity, expatriation . . . a native land, dialect . . . a pure, original language But as North points out, each of these can also, contradictorily, suggest that no such "nature" exists. Therefore in adopting racial masquerade as their means of rebelling against the Anglophilia of their elders, white American modernists both assumed the existence of natural racial differences and suggested that racial identity might be merely a matter of shuttling back and forth between disguises. The latter possibility opens up a space wherein black writers are no longer pawns in white modernists' exploration of the sign - the "racial alien" whose identity Stein or Eliot dons as disguise - but makers of representations themselves. By interrogating such concepts as dialect and mimicry, North raises the question of how central the nature-convention dichotomy is to the whole phenomenon of modernity and to what modernists, black and white, were doing. North's considerable contribution in this book is to focus our attention on this question rather than allowing us to continue to have our concepts of Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance structured by this falsifying nature-convention polarity.

North demonstrates in The Dialect of Modernism the richness of the intercultural perspective, the promise of such work, and also, perhaps, its dangers Its very breadth might from some points of view be a drawback; the book itself, with its many and varied readings, might strike some readers as too loosely structured. But this approach is refreshingly non-reductive, commensurate to the complexity of the knot of issues he explores here. After one reads The Dialect of Modernism, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance come to seem bracingly relevant to one another. North's work encourages an awareness of what America is just now noticing: The "family" is not racially pure, culturally insular. He reveals the inescapable hybridity of the family, of the nation, of modern American literature.
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Author:Marren, Susan M.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
Words:1839
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