To London, with Love: On or About 100 Years Ago

Ivan Lett

Virginia Woolf declared in her essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” that “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” There is hardly a better way to describe the dilemma of art in the Modernist period. The mere mention of Mrs.Woolf, her husband Leonard, E.M. Forster, and their Woolf colleagues in the Bloomsbury Group, and other British Modernist contemporaries—Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Irishman James Joyce—leaves me with a dazed and far off look in my eyes, as I mentally drift into their now classic writing. Complete with head tilt.

Modernist studies are all the rage now, and thank goodness. There is no better gift. Here at the turn of another century (a new millennium isn’t really helpful for comparing our societies), we are faced with rapid changes in digital technologies, environmentalism, not to mention the coined term “globalization” and all that it now implies. It seems a mirror of the early twentieth-century growth in industrialization, inter-political reconstitutions, and breaks with traditional form. Today, perhaps more than ever, we are consumed by Pound’s prescription to “Make it new!”

For Modernists, the change was often painful, and Modernism, their response, but I don’t see why the comfort or embrace of a changing world should preclude the distinction of modernism in our present setting. Or maybe I enjoy the Internet too much to sincerely feel its pains. We all live and What Ever Happened to Modernism participate in contemporary society; artists today, pained or otherwise, use the changing world as a canvas of ideas, as they have now for centuries. I will refer you to Tom McCarthy’s more eloquent defense of these ideas in his Guardian review of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?

A few months ago I was lucky enough to briefly chat about the subject with Jonathan Brent, Director of the YIVO institute and former Editorial Director here at Yale Press. He noted the focal intensity on Anglo-American subjects of Modernism, and I confessed to a certain stubbornness to deviate from that path.

In a lot of ways, that is simply my excuse for not pursuing Modernism in other nations more actively, a way of covering my own ignorance. Truth is: it’s not so difficult to entice me. Last year, I read the beautifully written biography Why This World, by Benjamin Moser, about the Brazilian Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction: Robert Scholes novelist Clarice Lispector. Lispector, by chronological literary classification, was not a Modernist herself, but Moser brings out the Modernist influence evident in her work. In what was perhaps a backwards trajectory of approach, I read Why This World, then Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and finally the definitively Modern text from which the novel’s title is derived: Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. I’m looking forward to a title in our pipeline, a study of the Uruguayan poet, Delmira Agustini, by Cathy Jrade, tentatively titled Delmira Agustini: A Modernista on Her Own Terms. (I borrowed a copy of Agustini’s poetry from our director and the book’s editor some time ago, and they are no doubt wondering where it has gone.) But I want more. Give me your Agustinis, Hamsuns, Apollinaires, Kafkas, Contemporáneos, Lorcas, Rilkes, and all the “little” Modernists, translated, selected, complete, I don’t care. Publish them.

 But I could never supplant my Anglos and Americans. I mean to suggest anything but the fact that this hegemony exists without its problems. In fact, I find it difficult to reconcile either extremist Cezanne and American Modernism: Gail Stavitsky and Katherine Rothkopf view—that American culture rightly and necessarily dominates or that other nations are forcibly imposed upon to accept it—only because things are rarely that cut and dry. I look to other Modernists to enhance my understanding of the complex message that my old-time favorites were trying to relay. Art in its best form occurs in conversation with itself and between its creators. Shared influences and experiences come together to build new expressions; Pound would be proud.

For all these reasons, it is my great pleasure to share an uncorrected preview of a forthcoming title from our Spring 2011 list: Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture, by Richard Pells, to be published March 29, 2011.

Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press.


Most people, including me, who have written about the worldwide impact of American culture tend to emphasize the ability of foreigners to adapt America’s cultural exports to their own needs and traditions. In this book, I am reversing the argument. What interests me here is how Americans have used and transformed the cultural influences they receive from abroad. American artists and filmmakers have always depended on foreign innovations, and they benefited throughout the twentieth century from the presence in the United States of émigré and refugee painters, architects, composers, and movie directors. Americans have been as much an audience for foreign works of art as they have been molders of the world’s culture and values.

The artistic movement from abroad that most influenced the development of American culture in the twentieth century was modernism. Modernism is a notoriously elastic word. It can embrace any number of artists and writers, both in America and overseas. But for my purposes, modernism means the effort — beginning in the early twentieth century — to invent a new language to describe the scientific, political, and social upheavals of the modern world. That language could be literary, Modernist America: Richard Pells as in the case of the modern novel; visual, as in the case of painting, architecture, advertising and design, and film; or aural, as in the case of music. The point, however, was to force people to see, hear, and think about the world in entirely new ways, ways that made the bedlam of urban life, the unsettling effects of technological change, the transfer and “cleansing” of populations, the terrors of totalitarianism, and the impersonal butchery of modern warfare seem more intelligible if no less disorienting.

Modernist artists were also disdainful of the nineteenth century barricades between high and low culture. Instead, they persistently shifted back and forth between the realms of art and play, between the most obscure forms of painting and music and the desire to reach and enthrall an audience. And the modernists were self-referential; they called attention to their own personalities in their work, as if we were to admire not only the lines and colors on a canvas, or the structure of a building, or the lights and shadows in a movie, but the performance of the painter, the musician, the novelist, the architect, the cinematic auteur. In this sense, the modernists were always actors — which is why acting itself, in the theater and the movies, became a symbol of the modernist revolution in all of the arts.

Copyright © 2011 by Richard Pells.

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