Sunday, August 12, 2007

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H0w much of the particular character of Modernism can be accounted for by major transformations in the world economy in the first 30 years of the century: e.g., the Panic of 1907 and subsequent bail-out by J.P. Morgan (see Williams' poem on this subject in Spring and All); the slow collapse of Germany's national economy under the mountain of national debts incurred after the First World War; and, climactically, the stock market crash of 1929? Think of some of the individual modernist authors who experienced drastic changes in their financial positions during this period, for these and a variety of other reasons: Proust; Eliot; Yeats; Woolf; Stephen Spender; George Oppen; Nabokov. (You'll have to help me out with the Americans, Adrienne. Didn't Faulkner's family lose a bunch of money? Or was that during Reconstruction?) For these writers, all of whom were raised in an atmosphere of affluence that was later significantly reduced or threatened, how could the expression of despair and cynicism one normally associates with the Modernist moment not also be, in some way, a panic fear about a change in their personal situations? (Others, of course, improved their situations in this period, notably Pound and Joyce — mostly because they were both relatively poor to start with. And how significant is it that, despite living until almost the end of WWII, Joyce never wrote any fiction set later than 1904, when all of these catastrophes were still on the horizon?)

Thus those who become writers during the time of Modernism often give the impression not of entering a new, higher rentier class (which would be the typical role of the author in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) but of giving expression to a certain loss of value, a certain fall from grace. (In contrast, the postmodernists — the Americans, anyway — are largely back in the upwardly mobile position, though at this point they are competing for smaller slices of the cultural capital pie, and those usually attached to positions at major American universities. In this context, Nabokov, who grew up as the child of liberal aristocrats, becomes an impoverished European émigré, moves to the U.S. and gets on the academic-job treadmill, and finally finds himself accidentally a Great American Author and rich and famous culture hero, cuts a particularly interesting figure.)

With these circumstances in mind, I can see why Anglo-American Modernism displays such a cautiously exploratory attitude toward the radical positions of Continental Modernism (Surrealism in particular), which by 1920 had largely accepted that important literature was now the province of either the radical Bohemian fringes or the future Marxist state.

So I think we need (if it doesn't exist already) a financial history of these and other relevant figures: an audit of Modernism, as it were. Who got poorer, who got richer, who was in danger and who was not, and how do these various positions affect their writing?

Yes, this has got me thinking.