Wednesday, August 22, 2007
From Michael North's book The Dialect of Modernism
"The white vogue for Harlem has long had an accepted place in histories of the 1920s, and the shallow Negrophilia of this period has often been acknowledged in accounts of the Harlem Renaissance. But it is less often acknowledged just how far this racial cross-identification went or how widespread it was. Writers as far from Harlem as T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein reimagined themselves as black, spoke in a black voice, and used that voice to transform the literature of their time. In fact, three of the accepted landmarks of literary modernism in English depend on racial ventriloquism of this kind: Conrad's Nigger of the "Narcissus," Stein's "Melanctha," and Eliot's Waste Land. If the racial status of these works is taken at all seriously, it seems that linguistic mimicry and racial masquerade were not just shallow fades but strategies without which modernism could not have arisen.
To see these strategies simply as instances of modern primitivism is to miss a good deal of their importance. That the modern covets the primitive--perhaps even created it--is another frequently acknowledged fact. But to view this attraction merely as a return to nature, a recoil from modernity, is to focus myopically on a rather vapid message while missing its far more intriguing medium. The real attraction of the black voice to writers like Stein and Eliot was its technical distinction, its insurrectionary opposition to the known and familiar in language. For them the artist occupied the role of racial outsider because he or she spoke a language opposed to the standard. Modernism, that is to say, mimicked the strategies of dialect and aspired to become dialect itself...Dialect becomes the prototype for the most radical representational strategies of English-language modernism"