DISTANT OBLIGATIONS: Modern American Writers and Foreign Causes by David C. Duke

DISTANT OBLIGATIONS: Modern American Writers and Foreign Causes

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this latest forage through much-explored terrain, Prof. Duke (History, Marshall U., Huntington, W. Va.) proposes to show, from the lives of ""eleven modern American writers,"" that ""the participation of the writer in a foreign cause is essentially a nonideological, voluntary form of personal involvement resulting from both personal and national feelings of disillusionment and guilt."" That turgid proposition is typical: Duke apparently wants to get away from a narrowly political interpretation of writers' foreign commitments--but he has a dim eye for politics and a woozy notion of what constitutes a writer. Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) was an Orientalist who did related writing: as a teacher in Westernizing Meiji Japan, he spurred the preservation of Japanese art. (Van Wyck Brooks' Fenollosa and His Circle, unnoted here, is livelier and more accurate.) Paired with Fenollosa is Homer Lea (1876-1912): mesmerized by things military and by the Chinese, Lea became embroiled in Chinese revolutionary affairs, served as an advisor to Sun Yat-sen, and wrote--like Fenollosa (and others)--to turn Western attention Eastward. Duke's next three subjects--Edith Wharton, Alan Seeger, and Malcolm Cowley--represent WW I ""writer activism."" Here we have, as throughout: general biographical data; comments on motivation; detail on participation; across-the-board comparison. John Reed, the next subject, gains nothing from Duke's stodgy stocktaking. The fascinating split between Hemingway and Dos Passes in Spain--with the a-political Hemingway defending the Loyalists, the radical Dos Passes turning anti-Communist--is a much-told story (with, however, additional detail). On Ezra Pound and his disloyalty, Duke is embarrassing: ""Like the main character in a proletarian novel, Pound's interest in economic issues grew largely out of personal need. . . . It possibly never occurred to him that his literary judgments were more skillful than his economic predictions."" That leaves two interesting, politically-involved, second-stringers: Zionist/Loyalist/foreign-correspondent (USSR) Louis Fischer and litterateur/Hispanophile Waldo Frank. Duke does add to the stock of information on Fischer, who hasn't been much written about--as well as on a few of the others. His general conclusions are not necessarily wrong (some were ""unappreciated at home,"" some did ""question the cause they were serving""). But what can be learned from this, with forbearance and application, is not a great deal.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press