INSTITUTIONS OF MODERNISM by Lawrence Rainey

INSTITUTIONS OF MODERNISM

Literary Elites and Public Culture
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Focusing on anglophone literary modernism from 1912 through the postwar period, Rainey (Modernist Literature/Univ. of York, England) examines such issues as the shift from elitist to mass culture, the rise of the market in determining aesthetic values, and the role of patronage. Ezra Pound’s transformation from an esoteric poet to the founder of Imagism, which appealed to new institutions of mass culture, epitomizes a sweeping change in modern artistic practices. In 1922, the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses by Sylvia Beach and of Eliot’s The Waste Land in the journal Dial marked the entry of modernism into the public sphere via the process of its commodification. Rainey uses these simultaneous literary events to demonstrate the collapse of aesthetic autonomy under the weight of commercial criteria. Nevertheless, his meticulous exploration of Dial archives fails to convince the reader that modernism rendered superfluous “close reading,” the idea that works should be evaluated solely by their intrinsic aesthetic value. True, publishers practiced “not-reading,” since their parameters for book evaluation were dictated largely by practical considerations. This doesn’t mean, however, that the general public, and particularly students of literature, also judged books by their marketability. While “close reading” did undergo a noticeable decline, Rainey is premature in declaring it obsolete. The most enticing chapters of the book deal with the problem of patronage. Interpreting the Malatesta Cantos, Rainey reveals Pound’s attempt to encourage Mussolini to develop Italy as a thriving cultural center. His discussion of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) challenges her reputation as an icon of modernist marginality in terms of sexual identity, race, and art. After dismissing ideological criticism, which only accepts “politically correct” values, Rainey portrays H.D. as a more three-dimensional personality, who takes advantage of financial comfort provided by generous sponsors and indulges in coterie poetics. Rainey’s revision of important modernist concepts is a sound contribution to literary history, although his study suffers from occasional overstatement and becomes mired in facts and figures dry enough to daunt even a dedicated reader.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-300-07050-0
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1998