One more look back

It was a pleasure to read and think about your abstracts; I’m looking forward to reading your papers very much. I’m also very pleased to hear you’re talking with one another. As a possible aid to looking back over our collective work, here is one more summary, a chronological table of (most of) our primary readings with some basic publication information.

What leaps out of course is the highly selective nature of my “survey” of US early twentieth-century writing. What happened to the 1910s? We did actually read some writing from that decade: Stevens, Moore, and Williams all included poems they wrote in that decade in the volumes of theirs we read; most of the Stein short prose we read (not “Melanctha”) also belongs to the decade, and to the same medium, the little magazine. But certainly 1910s fiction got short shrift in our reading. In a lot of literary histories it looks a bit like an interregnum. (It is important, however, in histories of immigrant and ethnic fiction, a subtopic we really didn’t turn to this spring.)

The dating of Hammett and Daly’s first stories is a bit misleading. “Hard-boiled” detective fiction was on a slow simmer until the end of the 1920s, and the dominant form of detective story, in the pulps and elsewhere, was the “Golden Age” type (Agatha Christie et al.). It’s important to realize that one can interrupt timelines of high-literary writing with popular fictions at any and all points, though the media for such fictions are importantly different over time. One can also interrupt the march of the modernist canon by inserting highly respectable though mostly neglected realist novels at pretty much any point.

Even with this consciousness of omissions, I find useful the picture of an overcrowded 1920s and of an equally variegated 1930s that emerges. The methodological nationalism of the course seems to me to have had some benefits in letting us mark fairly sharp contrasts within the period and to historicize cultural and political contexts with some easy. Of course all of the major umbrella concepts one might bring to bear to organize parts of the syllabus also have a transnational dimension: this especially applies to modernism and to proletarian writing, but even the emphatically American world of the pulp magazines was linked by influence and rivalry with, especially, British versions of the characteristic genres, and beyond that to global networks of circulation within the English language and (via translation) outside it. The same is even true of the most distinctively U.S. American feature of our reading—which is also one many of you have turned to for your second papers—the special significance of African-American writing and the centrality of the Problem of the Color Line (as Du Bois called it) to the whole of American culture. As Du Bois himself tells us—but without much attention to literature as such—in “The Negro Mind Reaches Out,” the context for this significance is global as well as national.

And modernism? I think this chronological listing is more than enough to challenge the idea that we can develop a list of formal and thematic features shared across everything of interest in this period of literary history, even if we are being quite selective. But in the table it’s notable how much the “non-modernist” is still entangled with the modernist by the organization of publishing, especially through the house of Boni and Liveright. Though the prominence of Liveright is partly an accident of selection (or reveals that my own preferences were weirdly close to one particular dude’s…) I think any comparable selection would underscore the same point. One has to delve far into the pulp world (Carroll John Daly, not Dashiell Hammett) to escape this particular circuit. And probably not even then. But the existence of these connections does not prove identity. Those connections and the way work are rather the way cultural power is actually wielded.

Onwards, to more reading and writing. What a great pleasure and what an education it’s been. Gratefully yours,


Hannah’s Paper Abstract : Experience–>Narration–>Access

How is experience, both the biographically ‘real’ and the fictive, mediated by modernist narration? How is a reader thereby granted access to the experience of an author and/or protagonist? This position paper seeks to link two key terms of the semester, “experience” and “access,” as I retrace our path through select primary texts that we read together. While maintaining my own generalizing narrative distance, I intend to touch down on key moments—the train metaphor in The Ambassadors, the porch scenes in Their Eyes, the meta-confessional prefacing in Le Sueur’s “Marching”—to examine how modernist narrative practices (namely, a push-pull dynamic between distance and proximity) figure the concepts of experience and access. This paper will attempt to enact a collective position for the class, making liberal use of my peers’ blog posts over the course of the semester in an attempt to integrate my theme into my practice.

Zophsies Abstract

Langston Hughes’ work is canonized as representative of Black experience, or at least Black writing, in mid-twentieth century America. Like other stories in The Ways of White Folks his short story, “Berry,” is overtly about racial injustice—in it a Black employee is treated unfairly by a white employer—but in structure and content Hughes generates an argument that shakes the epistemological core of white supremacy, a thought system that relies on classificatory orderings. Using shifting perspectives, readerly complicity, and thematic elements (including disability), Hughes’ concerns are revealed to be not just identitarian, but a complex and networked strategy of sabotage aimed at compromising received notions of classification. “Berry” is not (simply) a sociological or anthropological documentation of Black life, but a defiant and subversive resistance to the rendering of Harlem Renaissance writing as projects of representation of difference.


Although the Harlem Renaissance directly connotes an association with a specific geographical location, it allows opportunity for exploring the relationship of race to territorially linked citizenship. What are the ways to write Black American experience? Are broad divisions such as the rural and the urban or the North and the South adequate? A selection of texts by W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke offer a range of spatially situated experiences of racial national identity that are often overlapping, intersecting, and contradictory. This paper explores the multiple vocabularies of African American writing that reveal strands of transnational universalism, regionally situated local experience, and other-worldly or alternative geographical imaginations. The paper therefore explores the significance of spatiality to race writing: it asks whether such an approach leads us towards a provincialization of African American writing and how it complicates recovery efforts.


Abstract for Position Paper

This paper will examine how Eric Walrond’s “The Palm Porch” breaks the frame of The New Negro anthology and implicates its reader in the potential violence of reading literature as documentation of the marginalized masses. With the relentless onslaught of modernity—specifically, the scar of the Panama canal—social divisions along racial and regional lines dig into communities so deeply as to prohibit almost all communication both across and within group identities. In “The Palm Porch,” violence is the end of the individual in Walrond’s corporeal masses, either as victim or agent, and it is only in the deadly moment that real communal clarity arises. Furthermore, Walrond’s complex, shifting prose demands an interpretive mode that incorporates the reader into the communal clarity of murder, suggesting that reading for representation, interpreting texts to match them to a nonfictional analogue, is a move of violence, although not without its deadly efficacy.

Productive Reading Abstract

This paper examines the paradoxical relationship established between modernist text and reader when the narrative withholds information at the same time as it expects the reader to know what it is that has been suppressed. Just as social games/silences are modelled within the text—as in Faulker’s The Sound in the Fury when characters are unable or refuse to communicate—they are also imposed upon the reader. In this way, Barnes’ Nightwood employs rich language that reveals almost no information and Moore’s “Shambleau” explicitly and repeatedly omits Smith’s profession. In demonstrating how characters account for narrative elision, these texts interpolate an active reader to likewise respond to and fill in gaps accordingly. In building an exchange between cagey text and assuming reader, the modernist narrative creates a collective experience of meaning-making that deprivileges the hegemony of the author just as it elevates the role of the reader.

Interpersonal Possession Abstract

My paper will explore anxieties over interpersonal possession in modernist texts by tracing the complicated metaphor of intimate distance in James’ The Ambassadors, Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. James defines interpersonal relations as a social game, the point of which is to prolong play. Loos takes James’ flirtation and turns it into seduction, arguing that the point of the social game is to win. Whereas in James distance/deferral is a way to engage in relation while avoiding complete possession, in Loos it becomes a form of manipulation through which to possess another. Finally, Hurston’s more ambivalent approach to possession simultaneously argues that total possession is impossible and inevitable, while also suggesting that some forms of submission/possession may be pleasurable. Through these texts, I aim to grapple with the central modernist tension of autonomy versus commitment as it is grafted upon intimate bodies.

Position paper abstract

My essay explores the significance of “selling out” across three categories of recognition for printed texts: commercial popularity, institutional prestige, and academic survival. Working comparatively across secondary material on contexts for the production and reception for specific printed texts in the early twentieth century, I suggest that selling out is a useful framework for classifying the changes in status that a writer undergoes as their work circulates. My point in singling out the act of selling out is to highlight the changes in writerly status necessary to achieve a level of sustainable financial success within what Carl Kaestle and Janice Radway characterize as an explosion of printed material from 1880-1940 that established a determinate “culture of print” in the United States. In sum, I call for further attention to the issues of exemplarity that adhere to writers and intersect with the communities that make writers and that writers break. 

To the futurepast!

To the future!

Please make sure to read and follow comments on the posts by “Hannah”, Sneha, and Catskills. Please also take a little time to consider our readings and discussions over the whole semester, as I’d like to take some of our time on Tuesday to reflect in general.

Like detective fiction, science fiction is a category of genre fiction—or at least it would become so. Thus, like last week’s reading, this week’s reading is an occasion to reflect on commercial fictions, subcultural niches, formulas, and acts of reading that are highly marked by genre—so much so that you “already know” SF even if you don’t read it at all, if nothing else by dint of the recent ubiquity of film superhero cycles (Avengers et sim.). Like the hard-boiled genre, science fiction is born in the pulp-magazine milieu, and reading pulp writers like Lovecraft and Moore invites reflection on the way the institution of the pulp shapes what they do.

I have chosen readings that come at pulp SF at something of an angle, however. The genre-defining core of early SF is associated with two science-fiction pulps, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and John W. Campbell’s Astounding Stories. In different ways these editors promoted an understanding of SF as a fundamentally technical genre whose special value lay in its relation to scientific and technological progress (a relation of prediction, extrapolation, validation, or critique). This genre-ideology was often quite divergent from the actual content of the texts they published under the SF banner, but it endures in various ways. One such divergence can be found in the overlap between SF and the category of “weird fiction,” which was a period label for fantastic, occult, and supernatural stories. (Some of the weird has descended to the present, and to film and TV, under the label “horror.”) Though a great deal of weird fiction stood no chance of getting included under the new label of science fiction, Lovecraft and Moore are understood as SF writers. Because waht they write is less preoccupied with technoscience as such, I hope we can use them to explore some of the margins of a genre and not just its archetypal core.

I will once again suggest periodical contexts as a crucial way to get a grip on some of these issues. Take a look, time permitting, at the magazine histories of Weird Tales and Amazing Stories on the Pulp Magazines Project. Read Gernsback’s much-cited introductory editorial on “scientifiction” in Amazing 1, no. 1 (April 1926) and look around to see what else catches your eye.

“Horror at Red Hook,” “Call of Cthulhu,” and “Shambleau” all first appeared in Weird. None of the issues in question are available in scans, but the January 1935 number gets you in the vicinity of Shambleau’s 1933 appearance in the magazine.

As for Du Bois’s “The Comet,” I have pointed you to a scan of its first appearance, in his 1920 book Darkwater. Consider just what the bibliographic difference between this mixed-genre volume from Harcourt and the pulp magazines entails; look over the table of contents. Du Bois is also, of course, radically different in terms of social and cultural position from either Lovecraft or Moore: yet connections are thinkable, and even possible parallels among variant forms of marginalization. Nonetheless, “The Comet” only really comes to figure as an SF text when anthologies of black speculative fiction start appearing at the millennium, for example the foundational Dark Matter, ed. Sheree Thomas (New York: Warner, 2000), which includes the story as a kind of precursor for writers like Ishmael Reed, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler and Evie Shockley. However, Du Bois’s story is also recognizably akin to the “fantasias of possibility” of H.G. Wells, who is claimed as a major founder of science fiction by Gernsback—who reprinted, or rather pirated, him tirelessly in Amazing Stories—and pretty much every other SF genre impresario since. Indeed Wells’s novel In the Days of the Comet (1907) and his story “The Star” (1897) are clear influences on “The Comet.” Like Du Bois, Wells was also well-known as a a socialist, and, also like Du Bois, Wells was a widely recognized literary figure operating across a range of genres.

Enough preamble! Now for postamble.

To the past!

Our discussion made excellent headway on the formal and thematic dimensions of the Daly and Hammett stories. Formally I would only underline the significance of the character-bound (“first-person”) narrator to the two texts we read and the hard-boiled genre as such. Notice however the way that the constraints of the mystery plot require a certain opacity: the reader can’t know everything the detective knows, so even though the hard-boiled narrator is marked by signals of authenticity (vernacular and slang languages, bluntness, wryness) he must withhold some of what he thinks from us. Sometimes he withholds almost everything (Hammett’s Continental Op).

On production and circulation, our discussion quickly went into the speculative terrain of reader psychology as we started thinking about the pleasures of reading the hard-boiled pulp story: puzzle-solving, escape, etc. Though these speculations can be useful interpretive guides (both to story texts and to other parts of the literary archive), I would like all of you to be able to think about what can be said if we keep a bit closer to the available empirical evidence. There is limited and selective reader testimony available (letters columns in the pulps are particularly interesting), but it needs to be interpreted too, and it often does leaves unsaid the social circumstances of reading that shape the meanings of an act of (for example) puzzle-solving or imaginative escape or fantasizing about deviance might mean.

To get some access to those social circumstances, we can think more about the material text and how it is made and circulated. Smith is helpful here in capturing some of the significance of how readers might handle the scorned medium of the pulp, self-consciously aware of its “cheapness” vis-à-vis the huge-selling slicks like Cosmopolitan and Collier’s. That cheapness is not just in the paper but in the appearance of the page, dense with text broken up only by line drawings and relatively few downmarket ads. Yet the same format is also an invitation to a kind of intensive commitment, not just in the large volume of fiction in each issue but in the devices a genre magazine like Black Mask uses to bring readers back: favorite authors, extended cycles about signature characters (Race Williams, the Op), serialized novels—together with all the markers of subculture Smith notices.

(A side note on price, which you can read off from Mullen’s table: unexpectedly, the pulps are not the cheapest format to read. A ten-cent weekly like Love Story is more expensive to read than either a five-cent weekly like Collier’s or a twenty-five cent monthly like Cosmopolitan. This reflects the fact that the big-circulation slicks are sold below cost and subsidized by advertising. The pulps do not circulate enough to command the advertising revenues needed to follow this model. Mullen’s table tells us that Street and Smith’s total circulation was 1.1M for its dozens of magazines. Carroll John Daly was writing for perhaps tens of thousands of readers, whereas Anita Loos’s bestseller aimed for, and reached, millions. But this also means that advertising is not the dominant genre in the pages of the pulp magazine as it is in the big slicks.)

I hope this makes my methodological point. It carries back to our discussions about the significance of modernist difficulty too, for that matter.

What We Don’t Know

Why are we not to know what Smith is up to? “His business there does not concern us,” the narrator of “Shambleau” assures the reader (14). Later, the narrator reminds us once more that, though “he passed the day quite profitably,” what those profits are “do not concern us now” (18). What we do know, from the narrative preceding this moment, is that whatever Smith is doing involves some sort of knowledge of “the latest” (18). While we too learn the details of the latest joke, the latest report, the latest song, it is meaningless knowledge to us, as it applies to unfamiliar subjects, rather than the immediately familiar Smith, whose personhood and purpose remain abstruse.

Dovetailing the privacy of Smith is the privacy of the “Shambleau,” whose mystery elicits an almost-colonial impetus within Smith to know. Before inviting her to accompany him, he judges her fit (and submissive enough) for his fascination: “Behind the animal shallows of her gaze was a shudder—a closed barrier that might at any moment open to reveal the very deeps of that dark knowledge he sensed there” (12). Whatever this “dark” knowledge is, Smith eventually accesses it at a great cost and ultimately strains to remember any of it (31-2). “You ought to thank your God you can’t [remember],” Yarol answers, arguing toward the necessary unknowability of the “Shambleau” (32). Nonetheless, the story ends with a noncommittal promise by Smith: he probably will not seek out this knowledge again.

What is “dark” knowledge? It reads as something marked by an otherness, held by someone unknowable and for the explorer to uncover. Yet it simultaneously eludes all possible definition: it exists pre-historically and escapes the comprehension of any historical subject. I pair Smith’s obsession with the knowledge that evades him with that which that evades us: why are we, the readers, not to know certain things? There is a deliberate withholding here by the narrator that moves beyond the hidden, yet revealed/read manuscript of “Cthulhu.” Is there a larger argument here towards what knowledge should be inaccessible to its readers? Are we to persist anyway?


I was intrigued by the references to reading and publication in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories that we read this week. Both narratives are framed as intimate accounts, bound by a code of confidentiality between the author and the reader. This is partly due to the sensitive nature of the information as well as the fundamental ways in which the horrific ‘secret’ infiltrates the familiar codes of shared life: revealing it would disrupt the consensus on what is permissible to be talked about and the knowledge that is held in common. Not only does Professor Angell’s grand-nephew hope that his discoveries will not be known after his death, even as he would ‘never knowingly supply a link in so hideous a chain’ (167) during his lifetime, he too had unfortunately chanced upon the professor’s notes after his sudden death.

The reader is thus drawn into a sequential and intimate network of confidences and layers of knowing. Moreover, this intricate web is made more complex by the references to the contemporary publishing culture. Malone, for instance, cannot publish his notorious tale in the Dublin Review and none of the writers of New York he is in contact with believe that anything remotely curious can be written about the city. It is a crafted narrative, certainly, but one that is remarkably unique because it cannot (and should not) be found anywhere in the known contemporary sites.

This seems to suggest that Lovecraft and his presumed readers were engaging with the culturally valuable category of ‘literature’, even if tangentially, as John Rieder approaches the term. He writes that the relations between commercial publishing and academia in the early twentieth century resulted in a master genre of literature that was distinguished by tasteful discernment, with different kinds of literary production being defined according to their distance or relationship to this category (39) and forms the basis of his historical reading of genre. A major theme of Lovecraft’s stories seem to be their mediations between different modes of knowing—based on Rieder’s insights, do they qualify to be literature? What qualifies some genre fiction readers as possessing literary sophistication?


A chthonic descent into anti-modernity

If decidedly un-modernist in style, Lovecraft’s stories are nevertheless anxiously preoccupied with modernity itself. [A note on style: I’m just going to go ahead and say it’s also pretty lousy. No one needs that many adjectives!!] Modernity and progress are in these two stories under threat by primitive, racially other, and chthonic forces. The precarity of modernity here seems deeply indebted to Freudian thinking about primitive unconscious urges (see, in “Call of Cthulhu”: the ocean/oceanic feeling as the hiding place of dark forces, and, more prosaically, the use of dream-analysis as plot device). It is also clearly indebted to racism, eugenics, and anti-miscegenation.

Perhaps it’s because of these debts that there’s a baffling disjuncture between the mind-altering fear experienced by the characters of these stories, and the complete lack of affect they had on me. Or perhaps it’s because it is no longer true for readers today that any threat to modernity is inherently terrifying. In “Call of Cthulhu,” the narrator first introduces us to the sculptor’s bas-relief by saying that it was “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern.” (169) The style of these two sentences is that of the frightening reveal: in this story being “far from modern” alone is meant to strike the fear of death in us.

So is having to retreat from scientific thinking. Midway through the story, the narrator recounts in retrospect: “My attitude was still one of absolute materialism, as I wish it still were.” (186) Here too the style of the sentence is telling the reader: this is scary! What’s meant to be frightening here is that “materialism” is being rendered in the past tense. It suggests that the narrative present is one of regression from modern thought. Both these stories are in fact deeply anti-progressive. Their narratives contradict the modern conception of history as forward-moving, a principle of history that is also Christian, if not more generally Abrahamic—we are all, fingers crossed, moving toward an ultimate ascent. By contrast, as the narrator of “Call of Cthulhu” marks his own ending: “Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise.” (196)

From Slick to Pulp

Black Mask fiction

You have excellent initial prompts to discussion from Plotinus and Al.

The last two weeks of the syllabus turn our attention to so-called genre fiction. “So-called” because this phrase was used for something else in the period—regionalist realism—and there was no general term for what is now called genre fiction. Nonetheless genre fiction, in the sense of a system of commercial fiction strongly marked by and sorted into fairly stable categories, was in formation in this period, especially in the medium of the pulpwood magazine.

Genre fiction is one of those things that everybody already knows everything about even if they don’t know anything about it: ideas about the essences of categories like “mystery” and “science fiction” are part of most people’s cultural equipment, most often via film or TV; most people also work on the assumption that anything that belongs to the category is well-explained by the category. In considering “Arson Plus” and “Knights of the Open Palm,” and in sampling The Big Sleep, try to be self-reflexive about your own generic expectations, how they alter your reading protocols and interpretive horizons. Then attend to how the texts themselves are meta-generic, reflexively signaling the category or categories they participate in or struggle against. In particular, bear in mind that the “hard-boiled” detective is virtually invented by Hammett and Daly and their Black Mask contemporaries, as a deliberate novelty in the face of the dominant strand of detective story modeled after Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. This strand—the “Golden Age” mystery, typified by a plot in which a gentleman detective unravels an elaborate chain of clues—remains a major seller through the 1930s in both magazine and book formats. This other mystery subgenre, notably, was very successfully practiced by women (Agatha Christie above all), whereas the hard boiled pulp story is overwhelmingly male-authored.

Erin Smith gives you a good context for Black Mask magazine. To get a sense for the pulps more broadly, browse around the magnificent Pulp Magazines Project, which has histories of individual magazines (compare the page on Black Mask with that on the earlier Detective Story or the earlier, non-genre specific Argosy). It also hosts an amazing collection of scans of issues; Black Mask is represented only by early issues that precede its reorientation to detective fiction. We’ll return to these scans for our session on science fiction. The publishing infrastructure of the pulps developed out of that for dime novels, and I had originally planned for us to look at a (late) dime novel detective as well, but I have decided to leave Nick Carter aside. (Here’s what I had in mind: In Nick Carter’s Hands, New Nick Carter Weekly 39, September 25, 1897.) The dimes were an important format for cheap fiction in the nineteenth century, but they were eclipsed by the turn of the century.

Chandler is not quite in the same category as Daly nor yet Hammett; Chandler self-consciously tries to move the pulp story into a more literary publishing circuit. I’ve put his classic statement “The Simple Art of Murder” on Sakai. It is optional reading. It celebrates Hammett and implicitly Chandler himself. That it appeared in the Atlantic tells you something important.

Finally, in order not to get entirely locked into questions of genre, think as you read about the understandings of the total social and cultural world projected by the stories you’re reading, both at the level of content and at the rhetorical level of style (implied audience, modes of address, print contexts, etc.).

Wrap-up on Loos

Our discussion on Loos was thorough and enjoyable. A couple of lingering things I wanted to wrap up:

I wrote in my blog post last week that there is no outside to the market. That was a bizarre lapse on my part (now corrected in an update to that post). It is however true that the position of highbrow disdain for commercialism is an eminently marketable attitude. This does not mean it is a lie, only that cultural markets are complex things. There is a whole spectrum of attitudes to consumption and acquisition associated with different modes of production and consumption of cultural goods.

One thing I would like you to be able to do by ranging across the readings of this course is to distinguish points on this spectrum carefully. McGurl paints with a very broad brush when he links Mencken and Smart Set with the “difficult modernism” of Faulkner and of Stein. Mencken is conveniently explicit in his (racialized, eugenicized) intellectual snobbery, and Loos is conveniently linked with “Menck.” But as as McGurl acknowledges, Mencken’s was a moderately-large-circulation, commercially viable version of taste and distinction, and in this way quite different from the more stringently anti-economic economy of the little magazines and patronage circles we talked about earlier in the semester. The two have a relation and they flow back and forth to one another, but confusing one with the other is like confusing New Yorker writers with the experimental avant-garde. Both are “highbrow” in some sense but they have very different audiences and different relations to commercial success.

Along the same lines, it’s worth continuing to reflect on just what the force is of building analogies between Loos and “the difficult modernist novel” (112), as McGurl does. North is another exemplar, perhaps the most impressive one, of what can be done along these lines: in Reading 1922, the whole of Anglo-American culture in 1922 is preoccupied with the same problematics and attitudes. But, to repeat what I said in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, “the same” formal and thematic features (the ones we call “modernist”) may not have the same explanations or the same significance. The incorporation of non-Standard and vernacular speech into narrative is particularly charged with multiple possible meanings, and Loos’s motivation for inventing Lorelei’s culturally aspirant but uncultured way of writing is radically different from, say, Hurston’s dialect writing or from Stein’s idiolect.

In fact, it strikes me that one reason Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was able to become a bestseller is that it is highly susceptible to multiple interpretations suited to different audiences. It is women’s entertainment fiction suitable for the pages of a fashion glossy; it is risqué humor for the boys; it is a widely legible spoof of the “moron”; it is an equally legible send-up of the decadent rich and of celebrity culture; it is a canny account of what it takes for a woman to achieve the American Dream; and so on. In terms of production, because Loos and her novel are embedded from the start in the large-scale theatrical and cinematic fields, it is both produced by and productive of further adaptations.

Last point: our reflections on character did not quite come back around to the book’s generic status as satire. Satire very typically leaves all of its figures flat or even quasi-allegorical, disregarding novelistic realism even as it implicitly claims to unveil the truth behind social impostures. In this way a very traditional satire can often resemble the experimental novel. Then again, one very old-fashioned description of the high modernist novel is precisely that it amalgmates other prose genres with the novel proper (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957]).

Performed Distance and Readable Exteriors

Between “a mouth and a chin that seemed shaped for gossiping” (Collinson 34) and “little sharp predatory teeth” (Chandler 5), the texts for this week are full of “readable” exteriors. The readable “type” was a preoccupation of ours when discussing Crane. These texts are also interested in “readability,” as a new version of the distanced narrator (the hard-boiled detective) engages in acts of distancing (the voice-over/reporter POV, the “I versus them” mentality, etc.) to better read, analyze, and “solve” a mystery. And, indeed, there are moments when exteriors and the detective’s ability to “read” through distance prove the best ways to solve a mystery. The knife-like women in The Big Sleep are (of course) villainous, and it is the physical description of Thornburgh that gives him away.

Nevertheless, there is also a persistent fear in these texts that things are not what they seem. This may be connected to the detective’s knowledge that he, too, is performing. Daly’s biographical background and Race Williams’ invocation of “the curtain goes up” remind us of the mystery’s theatricality (428, 431). Williams ultimately avoids detection by easily performing an external Klan identity. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe seems obsessed by the possibility that all of this is just a game. As Erin Smith points out, Chandler’s own essay on the genre revealed how identities were “increasingly constructed through performance” (42). The resulting concern: if detectives can construct their identities and fake distance, is the readability of the suspects also just performance.

To what extent are exteriors readable and/or performed in these texts, particularly considering the gendered/racial/national/class coding of the texts’ exterior “types”? This is, of course, related to Plotinus’s post, as the question of distance is a vital one. Does analytical distance allow one to read better? Or is even the distanced narrator always already implicated in the deception itself, and this very implication is what allows him to read it? To what extent can the questions of readability explored within the text be translated outside the text, to the ways in which writers construct identities and we read, analyze, and identify with them?

Joiners and Loners

I was struck by the insistence on individual heroism in our readings this week. Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams succinctly sums up the attitude with his response to why he hasn’t joined the Klan: “Of course I’m like all Americans—a born joiner. It just comes to us like children playing; we want to be in on everything that’s secret and full of fancy names and trick grips. But it wouldn’t work with me; it would be mighty bad in my line…No, I like to play the game alone. And that’s why I ain’t never fallen for the lure of being a joiner” (430). Peter Collinson’s/Dashiell Hammett’s disaffected detective is more subtle in his isolation, as he seems happy to work for and with others, but his own understanding of evolving and mysterious circumstances remains inaccessible to everyone else. He alone has a grasp on the complex lies that have been spun by the suspects, and his refusal to share his revelations–for lack of time? to not hazard a guess that might be wrong? to preserve his tight-lipped image?–results in McClump killing a man for reasons beyond his ken, reasons only our hero knows (42). The detective is happy to explain eventually, but not until the action’s ended; when he runs out on the sheriff because “the pieces were beginning to fit together under my skull” (42), it seems that to admit anyone else into his cranial secrecy would shatter his grasp on the situation. Even with a partner at his side, the hero saves alone.

As the ironic ending of “Knights of the Open Palm” demonstrates, however, there is something to be said about joining up, even if it’s only a wisecrack. Erin Smith’s chapter highlights similar tensions between manly lone rangers and collective power in the pulp industry. Despite their writers eschewing the modernist type of the “lone artist/creator” (21), these authors still lionized the might (intellectual and physical) of the single American male. Smith also identifies a “good symbolic fit” between the “homologous” lives of pulp readers and writers (26), and notes the care that pulp magazines took to display their “union labels”—declaring belonging to a collective power (22). Simultaneously, pulp editorials decried the London Detection Club’s feminizing rules and regulations, and writers opted instead to “[break] these rules with adolescent abandon” (40), much like the hero who operates outside the law (Race Williams). This seems a serious tension between an aesthetic commitment to a male hero who depends on no one, and the need for the pulp publications to appeal to and make use of a distinct group, often quite consciously calling for solidarity. Is this lone ranger an impossible dream in the increasingly heterosocial modern culture? If so, does this literature acknowledge in any way that its survival in the public sphere depends on a recognized collective power, a community of “He-men”?

Looking forward and back

Many thanks to Zophsies and talk-talk-talk for posting on Loos early in the week. Lots to think about already, there, and I’m looking forward to seeing responses in comments or new posts. (Update: in comments.)

We’re turning back the historical clock this week, but among other things I’d like us to think about Loos’s novel in terms of the very durable institutions of the bestseller and the mass media. Of these media, two are particularly salient: film and the “slick” mass-circulation magazine (the original publication venue for Loos’s Lorelei stories was the Hearst magazine Harper’s Bazar. Unfortunately I can’t find a digitized copy of the relevant issues, but HathiTrust has a scan of the bound volume of the magazine for 1922, which might be interesting to skim over.

Most literary-critical writing about bestsellers functions on what I think of as the folk theory of bestsellerdom, which is that when books sell really well, they must be fulfilling some widespread cultural wish. The critic then knowingly diagnoses the mass fantasy. The position of superior knowingness is the first thing to subject to critique (and Loos makes this easy by setting her satirical sights on it). To be superior to the bestseller is to imagine one is outside the (cultural) market. There is no outside to the market. (Update: what is wrong with me? I don’t think this. There are huge swathes of life which, though they touch on and are touched by the market, do not operate like the market. Nonetheless, one of the spheres that is not outside the market is the realm of self-consciously superior professional cultural production, which has a distinctive logic that is tightly intertwined with the economy. But the “no outside” formula I actually endorse, Bourdieu’s again, is “there is no way out of the game of culture,” which is to say that the cultural system includes both embraces of the market and repudiations of it, as well as repudiations of the game of culture itself.)

In fact no one knows why bestsellers sell best, despite serious and (especially) unserious attempts to find the formula. The reality is that many factors unrelated to the contents of cultural artifacts produce big sales, above all the “cascade effect”: past a certain threshold, people buy or consume something because everyone else is doing it (for a sufficiently broad group of “everyone else”). It may be more or less chance that brings any particular object across the threshold. Nonetheless, the bestseller, once it has become one, is a specific kind of cultural object, and it’s worth asking what analytic procedures we can most usefully bring to bear, what embedded tensions and potentials we can discover.

Then it’s worth thinking, as our initial bloggers already are, about what kinds of comparisons make sense between this product of the “large-scale” pole of the cultural field and the other poles of the field we’ve looked at, which tend towards “restricted production” in various ways.

Paper 2

I’ve written up the second paper assignment we discussed last Tuesday: Paper 2. Once again, just to help you with the drafting process, I’m asking you to post an abstract in advance, and I’ll give feedback. I’m also of course happy to schedule videoconference “office hours” to talk over ideas. I would like this paper to be be a relatively low-pressure occasion for you to process our discussions over the semester.

Retrospect on last week

I don’t have much I want to add by way of wrapping up our discussion of Le Sueur and 30s Hughes. I didn’t get to bring us to the question of genre. Leftist literature is stereotyped by its opponents as limited to either plodding realism or strident propaganda. Fiction seems more disposed to be condemned as the former, poetry as the latter. What would “realism” even mean with respect to poetry? But Hughes’s poetry might offer one answer: that is, it literally spells out the contemporary facts of inequality and exploitation. Then, too, there’s nothing plodding about the realism at work in his fiction. It certainly is realist, despite some passages that challenge realist convention, but its inflection by the various voices of the people is distinctive.

Le Sueur too blurs generic lines in “I Was Marching” by pushing the first-person report in the direction of experimentalist inner monologue. As Denning notes, she’s quite influenced by D.H. Lawrence, whose novels try to capture, and vindicate, the involuntary and non-conscious forces that impel behavior.

The other big question is to think about the flexible boundaries of “proletarian literature.” Looking beyond the social formation Denning delineates, we can see a wider horizon of writing from the 1930s that struggles with the problems (literary and actual) of a collective working-class subject. Hurston could easily be included here; Hemingway and Faulkner (in their work of the decade) too, alongside the once-towering figure of Steinbeck. Many writers are reoriented by the changes in the field created by the proletarian literature movement, including very unexpected ones like Wallace Stevens, whose 1930s poetry wrestles with the question of collective engagement. For that matter, when T.S. Eliot goes to the hard right and switches to British citizenship in this period, he is also responding to powerful imperatives to articulate new collectivities; he switches to writing choral verse and verse drama, and he produces some interesting reactionary social theory by way of literary criticism too. And as Hutner points out in the pages from What America Read that I suggested to you, many analogous concerns even animated the most resolutely middle-class fiction of the Depresion era.

I also want to make sure you attend to another point Hutner makes, however. He argues that both “social realism and classic modernism” are “minority countermovements to the majoritarian tradition of middle-class realism—especially regionalism, historical fiction, family sagas, and novels of middle-class manners. Without the recovery of this larger range of novels, the continuities of American fiction seem to fade away or fracture” (119). These middle-class realist genres were not bestsellers—that’s another category again—but moderately good sellers that won middlebrow critical esteem.

I didn’t feel we quite got round the question I was trying to raise with my excerpt from Adorno’s great essay on lyric poetry and society. That’s the question of commitment, as it came to be known in the subsequent decades. (Under the influence of Sartre, the left debated this as the question of “engaged” literature.) The opposite of commitment would be…autonomy. It’s worth thinking about how a particular kind of commitment in a particular historical context might change the genres, audiences, themes, and forms that are available for a writer. (That’s Denning’s point.) And it’s worth thinking about how a different mixture of possibilities might be available from the pursuit of autonomy. You might trace the possibilities with Hughes, as he moves from sloughing off the “Racial Mountain” in the 1920s, to the commitments of the 1930s.


Continuing to think about this distinction between “accessible” and “easy,” I’ve added in the theme “slickness.” McGurl describes GPB as a “fairly rigorous narratological experiment in perspectival limitation” (107), a novel in which the kind of access that the reader is given is heavily mediated and constricted, including through what McGurl points out is Loo’s own (self and outward directed) misogyny. It’s left me considering the ways this novel, its author, and its characters are implicated in a discussion of access, how access might be misread as ease, and what the veneer of slickness does to it all. Is this an “easy read”? Does Lorelei have an “easy life”? How much modernist aesthetic practice is about limiting access, and does “slick fiction” achieve, subvert, or fail to produce those limitations?

On the page, this novel engages with questions of access, as David points to: access to financial security. Rather than characterizing Lorelei’s pursuit of valuable jewelry as “innocent avarice and guileless guile,” as McGurl does, I read a careful strategy for accumulating capital and security (in a system that wouldn’t allow women to take out credit cards in their own name for another 50 years). Lorelei, channeling Loos (or Loos channeling Lorelei) might have access to work in Hollywood and the social and financial stability that provides, but small, value-dense jewelry represents one of the only kinds of capital accumulation that (for centuries and across patriarchal cultures) women were able to claim. Cultural capital is another means of self-sustenance to which women have had some historical access, but a much less “easy” stream of wealth accumulation—McGurl characterizes Loos as borrowing Menken’s “cultural authority” (106). For Lorelei, education is a lower priority than securing material wealth (evidenced by her occasional neglect of her diary). This plays out too in Loos’ life—royalties lasted longer than readership.

I think GPB plays as slick a trick on readers as Lorelie plays on Broussard. We are persuaded by our narrator that we have full access to her (simple, easy) mental state, when she’s offered us paste diamonds and hidden the tiara in a safe.

Loos (post 4)

The ending of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes takes on the issues of aestheticism and professionalization that we have been thinking about since the start of term. Lorelei leaves us at the close of the novel, spinning her diary toward closure: she says “good-bye” to the project of putting “down all [her] thoughts” in order to “make a book,” secure in the “feeling that, after all, everything always turns out for the best” (123). What exactly does this “best” look like for Lorelei, and why does her achievement of it necessitate her bringing the diary to a close? In her view, she is “so busy bringing sunshine into the life of Henry that . . . with everything else I seem to accomplish, it is all a girl had ought to try to do.” Obviously Lorelei elides much here, including her access to Henry’s finances, an access which allows her to work with Mr. Montrose “in the motion pictures” while participating in “society life with Henry” (117). As Mark McGurl notes, the novel is structured by “the series of predatory males who patronize [Lorelei]” for the sake of her education—this story is about the “about the acquisition of culture, an aesthetic education [. . .] the pursuit of intellectual improvement” (106-108). Put another way, Lorelei becomes a professional; I think it is crucial (beyond a necessity for the novel), that Lorelei caps her education by (1) writing a book and (2) achieving financial stability as she moves into the film industry. 

Lorelei isn’t publishing for money, but her status as recipient of patronage at least generates, and is at times even tied, to the fact of her writing. In my view, Lorelei has achieved aesthetic mastery by way of what is marked as a really bad diary-book: she has written a book and gotten paid to do it. Or perhaps just economic mastery—Lorelei skips the aesthetic part and goes straight to professionalization. A clunky final connection:  but what does this have to do with Loos’s positioning toward modernism? I’m thinking mostly here of money, education, and time. 

Situating modernism

Michael Denning tells us that rather than searching for representative authors and titles in order to delineate proletarian writing, it would be more useful to focus on the energies of the proletarian movement more broadly. This helps him to present Meridel Le Sueur’s work as an example of proletarian literature, or more particularly, Le Sueur as a literary practitioner of ‘left-wing regionalism’ (220). Denning underscores the importance of regional American politics for Le Sueur in fashioning a literary aesthetic, including in continuing a tradition of Midwestern women’s writing.

The sub-category of the ‘regional’ was especially interesting as we have been approaching the question via different writers and texts through the semester. There has been a great amount of attention on the metropolitan centers of canonical modernism in influential scholarship on the field but, as we have discussed, a significant amount of literary production that we are engaging with in the seminar does away with the need to concentrate conversations of modernism on these specific urban centers.

However, it might be worthwhile to complicate the expansion of the geographical imagination of modernism. Some questions I am thinking of are: would it be productive to think of the Midwestern setting of Le Sueur’s stories as comparable to the view of southern American life that Zora Neale Hurston provides us? What is at stake, for instance, by collapsing the car journey through the rural Midwest in “O Prairie Girl, Be Lonely” with the journey through the ‘muck’ in Their Eyes Were Watching God or will identitarian concerns continue to mark the contours of the field and modify its definitions? Might it be possible to refocus the expatriate framing of modernist writing to work towards a means for understanding exilic or cosmopolitan sensibilities from within a national framework? Is the national merely a sum total of regional expressions? Denning writes that the matter of the legacy of proletarian writing is a vexed one as many of these texts were ‘recovered’ by later generations: does a widening of the geographical scope make modernism a cohesive category that only makes sense as seen through its sub-categories?

Word/Event in Le Sueur

“Does one define proletarian literature by author, audience, subject matter, or political perspective? Is it literature by workers, for workers, or about workers?” (Denning, 201, emphases mine). These questions struck me as familiar to the identitarian concerns that dominate contemporary literature and scholarship; questions about how an author’s identity legitimizes or deligitimizes, provides an entrée or a barrier to objects of writing.

Le Sueur’s “I Was Marching” makes these questions explicit by performing its own status as a personal, non-fiction account of class mobilization. The piece opens with strong markers of truth-telling. Putting  “I” first–both in the title and the first sentence–shows that the narrator’s identity will be the source for the story’s narrative claims. By the third sentence, the narrator has confessed to her middle class origins–a confession that functions as a twofold authorization. First, the confession works as a traditional claim to the objectivity afforded to the outsider. Second, the confession works by laying bare the narrator’s culpability, and therefore counteracting the taboo which should operate against her account. Indeed the structure of the sentence enacts the reversal of this taboo. In the sentence starting with “If you come from the middle class,” the “as I do” is silent. The contortion of the seemingly confessional “I” comes again in “That is why it is hard for a person like myself and others to be in a strike”(158).

These formal moves are designed to draw attention to the epistemological battles at work in class warfare, in striking, and most of all in writing about class warfare and striking. “If you come from the middle class, words are likely to mean more than an event” opens the piece in order to set up an expectation that the story will provide a reversal. By the story’s end, the sentence “I was marching” seems to tell us that the reversal has happened (168). But of course, from the reader’s perspective–and the narrator’s confession of middle class origins seems intended to interpolate a middle class reader–words have been our only event.