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,