Modernism Without the Modernists:

A Response to Walter Benn Michaels

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Modernism/Modernity Vol 3, no. 3 (September 1996): 99-106.

The thesis of Walter Benn Michaels’s Our America could hardly be clearer or more forcefully argued. It goes like this. Whereas “the major writers of the Progressive period–London, Dreiser, Wharton–were comparatively indifferent to questions of both racial and national identity,” (8) the literature of the post-war, of the 1920s, is characterized by its particular brand of nativism, that is, its commitment to the notion that one’s identity is defined by racial difference. Whereas the Progressivists believed in the fabled melting pot, in the possibility of wholesale assimilation into U. S. citizenry, the pluralist 1920s. substituting a faith in difference for one in the superiority of any one group, wanted to preserve racial purity at all costs. Accordingly, identity comes to be defined by one’s difference from “them”–from those whose blood might contaminate one’s own. The fear of miscegenation and of the reproductive family now become powerful; “the homosexual family and the incestuous family thus emerge as parallel technologies in the effort to prevent half-breeds” (49).

Michaels exemplifies this thesis with literally dozens of examples, primarily from the fiction of the period. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson’s desire to convince others that he has committed incest with his sister Caddy is an “attempt through language to substitute the blood ties of family for the affective and/or legal ties of love and marriage” (5). In this respect, Quentin and Jason are really not all that different; both believe, in their own way, that “blood is blood” (3). Or again, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan’s aversion to Gatsby has less to do with class than with race. For who is Gatsby? Is he perhaps a Jew, hanging out as he does with the likes of Meyer Wolfsheim? In any case, he is not “one of us,” any more than is Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. But then that novel’s hero, Jake Barnes, functions as Cohn’s alter ego: Jake’s war wound, which has left him impotent, Michaels argues, is again an emblem of the nativist fear of the reproductive family. In staying single, Jake preserves his racial identity.

And so on. From Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House to Nella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand, from Jean Toomer’s Cane to Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, nativism is the engine that drives human behavior, and in the1920, nativism depends first and last on understanding one’s Americanness as racial difference. In Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, for example, Slim Girl’s “genealogical ambition is to have children who are ‘all Navajo’” (71), even as Nella Larsen’s Clare learns that “passing” destroys the purity of her own identity. One must be true to one’s racial self.

Pluralism thus turns out to be the bogey. Whereas Progressivist “claims to racial superiority inevitably involved the appeal to standards that were understood as common to all races . . . . the pluralist can prefer his own race only on the grounds that it is his” (137). The commitment to pluralism is the commitment to the “primacy of identity” (140), and thus to what Michaels calls “identity essentialism” (140). Indeed, “there can be no coherent anti-essentialist account of race” (134). For “the particular contribution of pluralism to racism is to make racial identity into its own justification.” (137). And when that happens–as is, according to Michaels, the cultural condition today–racism prevails.

But why did this form of nativism occur in the 1920s and recur in the1990s? What about the six decades in between? And why should miscegenation be such a taboo if the racial Other is considered not inferior but merely different, as Michaels claims? These issues are avoided by a curious sleight-of-hand. The inevitable reductionism of Michaels’s project (the discussion of Gatsby, for example, must play down the role of Nick Carraway so as to foreground Tom Buchanan’s fears) is acknowledged and declared necessary, given the revisionist aim of Our America, which is to provide, not close readings of specific texts, but a large-scale reinterpretation of modernism. For American nativism is evidently synonymous with American modernism, which is, in its turn, synonymous with the American fiction (few works of other genres are included) of the1920s.

For most literary historians, as for theorists of modernism, the great modernist innovations were in place well before World War I. In his recent Modernisms, for example, Peter Nicholls characteristically begins with Charles Baudelaire even as T. J. Clark’s earlier The Painting of Modern Life began with Manet. But then Michaels’s “modernism” is best described as a modernism without the modernists, for the most canonical American modernist writers– Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H.D. Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes — are eliminated from Michaels’ American modernist canon, presumably because they lived abroad and took an interest in non-American persons and places. For example:

the endpoint of the “heritage” whose origin Pound locates in Jefferson is . . . Benito Mussolini: “The heritage of Jefferson . . . is HERE, NOW in the Italian peninsula at the beginning of the fascist second decennio, not in Massachusetts or Delaware.” This “heritage” is thus in no way distinctively American, any more than it is distinctly Italian. Rather, it is disassociated from any particular nationality and, indeed, from nationality as such, a concept which Pound tended to link disparagingly with “provincialism.” And, by the same token, the “ancestors” to whom Eliot appeals in Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) not only extend beyond. . . his American predecessors to “the whole of the literature of Europe” but beyond Europe as well to “all the poetry that has ever been written.” Neither Eliot’s “tradition” nor Pound’s “heritage” is in any sense national. . . . (102)

What this line of reasoning ignores is that the very idea of linking Jefferson to Mussolini is itself a profoundly nativist theme. It assumes that the desire to transcend one’s native grounds, to assert one’s difference from “ordinary Americans,” again, by the way, on the grounds of racial purity of some sort (e.g., true Americans know that their heritage can never just be American!), is a desire that can somehow be satisfied, even as Quentin thinks that saying he has had incest with Caddy means that it really happened. Similarly, Eliot’s desire in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to place his own poetry in relation to “all the poetry that has ever been written” (102), could only have been made by a poet self-consciously American, and hence self-consciously inserting himself into the European arena where poetry does flourish. Just try to imagine Marcel Proust or Stéphane Mallarmé or Paul Valéry claiming that theirs was a heritage that transcended their national identity!

Ironically, a consideration of Pound’s or Eliot’s nativism would have “thickened the plot” of Michaels’s narrative. Think of Eliot’s “East Coker,” with its claim for a racial identity (pure English stock) that distinguishes the poet from those others who have names like Sweeney or Bleistein. But even if we grant Michaels his donnée, even if we assume that such internationalists as Eliot and Pound, Stein and Barnes are outside the “nativist” orbit, how, can we equate nativism with modernism, when Michaels also eliminates such notable stay-at-homes as Wallace Stevens, whose name does not so much as appear in Michaels’s index, even though Stevens’s first great book, Harmonium, appeared in 1923? The answer is not hard to find. Clearly, if one substitutes for Eliot and Stevens, such texts as Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers or La Farge’s Laughing Boy, novels currently being read precisely on account of their multicultural rather than their literary interest, then of course one can come up with a reinterpretation of “modernism” as racially motivated. The reasoning is patently circular: (1) Modernism has traditionally been defined as X. (2) Minority studies of the modernist period have unearthed a number of novels that are more properly characterized as Y. Therefore (3) Modernism should be redefined as Y.

Thus nativism = modernism: such equations occur in Our America because its analytic mode is structuralist rather than in any sense historical. The identitarian paradigm once introduced recurs with minor variations in novel after novel: Michaels’s synopses and exegeses become as repetitive and interchangeable as do the characters in The Professor’s House and The Sun Also Rises. There is a “Gotcha!” quality to all this, as if to say, “Oh, so you thought Gatsby dealt with the power of human illusion or with the failure of the American dream and so on, but what the novel is really about is race.” The static nature of the analyses is insured by the curious absence of history. Why was the post-war so different from the Progressivist era? What is it that happened that made pluralism and its attendant racism so prominent? To explore the changing demographics or immigration patterns of the1920s, to understand the effect of a world war on the modernist ethos, would have gone a long way in explaining why Robert Cohn figures so prominently in The Sun Also Rises or why Tom Buchanan is reading a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires. An historical study, especially of the war period, would also demonstrate in what ways “identity essentialism” became important in nations other than the U. S. In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1903), for example, national identity is still an attribute one has as a German citizen plain and simple, and the emphasis is on social and economic class. But for the Mann of The Magic Mountain (1927), racialized identity has become a central concern. The shifting of national boundaries after the war, the influx of Eastern European Jews into Germany and the West, the questions of the Sudetenland and Alsace-Lorraine: all these produced a strong emphasis on the need for racial purity.

Just as literary texts seem to have no historical determinants, so they have, in Michaels’s spatialized, structuralist paradigm, no authors. He makes, for example, no distinction between Ernest Hemingway, an author who never offers the slightest critique of the anti-Semitism of his central characters–an anti-Semitism that he obviously shares– and Faulkner, whose understanding of the complexities of black as of white people is of a very different order. Or again, Hart Crane’s touching explanation, made in a letter to his patron Otto Kahn, that he is having difficulties completing his long poem The Bridge, whose aim, so the poet claims, is nothing short of writing “the myth of America,” is simply taken at face value: Crane’s “efforts to capture” the myth, we read, “revolve around the figure of “Pocahontas” (48). But this is to underplay the intense lyric charge of The Bridge, its inability to produce “the myth of America,” even as the poet himself is cruelly anatomized.

History doesn’t count, authors don’t count, and, perhaps most problematically, the reader doesn’t count. No matter that 99% of Faulkner’s readers are entranced precisely by the differences between Jason and Quentin (and Quentin and , and Quentin and Caddy) rather than the obvious similarities of the Compson siblings. No matter that no one outside the American Studies classroom would so much as read the many minor ethnic novels that provide Michaels with his exempla. In fact, the weight of evidence, the endless plot summarizing and teasing out of nativist themes becomes quite tedious, even in this short book. Tedious, that is, until the last ten or so pages, when the book’s polemic thrust is spelled out, when Michaels unleashes his critique of our own identitarian moment, a moment in which, all too often, the “American” past is understood as “the Native American past, the African American past, the Jewish American past, and so on.” (p. 128)

“Why,” asks Michaels plaintively, “does it matter who we are?” For “the real question . . . is not which past should count as ours but why any past should count as ours. . . . the history we study is never our own; it is always the history of people who were in some respects like us and in other respects different. When, however, we claim it as ours, we commit ourselves to the ontology of ‘the Negro,’ to the identity of ‘we’ and ‘they’ and the primacy of race” (128). Thus, “instead of who we are being constituted by what we do, what we do is justified by who we are” (140; my emphasis). Such pluralism or identity-essentialism, Michaels believes, is itself the thinly veiled racism we now practice.

But to what extent is “who we are” determined by “what we do”? As the Austrian and German Jews found out by 1932 or ‘33, what they “did”–which was pretty much what all other Germans did–cut no ice with the Nazis, no matter how well-educated, assimilated, baptized, church-going, or blond and blue-eyed they might have been. And what about Bosnia, where the Serbs have brutally murdered and raped women identified simply by the signifier of gender as women, never mind what these women had said or done? In an imperfect world, as the history of our brutal century has taught us, identity is largely a question of how others perceive us. And that perception depends, in turn, on a host of psychological, political, and cultural factors, with each case being slightly different.

It is this sense of difference that brings us back–or it should bring us back–to the question of the literary. What is literature anyway and why should we study it? On the last page of Our America, we read:

. . . nativist modernism invented a new form of racism and produced a new model not only of American identity but of the other identitities that would now be available in America. . . . Because that conception of culture found its fullest expression as a literary phenomenon and (not, in my view, coincidentally) because the decade of the ‘20s produced a great number of exceptionally interesting literary works, I have focused most of my attention on American literary modernism. Whether or not the privileged position of literature as the carrier of cultural heritage is enviable, it is real and, even though it would certainly be useful to deal with a range of phenomena wider than I have attempted, I believe that any account of nativist modernism would end up making American literary history central (141-42).

The assumptions behind this eloquent conclusion deserve to be unpacked. Why, to begin with, should “literature” be the “privileged” “carrier of cultural heritage”? Why not music or the visual arts or historiography? More important: the notion of “literature” as a “carrier” (it sounds like a vaccine!) implies that it dispenses something outside and above literature that is “real” and can be accessed by means of a verbal conduit. But what and where is this really real that the literary vaccine injects?

“The decade of the ‘20s,” Michaels insists, “produced a great number of exceptionally interesting literary works.” A strange statement, this, coming from an anti-aestheticist like Michaels. For what is it that makes “literary works” “interesting”? And what is it that makes interesting works “literary”? Since Michaels refuses all qualitative criteria, confuting, as the dust jacket of Our America puts it, “the canonical, the popular, and the less familiar,” we can only conclude that what makes certain literary works of the 1920s “exceptionally interesting” is that they exemplify the nativism that is Michaels’s subject. Those works of the 1920s that don’t so exemplify–say Stevens’s “The Snow Man” or Crane’s “Voyages,” or Stein’s portrait of Cézanne — are evidently not “exceptionally interesting.” And evidently they are not “literary” either since they are not privileged “carriers” of the nativist message.

“I believe,” writes Michaels, “that any account of nativist modernism would end up making American literary history central.” Here is the salvage operation by which Michaels’s brand of cultural studies would like to save literature, to preserve it as a field of study. But it will not do. For why do we need to study literature in order to learn about the identity politics of the1920s? Surely there are more informative and efficient ways than to read dozens of what are largely undistinguished novels. What, in other words, can “literature” teach us that the study of American history, culture, and politics can’t? Indeed, I would posit that if literature has no other function than to be the privileged “carrier of cultural heritage,” its study will soon be an anachronism. If we can offer our students nothing better than the moral imperative to read the novels of Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer and Willa Cather because they will teach us about the “cultural heritage” that they “carry,” the response is likely to be a collective and extended yawn. What nineteen-year old will be impelled to read lesser novels written seventy years ago on that argument?

The study of literature, modernist or otherwise, needs better justification than Michaels gives it. The fascination exerted by, say, The Sound and the Fury is that it is at once utterly specific and documentary (one can go to Oxford, Mississipi and photograph the buildings that people Faulkner’s universe) and yet entirely imaginary, mythological, and fantastic. Insofar as the novel embodies nativist notions of miscegenation and reproductive marriage, it resembles the work of any number of lesser novelists, as Michaels points out. But if we regard the glass as half full rather than half empty, we would have to go further and say, yes but look at the astonishing subtlety of Faulkner’s treatment of the nativist theme. Again, if the nativist project were all, why the astonishing linguistic invention that characterizes The Sound and the Fury? Why not just substitute a Cliff-Notes précis for the novel? Surely the “ideas” remain intact. And at the ideological level, it may well be the case that Faulkner’s novel is no more “interesting” than La Farge’s Laughing Boy, which dates from the same year (1929).

Ironically, then, Michaels’ contention that the notion of a racialized identity will emerge as “the crucial feature of modernism” (p. 141), is itself nothing if not an essentialist, indeed an inadvertently racist, claim. For modernism does not, cannot belong to the United States alone, much less to any segment of U. S. culture or decade of U. S. writing. Modernism, as I noted above, goes back at least as far as Baudelaire and Manet in France and includes the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky and fiction of Andrey Bely at least as much as it includes the fiction of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. To cordon off American modernism, not to mention the fiction of the American1920s, from the larger world in which it functioned is to assume the existence of a national (and hence also racial) purity, an ethos that separates “us” from “them.”

But even if we could define American modernism according to its time frame, nationality, and set of family resemblances, it is impossible to assert that it has one “crucial feature.” Michaels knows this well enough, knows that his discussion of nativist modernism has less to do with the 1920s than with what he perceives to be the regressive identity politics of our own day. But in insisting that nativism, with its attendant racism is “the crucial feature” of American modernism, Michaels is doing no more than perpetuating a narrow stereotype of Americanness. Broaden the base, substitute Gertrude Stein’s Geography and Plays (1922) for Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, or Djuna Barnes’s Greenwich Village sketches and short stories for Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1925) and watch the map of American modernism change its shape.

Paradoxically, Our America will thus be of interest chiefly to those already committed to the racialized identity politics Michaels claims to be critiquing. Its prerequisite is a familiarity with the ethnic literature of the 1920s –a literature that stakes its claim precisely on racial and cultural grounds. But for those of us who are not racial purists and who do not subscribe to the “cultural heritage” theory of literary texts, Our America is not so much wrong-headed as it is tautological. Race is always and only race. But then what? “The difference,” as Gertrude Stein (and, by the way, just what was her racial identity?) put it in Tender Buttons, “is spreading.” [1]


Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 461.