Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Andrezej Gasiorek, Alice Reeve-Tucker, & Nathan Waddell, eds, _Wyndham Lewis and the Cultures of Modernity_

A WORTHWHILE COLLECTION of essays by many hands on our man Wyndham, anchored on either end by heavyweight-class Lewis scholars Paul Edwards and Alan Munton, with strong pieces in between by old hands Scott Klein (Lewis on Charlie Chaplin) and Gasiorek himself (Lewis's cultural & aesthetic criticism of the 1930s).

The real treat of the volume for me, though, was the pieces by people whose scholarship I was encountering for the first time--Michael Hallam on Lewis's relationships with maverick feminists Rebecca West and Naomi Mitchison, Ian Patterson on John Rodker (model for a striking character in The Apes of God), Jodie Greenwood taking on Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism (and prevailing, I'd say), Alexander Ruch on Lewis and the state patronage that came to him late in his career, co-editors Reeve-Tucker and Waddell comparing Lewis on the "Youth-cult" to Waugh on the Bright Young People.

I can't double-check, having already sent the book back to its home at a university in Alabama, but I think nearly all of the contributors were at English universities.  Not surprising, since the project seems to have originated there, but it made me think that relatively few American scholars do the kind of investigation these people are doing.

In recent decades, the ordinary pattern for a lit-crit dissertation in the U.S. is to devote a chapter to a proposition about literature and (for example) gender, sexuality, imperialism, commodification, or some combination, drawing on two or three prominent theory people, then to have three chapters on texts by different authors, each establishing your proposition in some way. And this is a practical way to go about getting a doctorate, after all, as the writer shows he or she can do what literary scholars are supposed to do (master theory, closely analyze texts) and can easily break out chapters or parts of chapters for conference papers and articles.

The disadvantage--perhaps--is that, were the writer to do The Apes of God as one of his or her close-reading chapters (hard to imagine, actually, but this is just an example), he or she would probably not read a lot else by Lewis, or much of the secondary literature on Lewis besides what was explicitly devoted to Apes, and would certainly not bother digging very far into who this John Rodker (say) that Lewis so viciously caricatures as Julius Ratner actually was.

There is a certain kind of deep-mining literary scholarship, in other words, that we in the U.S. just do not seem to do any longer.

Because of the triumph of theory? Because there is just no new info to turn up on, say, Jane Austen or James Joyce? Because the juicier professional rewards lie elsewhere?

Well...I don't know. But I'm grateful to the editors for getting something like this into print.

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