Don’t Look Back
09.14.13 8:45 AM ET
Best Year Ever: How 1922 Birthed Modernism
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
—T.S Eliot, The Waste Land.
“Genius.” I remember, in my first year of university, an English professor passing me in the hallway and saying the word as he nodded gravely at my uncreased copy of Ulysses. Then he walked on, presumably off to go make lengthier proclamations in front of larger but no less impressionable audiences.
He was just being enthusiastic, and rightly so, but he managed with that brief assessment to ruin a great book for me for more than a decade. Once I’d heard genius, Ulysses turned from a living thing into a holy relic, to be read with a sense of duty. The wondrous, strange, and downright silly thing the novel must have seemed when it first appeared in 1922 was completely lost on me. How could I get to know Joyce the nose-tweaking iconoclast after he’d been introduced as Joyce the icon?
This is the problem with the modernist writers and artists of the early twentieth century having been proved so right for so long. We forget how exciting it was when they were wrong. All their heresies now look like prophesies.
Critical acclaim is only part of the problem. It doesn’t help that modernism’s leading figures have been turned into cottage industries. Picasso’s silky signature adorns the back of the Citroën C4—incidentally, one of the unsexiest cars ever made. In Dublin, land of a thousand Joyce walking tours, Bloomsday has come to mean payday. Hemingway’s heirs deserve ten percent on every Cuba Libre sold from here to Pamplona, and if you own a bar called Harry’s you should probably send them a check as well. The point is that is becomes increasingly difficult to establish a genuine connection with a work of art the more its creator becomes a legend, or, worse still, a cartoon.
The irony in thinking nostalgically about modernism is that it was a movement whose proponents consciously set themselves against precisely this kind of sentimentality. If the modernists were driven by a desire to push things forward—to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound put it—how can we reconnect with the sense of shock and fantastic possibility that a new work by Diaghilev, Léger, or Woolf inspired when it first appeared? And how do we do so without swinging too far in the other direction, becoming so fixated on the scandal of a groundbreaking piece like The Rite of Spring that we hear the jeers of the famously raucous opening night crowd (and these get noisier with each retelling) more clearly than Stravinsky’s violins?
Kevin Jackson’s new book Constellation of Genius; 1922: Modernism Year One offers us one way in. Despite the “Genius” in its title, this is a history of modernism refreshingly devoid of reverence. Jackson is more interested in the wide-open early days of the movement than in its hallowed end.
The book succeeds by its quirky premise. Jackson tracks several of modernism’s brightest stars over the course of a single year, dropping in and out of their working and social lives, with no real sense of direction other than the ticking off of days. By the end of the book the stars converge into a constellation. We get a sense of how a small group of people working towards a common purpose, whether consciously or not, can converge to shake up the culture.
Jackson sees 1922 as an especially galvanizing year because it began with the publication of Ulysses and ended with the appearance of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the authors of these two works “bent on exploding everything that realist fiction and Georgian poetry held dear.” In dubbing 1922 Modernism Year One, Jackson follows Pound’s suggestion that the previous epoch, which Pound mockingly called the Christian Era, ceased to exist on October 30, 1921, the day Joyce wrote the final words of Ulysses. Pound even started dating his letters from 1922 as “p s U,” for post scriptum Ulysses.
While Joyce’s novel and Eliot’s poem, the “twin towers at the beginning of modern literature,” provide Jackson’s point of departure, he doesn’t spend much time analyzing the works themselves. Instead he describes the milieu in which the works were created and received. If modernism stemmed in large part out of a collective dissatisfaction with the way things stood in the first decades of the 20th century, Jackson shows us both a portrait of that world and of the people who wanted to change it—from the fiery Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to W.B. Yeats, freshly appointed to the Irish Senate.
At times Jackson’s pastiche-1922 can feel a bit like a maddening series of non-sequiturs. In a single day, January 20, we find the Picassos sharing a box with the Hugos and George Auric on opening night of Skating Rink, a ballet for roller skates, with sets by Fernand Léger. Then we’re whisked across the Atlantic for the Broadway premiere of Krazy Kat: A Jazz Pantomime, apparently the first time a concert composer had used the word “jazz” in the title of a major work. Then we’re back in Europe, in a London bed with the flu-stricken T.S Eliot, writing a magazine editor to see if he’d be interested in publishing his “poem of about 450 lines.” The day ends in Iowa, of all places, with a one-sentence entry: “Christian K. Nelson took out a patent on the Eskimo Pie.”
Maddening, but not unpleasant. As Jackson takes us through the publication and reaction to Joyce and Eliot and others, we see how their works inspired fevered discussion, even if this was mostly limited to the cafés of Montparnasse and Bloomsbury. As Malcolm Cowley, an influential figure in the expat literary community in Paris said about the publication of The Waste Land: “We were prepared fervently to defend it against the people who didn’t understand what Eliot was trying to do.”
There is also much appeal in returning to a time when books—the things themselves—were so highly valued. One of Jackson’s best bits involves a frantic Joyce on the eve of the publication of Ulysses, involved in his own odyssey as he tries to secure three copies for Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare and Co. bookshop. Quite rightly untrustworthy of the French postal service, Joyce arranges for his Dijon printer to hand-deliver the books to the conductor of the next morning’s Paris-bound train. Beach goes to the station and finds that only a disappointing two copies have arrived. One copy she displayed to the “crowds [who] poured into the shop all day to gaze at the long-awaited wonder;” the other she gave to Joyce, who took it, still in the packaging, to a celebratory dinner with friends. When he finally unwrapped the package, the toasting and applause attracted the attention of the waiters, who “asked Joyce if he was the author of ‘this poem’ and borrowed the book for a minute to show off to their boss.”
Yes, despite Jackson’s clear-eyed and nostalgia-free traipse through 1922, one finds oneself occasionally pining for a time when a new poem could cause fisticuffs and a new novel could be an object of wonder and amazement. Despite the dangers of such magical thinking, the temptation to conjure an era, when literature seemed somehow to matter more than it does now, is simply too great.
This is why the most telling anecdote in Jackson’s book is from July 22, 1922, the day The Toronto Daily Star published Hemingway’s piece “A Veteran Visits the Old Front.” In the piece Hemingway wrote about having taken his wife to see a few places in Italy where he’d served during the war. The trip had been a lousy idea.
“I had tried to recreate something for my wife and failed utterly. The past was as dead as a busted Victrola record,” wrote Hemingway. “Chasing yesterday is a bum show—and if you have to prove it, go back to your old front.”