Modern Period: 1910-1945
Toward the Modern Age; Alienation and Literary Experimentation; The New Negro Renaissance
As with other sections in The Heath Anthology, the anthology itself is a good place to begin class discussion, particularly in its use of the term "modern." Attempts by the class to define this word can lead to questions about where to locate the border between the past and present--a question implied by the phrase " Toward the Modern Age"--and hence to questions about the uses of literary, historical, and cultural classification systems. For example, how does the adjective "modern" affect our reading of a particular text? What difference does it make to read W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Booker T. Washington as precursors of modern African-American literature instead of reading them as descendants of and respondents to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or Phillis Wheatley? Or as contemporaries of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather? Groups of students could be asked to read writers collected in just these different configurations to compare the various perspectives that emerge.
These exercises suggest further experiments in classification and reclassification. In the Instructor's Guide entry for "A Sheaf of Political Poetry in the Modern Era," Cary Nelson asks what difference the label "political" makes in reading these poems--and by extension what difference the same label would make to other texts, or what different labels would mean to the texts in that same section. What if the poems of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Amy Lowell were labeled as primarily "political" rather than "experimental" or "personal"? What is the effect of encountering Langston Hughes in both the section on political poetry and in the section on "The New Negro Renaissance"? Such questions also involve the instructor in the process of critical re-evaluation and reclassification, for as instructors we carry the biases and perspectives of our own academic training and reading histories. For many of us, the definition of the word "modern" in terms of literary history almost automatically suggests the term "modernism." While for many students all of the writers in these sections will be new, for others, as for most instructors, certain names will leap out, but perhaps in unusual or nontraditional places. If, as an instructor, you find it curious to see Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot so separated in the table of contents, or Pound next to Amy Lowell and Eliot in between E. E. Cummings and F. Scott Fitzgerald, such a reaction can be brought into class discussion. These reactions are one way of situating the instructor's reading history and academic training in terms of the particular course, or providing a context in which to evaluate and understand the instructor's expertise, and also to illustrate the benefits offered by unsettling and re-examining traditional patterns of thought.
In a way, these questions of how classification systems are formed--and concomitant questions of how systems of literary and cultural evaluation are formed--return us to the use of "regionalism" as a definitive concept in multicultural pedagogy; the understanding that all classification systems, methods of reading, and historical narratives are social constructions connected to particular historical contexts serving various but equally particular social, cultural, political, and psychological purposes. While the idea of replacing the universal with the regional--or asserting the universality of being regional--may seem new, it's a move comparable to the project of modernism as traditionally understood: the effort to make "Alienation and Literary Experimentation"--terms suggestive of the marginality of the artist as social outsider--into what Eliot regarded as the mainstream of literary tradition--what we refer to today as the "canon." This paradoxical idea of the centrality of alienation often holds an added irony for many students reading these now-canonical high modernist texts for the first time in terms of their own sense of alienation from these self-consciously difficult texts.
Rather than an a priori assumption of the centrality of a certain definition of modernism or the deductive approach outlined earlier, an inductive approach that regards each text as regional turns student frustration and puzzlement--essential parts of the learning process, after all--into material for discussion rather than barriers to be overcome. Instead of guessing ahead of time which writers certain students will find difficult, which accessible, interesting, and boring, the various reading experiences students bring into class, perhaps expressed in the form of a reading log, can lead to questions of audience and purpose. "Alienation" can begin with questions about how writers--all writers, both in the anthology and in the chairs of the class--either consciously or unconsciously invite and/or discourage various groups of readers. These questions lead to other questions about the writer's purpose and strategies, an approach especially though not excusively useful for the most self-consciously experimental and difficult texts, like the work of the Objectivist poets.
Among these purposes and strategies are claims to universality. By beginning with the assumption that all writers are regionalists, we move beyond the idea that while certain groups of writers write for everyone, others represent a special or local case. The writers of "The New Negro Renaissance," for example, are typical, not exceptional, in their attention to the specific contours of particular cultural experiences: the place of African-Americans in U.S. society; the role of the intellectual in the African-American community; the experience of being members of a literary and cultural movement. From this perspective, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens are also regionalists, writing from particular cultural positions to particular audiences. If the traditional high modernists claim universality and cultural transcendence as part of their strategy, these claims are just that-- strategies--and thus comparable with the strategies and claims for universality of Kay Boyle, Langston Hughes, Theodore Dreiser, or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Issues of race, gender, and class affect these strategies in terms of the traditional assumptions they carry about centrality, marginality, and importance: Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound are both gendered writers; T. S. Eliot and Zora Neale Hurston are both writers who deal with issues of race, as well as what constitutes a literary tradition.
Finally, questions of canonicity raise questions of influence; how later writers and readers are affected by the poetic strategies and cultural theories of earlier writers and the implications for reading implicit in those strategies, issues that Eliot himself foregrounded as part of his artistic project. If some students bring to class assumptions about the inherent difficulty and obscurity of poetry, about the need to "interpret" poetry, or even about what constitutes poetry, the consideration of these writers as making various claims about what literature is, who should write it and read it, and what its cultural purposes are, can help students construct a genealogy of their own ideas about literature and reading and/or the ideas they have encountered in previous English classes.
Issues and Visions in Modern America
The texts in this section continue to address the questions of assimilation, confrontation, and transformation of the evolving myth of "Americanness" raised in "New Explorations of An 'American' Self," focusing particularly on the experiences of Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and Southerners. This seemingly incongruous grouping highlights important issues related to that myth: both how that myth is profoundly regional in definition within the borders of the United States (where does the "All American" live? What are the images associated with the idea of a "typical" American town?) and how various immigrants' experiences became conflated within that myth into a single archetypal immigrant's story, usually centered on the arrival of European immigrants in New York. The poetry of anonymous Chinese immigrants not only allows for an exploration of the experience and challenges faced by Asian immigrants arriving in the American West, traveling east to a new land against the traditional European myth of westward expansion, but points out again the importance of recognizing the classroom as region--whether it is located in the South, the West, the Midwest, or the East; and paying attention to and making a subject of class discussion the specific immigration histories the students bring with them as part of their identities.
In addition to the continuing exploration of cultural assimilation and resistance, the other major issue addressed in these selections is the Great Depression, the collapse of the U.S. economic system that intensified patterns of internal migration (from East to West and from South to North) that continue to this day. As with immigration, class discussion can start by investigating the images of the depression in the historical consciousnesses of the class and asking students to explore their own relevant family histories. Such explorations will inevitably raise questions of social class and work, particularly as they relate to various educational institutions (community colleges, regional public universities, research institutions), including questions about the relation of a modern college education to the demands of the marketplace. Thus, reading the work of Meridel LeSueur, Clifford Odets, or Pietro Di Donato highlights not only questions about the role of the artist and the purpose of art, but also the purpose of the college literature course for students facing an increasingly competitive and uncertain economic future. Such a discussion provides an important perspective for considerations of canonicity in terms not just of creating demographically representative curricula in an abstract sense but of classes that address the concerns and ambitions of students by choosing groups of texts that in their action and interaction reflect, amplify, complicate, and clarify these concerns. Reading proletarian literature from the thirties in conjunction with T. S. Eliot, for example, broadens the implications of both types of texts and opens the paths of access to them as well.