"What is Modernism to me?" Individual Selves and Collective Identities in African-American Women's Writing, 1920-1935
journal contributionposted on 28.04.2017 by Claire Corbould
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"The brick wall that is any attempt to define 'modernism' sent me running to the Oxford Companion to English Literature. Here I found that in an effort to break thoroughly with the past, modernist writing is characterised in part by an awareness of the unconscious and an interest in the presentation of personality. At the very least, it can be assumed that popular conceptions of modernist writing concern the 'inner' self, its relationship or interaction with the 'outer' self, and, more generally, the presentation of the individual (1). Moreover, popular definitions of modernism –in the USA as well as in Britain – continue to prioritise the avant-garde and experimentation with form. Perhaps the most famous examples are Molly Bloom and Alice B. Toklas. Bloom's 'stream-of-consciousness' account which concludes James Joyce's Ulysses is taken as emblematic of modernist expression, and is cited as such by the Oxford Companion (2).
"It is easy to see how, within such paradigms, the cultural production of the Harlem Renaissance has been neglected in the historical consideration of modernism. Nathan Huggins, in his important 1971 work, Harlem Renaissance, exemplifies this attitude in his discussion of the poetry of the period. Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, he argues, were hamstrung by their adherence to forms such as the sonnet. Such formalism, he argues, reflects a basic conservatism. Cullen, was, a 'perfect example of a twentieth-century poet marching to a nineteenth-century drummer ... [he] liked form, he liked words, and he liked rhyme, but he never experimented with any of them'"