Modernism from Right to Left. Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, & Literary Radicalism. By Alan Filreis. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, xiv + 376 pp., notes, index, 37.50).
Criticism of Wallace Stevens, renowned a decade ago for its hermeticism and formalism, has been reinvigorated recently by a series of works addressing the more historical and political dimensions of Stevens' poetry. A seminal essay by Fredric Jameson in 1984 started this trend; it was pursued by Frank Lentricchia in Ariel and the Police (1988) and Modernist Quartet (1994) and, on a more biographical level, by James Longenbach in Wallace Stevens. The Plain Sense of Things (1991). The work of Alan Filreis, however, represents in many ways the most exciting restoration of material dimensions to the traditionally elliptical charms of Stevens' writing. In an earlier book, Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (1991), he focused upon the poet's political concerns between 1939 and 1955, particularly his response to the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War. Here he goes back to the 1930s and makes a major contribution to our understanding of the literary culture of that era by demonstrating how left-wing radicals knew and appreciated Modernism more than has generally been recognised.
The particular force of Filreis' approach lies in his tremendous capacity for detail. For example, he examines fully attitudes towards the New Deal at the Hartford Insurance Company where Stevens worked, thus suggesting some of the complexities involved in the poet's own response to political and economic issues at this time. He scrutinises Stevens' relationships with professional colleagues like Gilbert Holland Montague and J. Ronald Lane Latimer, thereby refusing the distinction between social and aesthetic spheres which became a conventional part of post-1945 Stevens criticism. Indeed, Filreis sees this process of critical depoliticisation in the late 1940s and l950s as itself a particular product of that Cold War era, a prelude to the literary "canonisation" of Stevens in the 1960s and 1970s. Hence Filreis not only reexamines the 1930s, he also produces an institutional history of how literary criticism in general has been practiced within the modern academy. He is particularly good at spotting how myths of different decades grew up and became professionally reified: how the 1950s liked to engage in "twenties-bashing," for instance, and how the 1930s subsequently became stereotyped as a humourless era which rejected the more adventurous spirit of Modernism.
The effect of Filreis' recuperation of these historical contexts is to portray an American Modernism that took many different directions during the 1930s. Though Stevens was certainly antipathetic to what he called "the ghastly left of MASSES," he was, says Filreis, "searching for a new version of modernism that could contain a response to the events of the day." In this light, "The Idea of Order at Key West" becomes a poem about a specific idea of social and political order, while "Owl's Clover" appears as a "rhyming of opposites," a conscious attempt to mediate between Modernism and Communism. Filreis also shows how other left- leaning literary figures of this time, such as Kenneth Fearing and Muriel Rukeyser, were similarly seeking ways to bridge political commitment with complex theories of aesthetic value.
The overall tone of this work is something like that produced by the Annales school of historians, where microhistorical analysis works to subvert the large generalizations and ossified binary oppositions that have become the staple diet of academic retrospection. If this book has a fault, it is one the author shares with these Annales historians: he occasionally becomes so engaged in chasing his parenthetical asides that the main focus of his argument becomes blurred. Filreis mentions in passing, for instance, 'one W. W. E. Ross of Toronto, whose 'Irrealistic Verses,' a sequence of extraordinarily traditional poems," were appearing in Poetry around 1935; but then he cannot forbear to add qualifying statements about how Ross was a poet "in whom [Marianne] Moore saw great 'ability' (she herself had published Ross's work in the Dial.)" It is the great virtue of this book that it complicates our view of the political and philosophical debates in literary circles during the 1920s, but sometimes one feels Filreis' style is a little more rococo than it needs to be. Nevertheless, this remains an important book; although centred upon Stevens, the relevance of Filreis' argument is more wide-ranging and should constitute essential reading for those interested in American poetry of the 1930s.
University of Nottingham
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