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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 10 - 20th Century Prose  


Although giants of literary modernism like Joyce, Proust, and Kafka explored the alienation of their protagonists and lived themselves in varying states of exile or separation from their peers, other modernists extended their gifts outward by working in groups as well as in solitude. While difficulties inherent in the so-called "high modernism" described above made demands that the general public has not wanted to meet, collaborative efforts by many of the same artists attracted wider audience appreciation. Perhaps these artists needed to find social allegiance beyond the fragile self and the closed world of art. Whatever the cause, while one strand of modernist activity focused on the deep psychological probing of personal identity, another, a logical extension of the political nationalism of the nineteenth-century, pursued the quest for a cultural identity.

Diaghilev and The Russian Ballet as Cultural Models

In his private life and his public career, the Russian theatrical producer Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) typifies this twentieth-century need to proclaim identity to the world. A passionate advocate of Russian art, Diaghilev co-edited in his twenties a ground breaking journal called The World of Art, which championed a range of painting, music, and literature denigrated by the conservative cultural establishment of pre-revolutionary Russia. Diaghilev perceived the vigor and originality in the crafts produced by peasant artisans and in the Byzantine church art that critics thought backwards; he saw the aesthetic daring in writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, previously embraced as social realists. Seeing the art of the past in a new way, he created a new artistic synthesis that took from the past and transformed it.

Diaghilev is another example of the modernist in exile, for a number of complicated reasons. Defiantly homosexual, Diaghilev decided to escape from the stultifying conservatism he found in Russia and focus his attention on Europe when a ten-year love affair with a male cousin collapsed.(1) In exile he presided over one of this century's most productive and influential cross-cultural exchanges between Eastern and Western Europe. Always a promoter of his own national culture, he encouraged as well the development of a new international culture. Bringing together poets, musicians, designers, and especially dancers of different nationalities, Diaghilev produced the first multi-media extravaganzas of the twentieth century. The performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that resulted in the riot described in the Introduction to Modernism section was a ballet performance given by Diaghilev's Russian Ballet. Not only the music, but also the costumes, scenery, and strange postures conceived by the dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (who had become Diaghilev's lover) startled and infuriated the first-night audience. Almost eighty years later, with painstaking effort, Nijinsky's ballet has been reconstructed, playing to great acclaim across the United States. By presenting "difficult" work in large public performances, Diaghilev the producer began to break down the barriers between "high" and "popular" art; by acknowledging his sexuality without shame, Diaghilev the man began to break down suspicion and fear of the "deviant."

The Bloomsbury Group

The most influential association of writers and painters in England, the Bloomsbury Group takes its name from the London neighborhood where four siblings settled after the death of their father in 1904. These were the children of Sir Leslie Stephen, a noted Victorian scholar who sent his sons Thoby and Adrian to Cambridge University, where they joined a debating society called the Apostles. In that club the Stephen brothers became acquainted with the distinguished philosopher G. E. Moore (1873-1958). Author of Principia Ethica (1903) and known for his emphasis on moral responsibility and the private virtues, like friendship, Moore insisted on truth and clarity of expression; his conversational partners report that he constantly challenged them to explain exactly what their words meant. After graduating from college, several of the Apostles, including the Stephen brothers and their colleagues Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes, maintained their friendships and continued Moore's pursuit of clarity in Bloomsbury.

Although Oxford and Cambridge began admitting women in the 1870s, Leslie Stephen did not send his daughters Virginia and Vanessa to college. Self-educated, in close association with their brothers, the sisters also perpetuated the Bloomsbury ideals in their work and became the center of a shifting constellation that retained its identity as "Bloomsbury" from the early 1900s until the Second World War. Vanessa married an artist named Clive Bell and as Vanessa Bell became known as an important painter. Virginia married a civil servant named Leonard Woolf and as Virginia Woolf became one of the major novelists of the twentieth century. Around the two couples congregated a circle of modernist writers, painters, and social thinkers who rejected the moral and artistic orthodoxies of Victorian England, and rebelled against the patriarchal values embodied by a man like Leslie Stephen.

Although they were far from rich (the Stephens had moved to Bloomsbury because it was an unfashionable district where rents were cheap), by virtue of their intellectual abilities, this group of friends and lovers formed a kind of aristocracy and made many enemies who thought them self-important and cliquish. Yet the decision to move to Bloomsbury indicates a critical perspective on the upper middle-class values the Stephens might have been expected to share. The lasting legacy of the Bloomsbury Group was its challenge to the rigid intellectual categories of Leslie Stephen's generation. Influenced by the French Post-Impressionist artists, who blurred the outlines of the images they painted in order to represent more truly the complicated optics of seeing, the various members of the Bloomsbury Group sought to render truthfully the world as they saw it.

Among the outlines blurred in Bloomsbury were conventional definitions of sexual orientation and restrictive notions of morality. In their Bloomsbury venue, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell entertained guests and visitors who broke the social and sexual rules that had governed Victorian England.(2) In their intellectual and artistic work as well as in their private relations, they rejected preconceived forms and followed their impulses to their natural conclusions, wherever they led. Many of the Bloomsbury Group experimented with bisexual and homosexual activity and spoke openly and candidly about sexuality at a time when such frankness was taboo.

One of their number was John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), author of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), a central twentieth-century text. This sourcebook of Keynesian economic theory promoted a number of ideas, startling when new, that are now taken for granted. Keynes's insight that deficit spending would revive the moribund economies of the Depression years and his analysis of the effect of tax rates have had a lasting influence on the domestic policies of the United States. In his youth, he was a typical member of the Bloomsbury Group with wide intellectual, cultural, and sexual interests. In his private life, Keynes displayed an emotional agility to match his intellectual acuity. As a young man he avidly engaged in homosexual affairs. Then, in 1925, at the age of 41, he began what was to be a very happy marriage with the Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, a member of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet.

Prime among the artists associated with Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf is another sexually ambiguous modern figure. Celebrated for a prose style crafted precisely to record what one's eye sees and one's words mean, Woolf is best remembered for the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), and for one of the most original feminist statements of all time, A Room of One's Own (1929). She also wrote a remarkable fantasy, Orlando (1928). This book captures the freshness of spirit that characterizes the unconventional Bloomsbury approach to life. A tribute to Vita Sackville-West, whom Virginia Woolf loved, Orlando tells the story of an aristocratic youth who starts life in Elizabethan England. After many adventures, Orlando awakes one morning in eighteenth-century Constantinople to discover that, while otherwise remaining "precisely as he had been," he is now a woman. By showing the elasticity of both time and sexual orientation, Woolf lightheartedly challenges in Orlando the tyranny of rigid thinking that she treats more seriously elsewhere.

If Orlando's happy androgyny suggests that we are all potentially modernists, capable of reshaping the world if we have the courage to see that our personal perceptions of reality are reality, Woolf knew that life was not that easy. Her marriage to a Jew estranged her at some level from even her closest friends, who subscribed to the "genteel" anti-Semitism typical of upper-class British society. So did the recurrent bouts with mental illness that eventually drove her to suicide in 1941. As a Stephen and a denizen of Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf from one perspective is the ultimate insider. From another, she is a permanent outsider, who knew what it meant to be unfashionable, to be sick, to be the butt of subtle prejudice.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970), another writer with links to Bloomsbury, also addressed the problems caused by a sense of estrangement. The poignant epigraph of Howards End (1910), "Only connect," and the depiction in his most enduring novel, A Passage to India (1924), of the difficulty of maintaining friendships in the face of national and cultural differences, may be read as coded references to the difficulties he experienced because of his homosexuality. Early in his career, he wrote Maurice (1913-14), which explicitly describes a homosexual love affair, but he withheld this novel from publication until 1971, a year after his death.

If Forster was wary of acknowledging Maurice, he still joined with Virginia Woolf in writing a public letter to protest the banning of The Well of Loneliness (1928), a pioneering novel by Marguerite Radclyffe Hall (1886-1943) that takes a tragic view of a lesbian heroine with a man's name (Radclyffe Hall dropped the "Marguerite" from hers). Deterred by both internal and external censorship, gay and lesbian writers only recently have begun to find a large readership for fiction that speaks openly of what being a sexual outsider means.

The Harlem Renaissance

In the United States, another group of modern writers, artists, philosophers, and musicians who knew far more painfully what being an outsider means, were linked, like the Bloomsbury set, by locality and by a dedication to discovering a truer identity. While the goal in Bloomsbury was to delineate personal identity, in Harlem it was to define African-American identity. This project had deep roots; parodying Virginia Woolf's pronouncement quoted in the Introduction to Modernism section, Houston A. Baker, Jr., dates African-American modernism from "on or about September 18,1895,"(3) when Booker T. Washington, who built the Tuskegee Institute (founded by the Alabama legislature) into a famous training ground for African-Americans, delivered a speech at the Atlanta Exposition. In this famous speech, Washington urged black Americans to concentrate on vocational education as a means of integrating themselves into the American economic mainstream. He was soon to be criticized for this suggestion by W. E. B. Du Bois, who sardonically referred to the speech as "The Atlanta Compromise." Du Bois argued that by steering the children of slaves away from academic education, Washington perpetuated a stereotype of black inferiority that whites were only too happy to embrace.

In suggesting that modernism begins in the heightened self-consciousness that led Washington to grapple with questions of racial identity, Baker's half-facetious allusion to Virginia Woolf sets an unusually broad time-frame for the Harlem Renaissance, which most critics confine to the 1920s. But he is right to call attention to the major figures who came to prominence at the turn of the century and laid the groundwork for the next generation. Some lived such long and productive lives that they both preceded and participated in the Harlem Renaissance. For example, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), co-author with his brother, J. Rosamond, of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (often called the Black National Anthem), wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the first New York-based book by an African-American, in 1912, and was still an important presence in the '20s, when New York became the focal scene of black art and writing.

In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) prophetically linked the dilemma of racial identity and the modern world when in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, he proclaimed that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." The central insight of this book of poetic essays is to recognize the two souls that give rise to the "double life" of every African-American who lives behind a "veil" in an impercipient white world. Rejecting Washington's "compromise," in place of a self-effacing narrow vocationalism, Du Bois called upon black Americans to insist on the double entitlement that ought to proceed from their double lives. One soul, as it were, had a right to full civic participation in America; the other, to celebrate the strengths of African-American folk culture.

Both Du Bois and Johnson were among the contributors to The New Negro (1925), an anthology of essays, poems, and fiction edited by Alain Locke (1885-1954), for many years the head of the department of philosophy at Howard University and a leading proponent of the African contribution to world culture. Perhaps the central text of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro begins with an introductory essay in which Locke fixes on Harlem as the place where African-Americans can come together "for group expression and self-determination." His anthology presents writing by new as well as established writers; paintings, pictures, and artistic motifs of African derivation; and a group of Negro spirituals. Turning from aesthetic concerns to a scholarly series of political and sociological essays, The New Negro concludes with a set of bibliographies that document a strong and growing African-American culture. Nowhere is this clearer than in a list of music "influenced by American Negro themes or idioms," showing the impact of jazz and black folk music on modern musicians from Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varése to George Gershwin and Deems Taylor.

By the 1920s, then, after centuries of neglect or outright derision, African art had become fashionable. The fascination felt by Picasso and his colleagues in turn-of-the-century Paris with the arts of Africa and Oceania took on a new intensity when African-Americans studied similar materials in the '20s and '30s. It seems fair to say that a personal identification with the forms of African art precipitated a new wave of creativity seen in the work of sculptors like Sargent Johnson and painters like Aaron Douglas who blend realistic portraiture with African and Caribbean decorative motifs.

At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, uptown jazz clubs and concerts at the Apollo Theatre drew integrated audiences who then gathered at parties held in the salons of upper Manhattan. But intrigued as they were by Negro culture, many whites condescended to it, reveling in its "exoticism" (a term, like "primitivism," which could connote wildness or immaturity), and consciously or not, had difficulty granting full autonomy to the artists whose work they patronized. Two writers who struggled the hardest against the trivializing connotations of "primitivism" were among the youngest whose work was presented to the public in The New Negro. One of them, Langston Hughes (1902-1967) had eleven poems chosen for inclusion by Locke. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," written while he was still in high school, Hughes links the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile with the Mississippi, asserting the pull of Africa and the "ancient, dusky rivers" on the imagination of black Americans. But in an autobiographical work, he rejects the "primitivist" label that threatened to limit African-American artists to a fringe existence. Asserting his claim to the American urban experience as well as to an ancient heritage, he insists: "I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem." (4)

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) found it harder to free herself of the stigma of exoticism. Born in Florida and rooted in rural black culture, Hurston had left home in pursuit of a first-rate education. In New York, she studied on a scholarship at Barnard, the woman's college of Columbia University, where she excelled in anthropological studies. She returned to the south and then traveled to the Caribbean as a trained anthropologist, collecting instances of oral folklore. Drawing on her own Southern origins and her academic grounding in anthropology, she wrote dialogue for her poor Southern characters in dialect, displaying in her fiction a rich sense of humor. As a consequence, and because she accepted money from white patrons who prized Hurston's gift for "primitivistic" detail, her reputation as a serious artist suffered. A recent spate of biographical and critical reevaluation, however, has restored Hurston to a place of honor as a major writer. Her best known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), makes no apology for treating Southern blacks secure in their own world and customs. It may postdate the Harlem Renaissance, which ended with the advent of worldwide crisis in the '30s, but in its optimism and verve, it affirms the confidence in a rich African-American cultural identity that this movement fostered.


(1) This cousin co-edited The World of Art.

(2) The greatest casualty of the Labouchere Amendment (1885), which criminalized homosexual behavior in England, was the Anglo-Irish writer, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Riding the crest of a brilliant career as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and other popular works, Wilde was drawn into a legal quagmire by the Marquis of Queensbury, father of young Lord Alfred Douglas, who had become Wilde's lover. Unable to defend himself against the Marquis' accusation of homosexuality, Wilde was imprisoned. Released after a two-year jail sentence, divorced by his wife and reduced to destitution, Wilde died in exile in Paris, a broken man. Wild's martyrdom deeply affected the Cambridge Apostles.

(3)Moderism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p.8. In this book, Baker redefines and enlarges the idea of modernism, because he wants to claim the term for African-American as well as Anglo-American literary and artistic modes.

(4)The Big Sea (New York: Hill and Wang, 1940), p.325.