The Politics of Irony in American Modernism

The Politics of Irony in American Modernism

The Politics of Irony in American Modernism

The Politics of Irony in American Modernism


This book shows how American literary culture in the first half of the twentieth century saw "irony'" emerge as a term to describe intersections between aesthetic and political practices. Against conventional associations of irony with political withdrawal, Stratton shows how the term circulated widely in literary and popular culture to describe politically engaged forms of writing. It is a critical commonplace to acknowledge the difficulty of defining irony before stipulating a particular definition as a stable point of departure for literary, cultural, and political analysis. This book, by contrast, is the first to derive definitions of "irony" inductively, showing how writers employed it as a keyword both before and in opposition to the institutionalization of New Criticism. It focuses on writers who not only composed ironic texts but talked about irony and satire to situate their work politically: Randolph Bourne, Benjamin De Casseres, Ellen Glasgow, John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison, and many others.


For of course Irony has a history…if we cannot tell what Irony is, we can
tell by what gradations it has become what it is

—J.A.K. Thomson, 1927

Here’s a familiar story: in the weeks after September 11, 2001, the editor of Vanity Fair proclaimed “the end of the age of irony.” a week later, a Time columnist suggested, “One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.” the editor of the New York Observer said that survivors wanted to comprehend the incomprehensible events, and that this desire itself “makes irony obsolete”; a publisher told Entertainment Weekly that “somebody should do a marker that says irony died on 9-11-01.” Subsequent weeks, months, and years saw these quips multiply into the latest iteration of what turns out to be quite an old contest, wherein cultural critics either implored this halfbaked prophecy to fulfill itself or adopted the opposing position, arguing that “As jingoists call for a New Sincerity, we need irony—the serious kind—more than ever.”

Of course, by now the ostensibly empirical question of whether or not irony “died” on 9/11 is long settled; even if you haven’t read The Onion or you somehow missed the ascendancy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert from comedians to respected and influential political analysts, a slew of critical studies and popular pundits have reassured us that irony is indeed still alive and kicking, performing its ancient function of critique and entertainment. This is true, even if writers like Joan Didion would complain in 2003 that “in New York…‘the death of irony’ had already been declared, repeatedly, and curiously,” only to mutter again in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama transformed the United States into an “irony-free zone.” Thus scholars working in philosophy, cultural . . .

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