Book Reviews -- American Culture between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique by Walter Kalaidjian

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Walter Kalaidjian. American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. xvi + 316 pp. $55.00 cloth; $18.50 paper.

The avant-garde, popular, and working-class texts that Walter Kalaidjian discusses in his new work attempt to revise episodes in American culture that together constitute what he calls "a neglected cultural history" (8). Concentrating on such supposedly marginal moments in American culture as the Russian Revolution, the Harlem renaissance, the radical experimentations of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, and the popular interventions of feminism, Kalaidjian dexterously blurs the boundaries between high and low culture, politics and aesthetics, and academicism and popular forms. Kalaidjian's book is divided into five chapters, each of which is, in turn, nicely divided into subsections dealing with a more specific aspect of the theme that the chapter treats. The first chapter, entitled "Revisionary Modernism," discusses the role of transnationalism during the interwar years as a key episode in the shaping of American culture. Within the chapter, Kalaidjian pays particular attention to the influence of the Russian avant-gardes in the formation of a strong Marxist-socialist consciousness in America. The second chapter explores how various "subgroups." like the Chicago John Reed Club, the New Negro movement, and the politicized aesthetics of Diego Rivera, Hugo Gellert, and Louis Lozowick, among others, "signaled a communicative difference from the dominant ideological signs of American commodity culture" (61). The section on Diego Rivera is perhaps the best part of the whole book. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss feminist concerns and radical movements in poetry respectively. Kalaidjian places these two important contemporary movements vis-a-vis the economic, political, and social concerns that he claims inform these movements. The work of authors who tend to reclaim the mode of "cultural critique," whose political edge, Kalaidjian claims, "cuts through the semiosis of everyday life and goes to the heart of postmodern spectacle," is the concern of chapter 5. This chapter criticizes the postmodern emphasis on the disappearance of the "real" (263).

Kalaidjian's purpose is not, however, simply to subvert the traditional, learned critical paradigm. His text shows that in High Modernism, Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, for instance, cohabited with the Dynamo group of poets. Kalaidjian's conflation of such apparently dissimilar poetic modes is not aimed at privileging one over the other. He argues, correctly I believe, that a thorough understanding of the period should take into account both discourses, since frequently the existence of one can throw light onto the other. One commonplace of High Modernist criticism, for instance, is to focus on the ahistorical stance most of the canonical poets adopted. By centering their discursive practices on transcendental concerns, poets like Eliot and Stevens ignored the urgent economic conditions affecting the country. This kind of anti-High Modernist discourse proves futile because it does not move further from the figures it supposedly attacks. Anti-Eliot discourse is, as it were, still focused on Eliot. Kalaidjian pushes beyond this sterile and circular critical move and cleverly shows, for example, how Ben Mait recasts Hart Crane's mythic bridge into a more politicized language to accommodate The Bridge to the discourse of political criticism. Kalaidjian argues that this kind of poetry arose from the period's deep dissatisfaction with American culture's emphasis on an increasingly automated labor process. Thus the critical veneration of such ahistorical writers as Eliot and Pound parallels the fate of society where workers "found themselves increasingly alienated from ever more automated systems of production, engineered and administered by a new class of technological experts" (154). Sol Funaroff, similarly, in "What the Thunder Said: A Fire Sermon," rearticulates Eliot's transcendental and historically unspecific resolution of social disillusion by turning it into a "materialistic vision of international class revolt, linking the unrest of pre-revolutionary Russia to depression era America" (154). …