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Book Review : A Personal, Unrevised View of America's Literary '20s

June 07, 1985|EDWARD M. WHITE | White, professor of English at Cal State San Bernardino, has just published "Teaching and Evaluating Writing" (Jossey-Bass). and

The Awakening Twenties: A Memoir History of a Literary Period by Gorham Munson (Louisiana State University: $19.95)

Gorham Munson was a minor light among the journalists and editors who felt themselves to be "reawakening" American literature and America itself during the second and third decades of this century. An intimate of some of the major figures (such as Hart Crane and Waldo Frank) and an acquaintance of virtually all the others, Munson brings a special personal--even chatty--tone to this memoir. Although completed before his death nearly 15 years ago, it appears now with unstated cuts and editorial revisions approved by the author's widow.

Useful, Interesting

Thus, Munson's work presumably antedates much of the recent interest in the '20s and was written before such detailed revisionist books as Geoffrey Perrett's "America in the Twenties" (1982). When Munson argues that "the mood of awakening" of the early '20s "was more characteristic of the time than the moods vulgarly known as 'flaming youth' or 'lost generation,' " his position has the authenticity of one who was there and saw clearly what was going on. Anyone seeking to understand the roots of 20th-Century American thought and literature will find this memoir useful and interesting.

Of course, his point of view is also severely limited by what he did see and by his highly personal perspective. Historians do not grant him much of a place in the events he describes, though he tends to see himself (naturally enough) in the center of his world. Those looking for a large perspective on the '20s will look elsewhere, but there is always room for a warm and narrowly personal view of important people and events.

Here, in all of their vitality, energy and sense of cultural leadership are Randolphe Bourne, Alfred Kreymborg, Alfred Stieglitz, Yvor Winters, Kenneth Burke and the others who saw themselves in the vanguard of an American risorgimento. Rather, in the wings are Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner and the others who were not part of the New York scene. Though essentially written at the University of California, Davis, the memoir seems never to have crossed the emotional Hudson River; New York is not only the center of the cultural world but virtually the whole of it. No matter. Almost everyone of importance seems to have passed by Munson's flat in Greenwich Village and to be captured in his gossipy account.

"In the fall of 1923, one could walk about Greenwich Village and find a good unfurnished apartment for rent within a few hours. I took a small one on West 11th Street and moved in on Oct. 1. On the fourth night after, at about half past 10, the bell rang insistently; but I had gone to bed and did not answer. . . . I learned when I went down for the mail that it was Charlie Chaplin who had called the previous evening. In my mailbox I found a note from Waldo Frank explaining the call. Frank invited me to follow him and Hart Crane and Charlie Chaplin over to Paul Rosenfeld's apartment. . . ."

Some Treasures

Those who are taken by this kind of personal account will find riches everywhere in Munson's memoir. Each of the 15 chapters focuses on a single idea, place or person as he experienced it: "The New Freedom and the New Nationalism," "Alfred Stieglitz and '291'--A Creative Source of the Twenties," "The Classicism of Robert Frost." Typical is Chapter 9, "Magazine Rack of the Washington Square Book Shop," in which Munson details his browsing habits in 1920. We turn pages with him through the latest issues of the New Republic, Dial, Nation, Freeman, Little Review, Vanity Fair, Modern School, Smart Set and Plowshare. While looking through the issues, we meet the editors and writers who created these journals, their writing and drinking habits, and the fates of the magazines themselves. Standing at the counter with Munson thumbing through the fresh pages (he could not afford to buy them, cheap as they were), we sense the excitement of the literary scene.

"Whether we looked for and found ourselves or our compatriots in the pages of those first little magazines, the experience was uniquely invigorating. These were the magazines of the young intelligentsia; these were our magazines. And this was our magazine rack in our book shop."

There is a nice irony in this 15-year-old brand-new book reminding us of the youth and vigor of those we often think of as old and hoary. How often do we consider Robert Frost as a young and rebellious poet? Munson's personal memoir, limited though it is, is a welcome contribution to the vigorous reassessment of the '20s that has been going on since his death.

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