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Who's Afraid of Wyndham Lewis? : MAKERS OF THE NEW The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939 by Julian Symons (Random House: $19.95; 304 pp.)

January 24, 1988|Nicholas Jenkins | Jenkins is at work on a study of W. H. Auden's early years in the United States

There actually was a revolutionary period in the arts from 1912 (or thereabouts) to 1939 (or thereabouts), wasn't there? It has, after all, a name, modernism; it has, we know, some great and essential texts. Those works, however remote, serene or inaccessible they may now appear to us, have somehow survived, to use Auden's phrase, in the valley of their saying. This one may perhaps lack an arm, another has dropped its nose, but they remain a part of the literary landscape, outlasting, so far, idolatry, neglect and further revolution.

Yet the arts' power of endurance is likely to be balanced nowadays by a sense of its fragility. (Think how many modern poems, say, are fragmentary, mysteriously intricate or voiced by unidentifiable speakers.) Moreover, Julian Symons' dapper survey of some central and not-so-central American and English modernists brings out clearly just how short-lived the triumph of the movement as a whole was. If indeed it ever was a whole, for he ably delineates its factions and nightmarishly tangled affiliations, as well as alluding (few could do more in 300 pages) to the revolution's complex roots and legacy.

Such risks and divergences ran throughout the literary hierarchy. Not only did some of the generals themselves defect--Symons notes, for example, the aesthetic conflict between Eliot's early melodrama "Sweeney Agonistes" and the spongy solemnity of the later plays--but early supporters soon fell away too. Joyce plowed heroically on with "Finnegans Wake" in the face of aghast murmurs from artistic peers, patrons, his brother, even his wife. And from early on, one modernist was set against another: William Carlos Williams leafing through Eliot's Criterion magazine recognized that there was no place in it for "anything I stood for." What pity could they expect, then, from a younger generation? Auden, writing in 1936 at the supposed zenith of modernist hegemony, glanced gleefully at the end of the boom:

Joyces are firm and there there's nothing new.

Eliots have hardened just a point or two.

Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.

There's been a further weakening in Prousts.

And Pound, the most energetic campaigner of all, recognized in simple terms modernism's failure to effect an absolute change of attitude: "If I was in any sense the revolution, I have been followed by the counter-revolution."

Struggling with such an amorphous reality, even the doughtiest surveyor may begin to feel compromised. On the final page of "Makers of the New," Symons, attempting to define the achievement of the masters, turns and addresses his reader with a kind of blurred grimace: "If one were looking to convey them in a sentence, it would say that they changed permanently the language in which poetry is written, and enlarged beyond measure what could be said and the way of saying it in fiction." It is an honor they will presumably have to share with, among others, John Donne ("rediscovered" at just this time) and the movies.

If there is a polemical literary edge to "Makers of the New," it comes from Symons' championing of Wyndham Lewis as a writer equal in stature to any of the great modernists. Unfortunately, though his claims are interesting, they are tantalizingly fluffy. In general, the book is diffuse and (often pleasantly) meandering. As his summary indicates, Symons has chosen to present a broadly historical, evolutionary account of modernism, one that pays greater attention to the personalities and tactics of a literary campaign than to the labor of engaging with the works of art.

Any successful literary movement has to wage--and any full reckoning of modernism must consider--the practical war of propaganda and contract. No doubt Symons' life as a working writer inclines him to stress deals and friendship, the mechanics of a reputation, much as Peter Ackroyd's recent biography of Eliot did, at the expense of drawn-out literary or cultural analysis, but these do at least provide a feasible structure for his vast bulk of material. We start in 1912 with the founding of Poetry (Chicago) and end with the drawing down of blinds on the Criterion in 1939.

The most damaging result of a study that proposes that "the story of literary modernism in the first two decades was the story of little magazines" is the disfiguring of Pound. Trussed and garnished, he becomes a Barnum of the arts and so loses his true status as a great, though intensely problematic, poet. There are, however, many incidental rewards to detailed scrutiny of these publications. Although even here his coverage is far from complete (no mention of Hound & Horn, for instance), Symons does give useful pocket biographies of many secondary but influential figures, including Harriet Monroe, Harriet Shaw Weaver, and John Quinn and Robert McAlmon: fans, backers and editors who helped the artist reach a public.

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