Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon

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Date: Annual 2015
From: Woolf Studies Annual(Vol. 21)
Publisher: Pace University Dba: Pace University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,484 words

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Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon. Lise Jaillant (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014) xi + 211pp.

Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon, the seventh volume in Pickering & Chatto's Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace series, offers a book historical view of modernism. Lise Jaillant's study of the Modern Library, a cheap reprint series created in New York in 1917, provides ample evidence for the argument that modernism was not just the province of highly educated elites or well-heeled purchasers of expensive hand-printed books. The Modern Library, as Jaillant suggests, combined "New York glamour and intellectual sophistication with a very affordable price" (2). Jaillant makes it clear that this was an important cultural institution for the American reading public through the 1920s and 30s, and her detailed and archivally rich study more than lives up to its fascinating subject.

Jaillant begins by offering a broad overview of the Modern Library's history, situating her work in the context of the new modernist studies and related studies of middlebrow culture of the early twentieth century. She offers a careful analysis of the Modern Library's marketing, its advertising, its design principles, its cultural influence, and, with the necessary qualifications about sparse evidence, its readers. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is Jaillant's focus on the Modern Library's pedagogical aspirations. The series was designed, she suggests, to allow its purchasers to become well-read autodidacts. The Modern Library acted as a kind of affordable curriculum, the authority of the publisher's imprint suggesting titles that would contribute to a reader's sense of having gained a coherent rather than a haphazard understanding of the contemporary literary world. The photograph Jaillant includes of the Modern Library's custom-built bookcase to house its series shows the publisher attempting to cultivate reading and buying habits by offering interior design appeal as well as a literary education. Jaillant's book is illustrated throughout with dust jackets and images from the archives. The well-chosen illustrations support her arguments: seeing the strikingly similar looking covers for the anthology Fourteen Great Detective Stories and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist ..., for instance, affirms the Modern Library's emphasis on continuities rather than distinctions between genres.

According to Jaillant, the Modern Library series is a quintessential middlebrow endeavor. Following Catherine Keyser's definition of the term ("mass-market venues and middle-class audiences to formal characteristics of literary style" [5]), Jaillant explains that the Modern Library series popularized literary modernist texts by producing them at an affordable price point and marketing them as aspirational possessions for middle-class book buyers. This is, as Jaillant herself notes, a positive spin on middlebrow culture, and it is an approach that admits modernist literary works into what might be described as a middlebrow publishing endeavor. Woolf's own characterization in her wry essay "Middlebrow" is famously less charitable: middlebrows are difficult to define because they are "neither one thing nor the other"; they are overly concerned with propriety and manners; they are possessed of a muddled and tasteless approach to art. And yet, when it comes to book buying, Woolf suggests that middlebrows are drawn to dead writers and repackaged versions of the Classics. The Modern Library, with its specific mandate to promote living literary culture, would not quite fit Woolf's mocking characterization. Jaillant offers a new way of looking at the "betwixt and between" that emphasizes the ways in which middlebrow and highbrow can work together.

After a thorough introduction, Jaillant examines some of the modernist texts from both sides of the Atlantic that were published in the series, contextualizing them alongside some lesser-known titles with which they appeared. The authors she focuses on are H. G. Wells, whose work she reads alongside Science and Sex titles; Sherwood Anderson, whose reputation was much enhanced by the publication of Winesburg, Ohio in the series; Joyce, whose Portrait she somewhat surprisingly reads alongside detective fiction; Willa Cather, whose Death Comes for the Archbishop, shows the maturation of the series in the 1930s; William Faulkner, whose introduction to the Modern Library edition of Sanctuary famously describes the book as "a cheap idea"; and, of course, Woolf.

The Woolf we meet in Jaillant's chapter is well established in England by the time Mrs. Dalloway appears in the Modern Library series, but her reputation in America is up for grabs. It's 1928, and Mrs. Dalloway already has what one of the advertisements describes as a "small but enthusiastic fan base" (85). Jaillant points to 1928 as another important date in the history of modernism (after the much discussed 1922) because by this time modernist texts were beginning to move from smaller venues to larger-scale commercial operations. In other words, modernism was going mainstream. Also in 1928, Harcourt and Brace published Orlando in the United States and touted it as a text that would make Woolf a less intimidating writer (Jaillant quotes amusingly blunt advertisement copy--"Now She Can Be Popular!"--to show just how clear the publishers were about wanting to expand modernism's public). Attacks against Woolf's snobbery and highbrowism by the likes of Q. D. Leavis and the anonymous reviewer to whom Woolf responds in "Middlebrow" were reframed in the American press as positive values: Jaillant points to a New York Times review of Orlando as the newest book on the scene and the one that promises to break down the barriers between high and low cultures. Free of highbrow associations, Jaillant suggests, Woolf is able to focus on her pedagogical approach to reading without encountering preconceptions about her own sociocultural position.

Woolf's interest in autodidacticism for the common reader comes across in her preface to the Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway. As Jaillant points out, Woolf seldom wrote prefaces at all, since they tended, she thought, to unduly influence reader experiences. The Mrs. Dalloway preface contains a description of Septimus as Clarissa's double that was immediately taken up by critics in their analysis of the text in the 1930s. However, what interests Jaillant about the preface is its direct address to the common reader that seems to undermine the very authority of the preface even as it affirms Woolf's belief in free interpretation: "it would still be for the reader to decide," Woolf writes, " what was relevant and what not" (89). The contradictory nature of Woolf's preface--which simultaneously renounces the idea of guiding a reader's experience and at the same time suggests an interpretation--supports Jaillant's argument that the Modern Library series often shows the complexity of cultural categories as these are mediated by publishing practice. Slightly less convincing is her conclusion that the presence of Woolf's preface in the Modern Library series and her advocacy of the "common reader" may have caused the decline of her reputation as an essayist after the Second World War as the series began to be seen as a more crassly commercial endeavor. Interesting as the Mrs. Dalloway preface is, the suggestion that it was influential enough on its own to significantly alter Woolf's reputation on both sides of the Atlantic seems like an overstatement of its importance.

The chapter illuminates a frequently overlooked context for Woolf's reception in America in focusing on the Modern Library, and will be of particular interest to Woolf scholars who work on the 'brows', reading, paratextual evidence, publishing, and pedagogy. At times in the chapter it is clear that Jaillant is a modernist book historian rather than a Woolf specialist. The comparison between Woolf's reception in an English context and her reception in America here would have benefited from further development, especially on the English side where more work has been done. In particular, Jaillant still seems to characterize the Hogarth Press as a small press akin to a little magazine, despite the fact that by 1928 it was publishing bestsellers alongside handmade books, and, as Helen Southworth and Elizabeth Willson Gordon have recently shown, the Press was more than equal to the task of distributing its titles widely within England. Woolf herself reached a large public through the Hogarth Press, and this complicates Jaillant's notion that inclusion in the Modern Library series represented a transition from small to large circulation.

Jaillant's study offers a detailed and carefully drawn study of the Modern Library's version of Woolf and her contemporaries. Scholarly work on the institutions of modernist literary culture has tended over the past two decades to focus more on small-scale operations. Yet, the role of larger commercial publishers in disseminating modernist literature in the form of reprints deserves further investigation, and as Jaillant amply demonstrates, the idea of a widely read modernism is not contradictory. This kind of scholarly work on publishing history and reception is especially relevant as more book history studies focus on the reception as much as the production of literature. Jaillant's study introduces us to the books that Woolf's early American public would have encountered and helps us begin to characterize those ever-elusive historical figures: her readers.

Claire Battershill, University of Reading

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A410506496