Modernism Reevaluated

Modernism Reevaluated

Countering the Counterculture
Manuel Martinez
Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2003.
The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth Century American Literature
Michael Soto
Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 2004.

Walton Muyumba reviews two books: Michael Soto’s The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance and American Literature (2004) and Manuel Martinez’s Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomás Rivera (2003).

Michael Soto’s The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance and American Literature (2004) and Manuel Martinez’s Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomás Rivera (2003) are interrogations of modernism, the construction of American identity, and the production of American literary history. Both critics scrutinize American modernism in the interest of examining the complex influence that racial and ethnic identities have on the construction of American literary movements and literary history. Modernist Nation constructs a history of modernist literary movements and their labels as a way of detailing the improvisational qualities of American identity. Countering the Counterculture deconstructs modernism and the Beat Generation in order to describe alternate narratives of countercultural dissent and American identity through Mexican American literature. Soto and Martinez’s works are important contributions to American literary studies because they illustrate how racial and ethnic experiences make claims on the shape of our cultural traditions and critical practices; as such, both books add to the on-going conversations in American Studies and American literary studies. Along with recent scholarship such as Brent Hayes Edwards’ Practicing Diaspora, Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World, and Scott Saul’s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, Soto and Martinez’s books confront the centrality of ethnic and racial experiences to the narratives that make up American identity. Rather than erasing those experiences, they examine the crucial role that race and ethnicity play in our understanding of the Lost and Beat generations and thus the role that both play in our cultural identities.

The arguments that Soto and Martinez put forward about the nature of American cultural history counter those made by Walter Benn Michaels’ in Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995).Michaels’ continuation of this argument in the context of world politics at the “end of history,” or post-cold-war, is discussed by Lori Emerson in her review of The Shape of the Signifier. Like Emerson, Michael Milner is suspicious of Michaels’ argument in The Shape of the Signifier that being committed to a subject position evacuates the possibility of political disagreement. See Millner’s essay “Post Post-Identity.” Rev. of The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, by Walter Benn Michaels and “So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism,” by Kenneth W. Warren. American Quarterly, 57.2 (2005): 541-554. Michaels contends that critics should rid themselves of the modernist conception of cultural identity because its definition relies insidiously on essentialist racial identities. He suggests that cultural identity and cultural pluralism are markers for “understanding identity as the privileged object of social contest” (139). But that contest ultimately reveals identity and culture as interchangeable equivalents. This equivalency is dubious, Michaels explains, because the modernist idea of cultural pluralism is an oxymoron; “its commitment to culture is contradicted by its commitment to pluralism. For on the one hand, the pluralist claim that our practices are justified only because they are better for us requires us to be able to say who we are independent of those practices and so requires us to produce our racial identity” (Michaels 139). Ultimately, what’s wrong with cultural identity is “not that it developed out of racial identity” but that, “without recourse to the racial identity that (in its current manifestations) it repudiates, it makes no sense” (Michaels 142). However, Michaels’ reading does not provide a way to account for identity once we are free of cultural identity or essentialist racial identities. How do we negotiate or grapple with our racial history or our miscegenated culture without discussing racial or ethnic experiences? How do we discuss the complex task of constructing identities in our historically (and sometimes violently) racist society? Though Michaels’ argument shows us the racial problem at cultural identity’s core, he does not present a serious philosophical stance or theoretical concept to replace cultural identity.

In answer to the foregoing questions and as a proposed replacement for cultural identity as we know it, one might turn to Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark, a philosophical theorization of black political solidarity. Shelby’s argument maintains a “thin” socio-political sense of African American identity while holding a healthy suspicion of any kind of cultural or racial essentialisms. Shelby’s philosophy, which is connected to W. E. B Du Bois’ idea of “race preservation” and Alain Locke’s concept of “secondary racial awareness,” views black identity as a “practical necessity” for the social bonding of a “multiracial ‘nation’ … committed to social equality, democratic citizenship for all, self-government, and the cultivation of a vigorous citizenry” (We Who Are Dark. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. 50-51). Similarly, Soto’s analysis of literary modernism illustrates an interplay between political conceptions of identity and suspicions of essentialism.The Modernist Nation examines the relationships among the social, political, and economic shifts that gave birth to American modernism, the construction of literary movement labels, and the theories of racial/ethnic identity can be encoded within these labels. Soto’s claim that the use of terms like “generation” or “renaissance” as descriptive metaphors for literary groupings “endow the literary artifacts falling within their rubrics with a socially significant aura; they teach us not just what to read, what counts as literature, but also how to read, why literature counts as literature” (7). The point is that the rhetoric of self-creation and rebirth are quintessential elements of the American ethos because we desire such sensibilities. Soto explains that this desire springs from the rhetoric of generation and renaissance that emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century along with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s attempts to define the American ethos. Soto finds that Emerson’s famous meditation “The American Scholar” is the progenitor of generational rhetoric. Emerson’s motivation in the essay is to describe American culture as a specific tradition on equal footing with European or Classical cultures. His claim initiated an effort that has dominated the attention of American writers for the last two centuries. But this Emersonian charge to identify a “desire for an American not yet arrived” is also what he identifies in his journals as the hope for an American Renaissance (Soto 60).

Emerson’s claim of American tradition required the language of birth and rebirth. Soto argues that the products of this claim do not arrive until the twentieth century when American writers were separating themselves from the Victorian artists of the late nineteenth century. On this point The Modernist Nation is a corollary to Ann Douglas’ Terrible Honesty (1995). Douglas describes this Emersonian rhetoric as a dramatic psychological battle, making U. S. modernism a scuffle between two cultural desires that emerge from ideas of generation and renaissance: the American effort to assert cultural emancipation from feminine, sentimental Victorian England and the effort to celebrate America’s bi-racial heritage (Douglas 6).This genealogical theme becomes even more pressing an issue when Douglas scripts her drama around key players like Sigmund Freud and his intellectual adversary William James - family romance and the pyschological self versus the stream of consciousness and philosophical “turning away.” But rather than see this as a battle, we might consider American modernism as a combination of Freud and James’ perspectives. For instance, American artistic modernism might be read as a label placed on works by artists who exhibit or express Freudian themes about the pyschological desire for metaphysical connection between the individual self and the memorial past while simultaneously, in Jamesian fashion, “turning away” from that connection as the epistemological foundation of identity. The key to this process, Douglas explains, was that Americans willfully constructed a collective orphan ethos. “Orphans,” writes Douglas, “by definition originate their own genealogy; they are disinherited, perhaps, but free” (Douglas 27). Following Douglas’ insights, Soto argues that American literary modernism provides a frame that first generates narratives of birth or rebirth - orphan status - in order to create space for the creation of improvised American identities. Soto presents several examples of these generative movements, the two most significant being the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance.

The manufactured Lost Generation was a combination of “young” literary artists of a particular location and biology, and vocal critics who helped to diagnose the cultural condition. Soto rallies a series of critics - Octavio Paz, Karl Mannheim, Van Wyck Brooks, and Henry Seidel Canby - in order to describe a theory of generation. The key to this theory is that “members belong to a generation by being ‘similarly located’ in terms of chronology and sociohistorical space (which for Mannheim, as for Paz, means nation-space); in other words, they experience the same sociohistorical phenomena in similar fashion, with the same vocabulary, so to speak. But this describes only the inherent potential of a generation” (24). A generation, then, meets its actuality in the small groups that form within it. These “generational units” present on the symbolic level the ideological differences that exist among the members of a specific generation. Quoting Mannheim, Soto explains that “youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same actual generation; while those groups within the same actual generation which work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways, constitute separate generation units” (Soto 24). But the artists who constitute this younger generation make up an identity that is arbitrary and protean. While literary critics of the 1920s were willing to use the term ‘Lost Generation’ to define the younger generation of writers, the definitions were multiple. As Soto puts it, this grouping is “an ill-defined accident of literary history” (Soto 43).

While the Lost Generation may be wayward and accidental, Soto explains that Alain Locke’s introduction to The New Negro (1925), like Emerson on American literature and W. B. Yeats on the Irish Renaissance, imagined a Negro literature “in the future tense.” Consider reading the Harlem Renaissance as both an imprint of the Irish Renaissance and as an attempt by political and cultural orphans to recreate themselves as a whole, unified, future-oriented Negro tradition. Even before it had begun, the Negro Renaissance was identified - it had to be named before it could be. In this way, Harlem Renaissance rhetoric followed a clear agenda unlike other American renaissances or generations. Writers like Locke, W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson were, in various ways, working “to re-create the past and to imagine the future of African American literature” (Soto 79). While the life span of the Harlem Rennaissance rhetoric was short - from the turn of the century until 1930 - Soto believes that “with greater clarity than any of its American Renaissance counterparts, it envisioned an African American literary emergence predicated on the familiar ideals of art, youth, and provincialism” (Soto 79). However, it is clear now that just as Yeats’ romance of Irish ethnicity was inconsistent, so was the romance of Negro-ness. Ultimately, renaissance rhetoric, like generational rhetoric, leads to reductive critical positions because it calls for essentialist thinking about the group (Soto 90).

Soto’s evaluations are valuable because he sees the traps of essentialist thought in movement labels. But unlike Michaels’ desire for a race-free critical palette, the writers, readers, and critics mutually indebted to the ideologies of self-creation and rebirth color Soto’s critical vision. Soto suggests that the key component to the assertion of orphan or youth status is to see that much of American modernism celebrates bohemian culture. The bohemian narrative became important to American writers and critics because it served dual purposes: on one hand, bohemian culture helped create space between the early American modernists and Victorian England; on the other hand, the image of the bohemian drew the American character closer to the “Old World” bohemia - the bohemian helped make American literature transnational. “The range of linguistic associations attached to the word ‘bohemian,’” writes Soto, “reveals how the concepts of artistic iconoclasm and cultural independence mingle and even overlap with their ‘antagonistic complimentaries,’ respectable imitation and artistic conformism” (Soto 99). Even as the literati work to create a new generation out of its orphan status, the group also measures itself in terms of the tried and true notions of artistic freedom. Thus, spaces such as Greenwich Village, Harlem, and North Beach (San Francisco) became equivalents for the Parisian left bank.

Soto sees these bohemian dreams best realized in the language of jazz, although he is not interested in reaffirming any notions of the “Jazz Age.” He is more concerned with what learned writers garnered from jazz improvisation. Soto examines how jazz becomes the language of modernism. While jazz as a metaphor for identity emerges from African American bohemia, it still becomes the language for the American desire to improvise the self in relation to the past and future.

Soto’s lineage of literary jazz modernists extends from Walt Whitman to Toni Morrison and incorporates writers as different from each other as Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay. What draws them together is an ability to give language to and dramatize the process of becoming “othered,” to crossing racial, gender, and ethnic boundaries to become American. In this sense Americanness is not a contest to expurgate difference. Rather, racial, gender, and ethnic differences cooperate antagonistically. Interestingly, when we consider Stein and McKay, for instance, both affirm the emerging, future status of American sensibilities while working and living in Paris and Marseilles - thus also becoming part of the bohemian/improvisational sensibility. Their characters, like McKay’s bohemian writer “Ray” in Home to Harlem and Banjo, help us determine the shape and look of the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance without having to set them on U.S. soil. The bohemian village spaces are not only physical localities; they are also abstract spaces that can be filled by writers who are linked by socio-historical proximity rather than geographic “neighborhoods.”


This abstract sense of generational and geographical continuity, as well as concerns for jazz improvisation, are equally important concepts to come to terms with in discussions of the Beat Generation. Martinez’s instructive Countering the Counterculture illustrates, in ways that Soto does not, the dangers of using ethnic or racial cultural traditions to name a generation broadly. Though Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg craved spontaneous movement and individuality, their twin portals to new American-ness, the Beats weren’t keen on the ethnic margin’s call to claim the same release from the stranglehold of white American sensibilities. Driven by the wish to escape the doldrums of white masculinity, Kerouac, for instance, searched the ethnic margins of the mainstream to find the avant garde ignition he needed to charge his new individuality. In our usual dealings with Kerouac and the Beats, the margin was Negro and improvisation was the key trope. Although Soto’s analyses anticipate the jazz literature of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones, his reading does not acknowledge the problems that arise from under-theorized conceptions of improvisation.

Understanding the Beat conception of improvisation is helpful in comprehending Martinez’s case against the standard narrative of the counterculture. For the Beats, improvisation is another word for re-generative border-crossing. They believed (erroneously) that jazz improvisation provided access to an empowering marginality, that the black and brown bodies of the jazz world were embodiments of a powerful hypersexual, hyper-masculine order. Norman Mailer’s infamous analysis of hipster and Beat ideologies in “The White Negro” (1957) theorizes that the hipster pose or style is an attempt to embody “the Negro” ethos. Mailer suggests that the Negro’s social and political marginality forces him to negotiate the American scene with an innate ability for grace under pressure. By his logic, life in the Negro margin is a daily trial of violence and oppression best negotiated by a mythical black masculine power. The white American mainstream once owned this power but it is now lost or, at least, repressed. Mailer opines that the social marginality of the black male body provides powerful license for irresponsible sexual consumption of other bodies; the goal is to achieve one “apocalyptic” orgasm after another.See Scott Saul’s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (2003) and David Yaffe’s Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (2006) for further analysis of Mailer’s vision of jazz, the hipster, and Negro sexual prowess.

The Beats are attracted to the Negro, particularly the Negro jazz musician, because he has constructed the marginal, revolutionary, and radical cultural position that the Beats covet. “So it is no accident,” writes Mailer, “that the source of Hip is the Negro, for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knifelike entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation.”Mailer is aware of America’s racial complexities, yet he maintains the most essentialist conceptualizations of African Americans. Though Mailer’s measurements of Negro life are imprecise, to say the least, it is worth noting that his sense of the American social maelstrom and his exposure to the milquetoast quality of 1950s white liberalism is deft and intelligent. In order for the Beats to see that jazz had the potential to aid their constructions of a strident, new white American masculinity, they had to first imagine that cultural/political margins existed for their intrusion and then they had to racially essentialize the inhabitants of these margins, whether they were African American or, in the case of Martinez’s study, Mexican American.

Burroughs was the first of the Beats to seek the ethnic margin in order to find resuscitation from the airlessness of mid-century corporate American life. Burroughs traveled to the western United States, Mexico, South America, and Africa to find escape from effete, modern, Western commercial life and to return to a guttural, earthy masculine pre-modern culture. Following his lead, Kerouac and Ginsberg individually ventured into the West in search of an organic masculine sensibility and American-ness. However, these trips across the American border into Mexico, for instance, were not attempts to retrieve older Mexican cultural forms, pushing them across the border in order make American culture anew. The Beats wanted to save themselves by escaping the boring American moment and merging into the compliant brownness of marginality. Martinez explains this move to the margin as part of a pose of American superiority; “it was a carefully thought-out historical telos” (Martinez 59). The sojourns into bohemian zones like colonial Tangiers were driven by imperialist attitudes. That is, the brown skinned people of Tangiers and Mexico were living in “Fellaheen” worlds removed from the expectations of History or the West and primed for “imperialist” intellectual invasion.

These ventures into the margin strike me as generation making gone amuck. Clearly, the movements into Fellaheen worlds were determined efforts to articulate not only orphan desires for generation or rebirth but also masculine American attitudes of consumption. While we often think of the Beats as rolling across the expanse of the nation in search of themselves, Martinez also shows us that these road trips were reconnaissance missions to find the most fertile lands for poaching, generating newness at the expense of the Fellaheen space. What is surprising about Martinez’s evaluations is that he shows us that the Beats never really moved from what was “boring” and dominant about the American masculine and political sensibilities - they repackaged American-ness by encroaching upon the margin.

Analyzing Burroughs’ libertine individualism, for instance, Martinez describes his literary and geographic journey as a search for

transformative power to renew, to escape boredom, to find the means to transmute the power of death into the power of life. Thus [Burroughs’s] exploration with drugs itself becomes an attempt somehow to transcend the self while remaining the self … . But in his attempt to change and expand, he conflates the growth of the self and the growth of nation, the uses of personal movement with the imperative to expand the market, all fueled by the fear of invading foreign subjects. The liminal imperative becomes the imperial liminality. (Martinez 61)

Imposing the new American self across borders expands market economic sensibility and stems the flow of brown migrants into white America. Kerouac moves similarly into the margin to produce an uncontained individual self, in turn, as Martinez explains, creating a strange liminality. In On The Road (1957), for instance, Kerouac puts his protagonist Sal Paradise in a spot where he can simultaneously enact a conquest of a Mexican girl “using her as a sexual conduit into vicarious ethnicity” and exercise “a form of domination over the feminine” (Martinez 88). This symbolic ambivalence is also at work in Kerouac’s persona: regularly represented as a paragon postwar liberal idealism, Martinez reads him as a dubious avatar of the rise of conservatism in the 1960s. The rhetoric of the Beat Generation masks this ambivalence by claiming allegiance with the colored Other while producing a neo-individualism. Kerouac performs a striking example of this masking in On The Road when Paradise wanders through Denver on the edge of night imagining a new identity for himself:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley. I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensuous gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs. I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America. (qtd in Martinez 91)

James Baldwin calls this moment thin and diluted because “it does not refer to reality, but to a dream” (Baldwin 278). What is unreal and thin about Kerouac’s vision is that colored experience has no reality except as a vessel providing choices for the individual white consumer. Kerouac involved in a benign consumerist game: as if strolling through an open-air market, Kerouac is “trying on different ethnic garb” (Martinez 91). Though the ethnic margin is available to Paradise for consumption and appropriation - he tries on three ethnicities - the exchange is never equal; the Negro, Mexican, or Japanese person can never exchange places with the white patron. Ultimately, this lack of reciprocity results in two divergent readings of difference: for the ethnic inhabitants of the colored margin, difference is a rigid hierarchy of power and agency; “for the white subject, difference is an exercise of choice for those lucky enough to have the power of agency” (Martinez 91).

Once Martinez articulates this divergence, the second part of Countering the Counterculture is devoted to his mapping of post war Mexican American cultural and political movements. As he points out, race introduces a whole set of phenomena into the socio-historical space that manages to make the actual racial differences glaring. Like Soto, Martinez’s approach to discussing cultural identity acknowledges the material realities of American racial experiences. While Mexican American people were deterred by the postwar neoindividuality and racism that permeated American society, they also maintained an oppositional commitment to practicing democracy, to creating an ideal of “communitas” based on the constitutional ideals of American citizenship. This commitment signals an ideal American sensibility; and although this is a commitment usually attributed to white American writers, Martinez urges us to question these assumptions. In fact, while the Beats were attempting to regenerate themselves across the border, Martinez, paraphrasing Tomás Rivera, explains that Mexicans “ ‘wanted to arrive,’ in its sense, in America” (187). This rhetoric of arrival was part of the generational discourse that energized the Mexican American Movement.

The Mexican American Movement was a dramatic response to the Beat ethos because it had both abstract and physical components. The Mexican “arrival” in American was about crossing land borders and crossing metaphysical lines in order to give birth to a new postwar Mexican American cultural sensibility. Reading the migrant worker as metaphor, Martinez examines how the concept of el movimiento redeems movement, once forced on the worker, by “reinscribing it with a communal ethic, one that enables rather than inhibits political, communal, and ethical progress within an Americano landscape so long divided by spaces unbreached by its constantly perambulating, yet frozen subjects” (Martinez 315). But Martinez wisely guides us to see that Mexican Americans of the postwar stand as a generation distinct from the Chicano generation that emerged in the middle of the 1960s. The differences between the two emerge from the Chicano nationalism that “exhorted Mexican Americans to seek their past and future in Mexico and Mexican cultural and political tradition,” to refute American democracy as a racist Anglo institution, to believe that they had no place within “American” culture (Martinez 191). The Chicano generation insisted that, “the character of the U.S. citizen-subject, both culturally and socially, was fundamentally anticommunal” (Martinez 195). Even in the middle of the twentieth century Americans were contesting the ways to arrive at American identity.

Generational labels, to echo Soto, mask the problems that romantic notions of self-naming actually create. Martinez suggests throughout the second half of Countering that understanding how race works is crucial to understanding the formation of American identity. Soto and Martinez show us what is encoded in the labels we use to name ourselves. Rather than call for the end of these labels, however, they revel in the complexities that literary movements smooth-over with rhetoric. While Michaels wants to escape cultural identity or racial identity, Soto and Martinez show us that race and culture have much yet to explain about Americanness and the politics of American identity. Our desire to identify culturally or racially is, in fact, what “generation” and “renaissance” help us explain. Both authors are smart to retrieve cultural themes such as el movimiento and jazz improvisation, for improvisation and movement show us how concepts that begin in ethnically or racially circumscribed spaces actually help us to overcome romantic notions of identity. Looking long and closely at the labels we use to name our cultural movements, at how Lost-ness or Negro rebirth, Beat individuality or the Mexican American movement is formed, can helps us to generate American identities that fulfill Americano dreams in the language of jazz.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” The Time of Our Time. New York: Random House, 1998.

Martinez, Manuel. Countering the Counterculture. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2003.

Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

Shelby, Tommie.We Who Are Dark. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.

Soto, Michael. The Modernist Nation: Generation, Renaissance, and Twentieth Century American Literature. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 2004.