Once upon a time, I'm told, publishers hired something known as "press clipping services," folks who'd read all the relevant venues & look out for reviews of newly released books. Well, that was once upon a time. I found out that The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (now shipping!) had been reviewed in the TLS from a friend in Cork, not from my publisher. (When I asked my editor if she'd seen the review a couple of weeks later, she said, "Oh yes, we saw that – very positive, no?" Thanks for letting me know...)
Anyway, in the interests of prolonging the euphoria of publication as long as possible, I'd love to hear from any of my seven readers out there if they happen upon any reviews of the book – in print, on the blogosphere, on the walls of the loo – in the next few weeks or months. And if you happen to be one of the four people who've pre-ordered from amazon or the evil B&N, I'd love to hear from you when the book arrives, & get your feedback on't. Feel free to email at mw - dot - scroggins - at - gmail - dot - com. I'll try to avoid turning Culture Industry into a full-time book promotional outlet – but allow me to indulge myself for a while: after all, this has been a very long haul, & there are college funds involved.
Back in the old days – "good" or otherwise – there was a standard procedure for academically tackling Pound's Cantos: one procured a copy of one of the "guides" to the poem (Peter Makin's Pound's Cantos is still my favorite) to explain the overall architecture, & one of the volumes of annotations – Carroll F. Terrell's 2-volume Companion was industry standard, but William Cookson's Guide would do at a pinch – to elucidate foreign phrases & recondite allusions. I worked my way thru the Cantos (not the first time around, however) this way, & I suspect generations of undergrads & grad students have done so as well – & scores of books on Pound bear the marks of a Terrell-supported trawl thru the text.
All that changed for me in 1992, when I picked up (at the much-missed Blue Fox, one of the loveliest of Ithaca's many used bookstores) a copy of Lawrence Rainey's 1st book, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos (Yale UP, 1991). That book was my first exposure to the "new modernist studies," now I guess almost 2 decades old. In re-reading the Malatesta Cantos, Rainey destroyed the notion that EP was drawing upon some homogeneous archive of "history" in writing about Sigismundo Malatesta – an impression the student reader easily arrives at relying on Terrell's or Cookson's laconic annotation. Instead, LR showed that Pound's Malatesta was a profoundly romanticized figure, drawn as much from 19th-c. potboiler novels as from the historical record – & moreover, that EP's quotations from archival sources – as we already knew, but sometimes were apt to forget – were highly selective & sometimes considerably retouched, yielding a Malatesta that met the ideological needs of the poet in his own historical moment, but by no means an "objective" portrait of the 15th-c. figure.
The "new modernist studies" to which Rainey's book introduced me have revitalized modernism as an academic field. (Indeed, Rainey has been so prominent in that revitalization that he has become the target of younger scholar's potshots, as I learned at a modernism conference at Cornell a few years ago.) More & more attention has been paid to the ways in which modernist texts were produced, disseminated, & received, & to their social and political contexts. Far more attention has been given to the works of women, gay & lesbian writers, & writers of color. Modernism, from being a heroic revolution of a handful of white men – "the men of 1914," in (I think) Wyndham Lewis's phrase – has become a whole international congeries of overlapping "movements" & individual initiatives, firmly embedded in a very particular set of social, political, & economic circumstances.
But even as salutary attention has turned to the works of HD, Langston Hughes, Mina Loy, & the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, scholars have continued to read & re-read the "men of 1914" – Joyce, Pound, Eliot, & (too rarely) Lewis. Rainey's most recent book, Revisiting the Waste Land (Yale UP, 2005), which I picked up at The Strand this past weekend, looks at the single most canonically secure work of "high" modernism (besides of course Ulysses), the poem WC Williams complained had dropped an "atom bomb" amid a burgeoning nativist American modernism.*
Rainey's book is made up of 3 chapters & about 50 pages of "synoptic bibliographical" description of Eliot's letters & manuscripts (the sort of thing that I, anal animal that I am, dote upon). The chapters essentially follow the Jerome McGann-sanctioned triad of examining a text according to the stages of its production, publication (dissemination), & reception. I was a trifle disappointed to find that the middle chapter was "The Price of Modernism: Publishing The Waste Land," a ground-breaking & eye-opening essay that's old enough to be a "classic" (Rainey has already published it in at least three venues), but the logic of including it is pretty much inescapable.
And its familiarity is more than made up for by the chapters which bookend it. The last, "IMMENSE. MAGNIFICENT. TERRIBLE.: Reading The Waste Land," does a fine job of dispelling some of the myths surrounding the immediate reception of the poem. It shows that the tension between reading TWL as expression of the Zeitgeist & reading it as TSE's "personal grouse" was there from the very beginning, & how TSE's subsequent writings & career worked to enforce a kind of coherence & "classicism" on the poem which was by no means evident to its first readers.
But it's the 1st, mammoth chapter – "With Automatic Hand: Writing The Waste Land" – that's the real wonder here. Ever since Valerie Eliot published the draft materials for TWL back in 1971, scholars such as Hugh Kenner, Lyndall Gordon, Grover Smith, & others have advanced often conflicting theories about precisely how the poem was composed, in what order the various bits were written & woven together. Rainey unravels the entire mystery, to my eyes quite convincingly, using the most basic bibliographic methods: He compares typewriter scripts – LR shows when TSE stopped using one typewriter & began using another – and he looks at the watermarks on the various papers used. Since TSE apparently bought paper only in small batches, & used the same paper for drafting & typing poems & writing letters, it becomes a fairly straightforward (if highly technical & tediously painstaking) matter to date each fragment of the poem – to a particular place, sometimes to within a matter of days.
Rainey ends the chapter with a meditation, fittingly enough, on the typist in "The Fire Sermon," a forlorn figure who exemplifies both the social pressures of the early 1920s & the process of composing the poem in which she appears. Revisiting the Waste Land is a solid & illuminating piece of scholarship (Rainey strives hard, sometimes with limited success, to make the more technical aspects of his research accessible & exciting): like all too few books of literary criticism I read, it makes me a little proud to be in this business.
*The good doctor, in retrospect, protested too much: after all, at least 3 of the greatest works in American modernist poetry – Spring and All, The Bridge, & "Poem beginning 'The'" – were written in explicit or implicit reaction to The Waste Land.