Wednesday, March 09, 2011

the death of literary history

Just arrived in the mail today, a book that might well serve as doorstop: Helen Carr's The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H. D. and Imagism. It's an enormous tome, almost 1000 beautifully bound and printed pages. Of course I haven't really started reading it yet – I've dipped around in it, read the first few pages, examined its notes and list of works frequently cited. And it looks very good indeed – the sort of book with which one might while away a couple of obsessive reading weeks.

I heard about this book from David Need while I was in Louisville a couple of weeks back, hanging out with the poets and critics. He was enthusiastic. I was, on the other hand, surprised. Why hadn't I heard of this book, this comprehensively detailed, loving history of the men & women of 1914? It had been reviewed in the Guardian, in the Independent, in the London Review of Books (that last by none other than Ange Mlinko). The Verse Revolutionaries was published in 2009, the year before last, & I'd never heard of the book's existence, much less seen a copy.

Here's why: it's published by Jonathan Cape, a fine English press (founded 1919, now alas a part of Random House) with some significant association with LZ and the avant-garde. And it has yet to find an American publisher. My own copy came by way of one of those Amazon "marketplace" sellers, not thru the regular bookselling channels. By all accounts, this book is a fantasticaly detailed group biography, something like a definitive literary history of the Imagist movement from that moment in 1912 when Ezra Pound wrote "H. D. Imagiste" at the foot of one of Hilda Doolittle's poems, to its bifurcation into an Amy Lowell-dominated brand-name, on the one hand, and Pound's & Wyndham Lewis's torqued-up "Vorticism" on the other. And it has yet to find an American publisher.

I'm inclined to mourn the death of literary history as a genre in the US these days. Literary criticism is more or less alive, and literary theory flourishes as always. Even basic literary scholarship is getting done, to standards that would have pleased Fredson Bowers or Ernst Curtius. But there seems to be less and less of old-fashioned, intelligent literary history, attempts to make global sense of the social and personal evolution of the literary field. David Perkins's History of Modern Poetry, maybe the most ambitious attempt in the field in the last few decades is a set of loosely strung together potted biographies. Even the works which advertise themselves as "literary history" tend to end up as more or less interconnected essays – cf. the otherwise fine work by Frank Lentricchia and Robert von Hallberg on 20th century poetry in the Cambridge History of American Literature.

Well, that does it – if Helen Carr can't get her book on the Imagists published in the US, then I'm definitely not going to attempt a 750-page history of the Objectivists, or the chatty, anecdote-filled-but-seeded-with-keen-insights definitive history of post-war experimental poetry. Sorry, folks. It's back to Ruskin, Modern Painters volume 4.


mongibeddu said...

Coincidentally I've just spent an hour with Lawrence P. Jackson's The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (Princeton UP, 2011). Found it on the new book shelf at my library, and it's great.

Ben F.

Archambeau said...

Oh, come now, Scroggs. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead! Objectivists ahoy! Market dynamics avast! I mean, if we wanted to spend our time writing things we didn't really care about, things that had some market value, we'd be writing little pamphlets about stocks for Goldman Sachs.


Michael Peverett said...

Post-war experimental poetry book, please. International, ideally. Write it over the Easter break and I'll put it up on Lulu.

Hey, my word verification is the brightest star in Cygnus! (deneb)

Alex Davis said...

I can't recommend Carr's book enough, Mark. It not only provides new insights into what we all thought we knew (Pound and Flint's composition of the 'Imagisme' essay, for instance), but also introduces into the Imagist story some unjustly forgotten characters, includind Joseph Campbell and Desmond FitzGerald, two fascinating 'Irish Imagists'.

A.H. said...

Interestingly, the book was hardly reviewed in the UK. That shows you how much we care for literary history. (I haven't read it as yet--didn't know it existed).

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