Book Review: Hinnov, Emily M., Laurel Harris, and Lauren M. Rosenblum. Communal Modernisms: Teaching Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture in the Twenty-First-Century Classroom

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 203 pp. Hardback ISBN: 978-1-137-27490-8.

Reviewed by Lily Corwin, Quincy University

Too often, professors segregate teaching and research and forget that they are meant to be in conversation with one another. The editors of Communal Modernisms attempt to bring these two sides of the professorial coin back together in a volume comprising an introduction, eleven essays, and an afterword. Each scholarly essay focuses on a different aspect of literary modernism and concludes with sample lesson plans and assignments proceeding from the research they follow. Some of these pedagogical tools are more useful than others— the best provide links to concrete resources available to professors and students— but the attempt to consider the practical classroom application of scholarly thought and research is welcome and, overall, helpful and enlightening.

Editors Emily M. Hinnov, Laurel Harris, and Lauren M. Rosenblum, however, had several other goals in compiling these essays, and not all are as clear or as successful as the first. The introduction, penned by the three, attempts to explain the collection’s direction. Literary modernism, they argue, is nearly synonymous for most students of the period with texts that explore an “alienated white man’s epiphany,” so names like Eliot, Pound, and Joyce, along with their most famous works, have become synecdochical for the whole mid-war period (3). Communal Modernisms, then, seeks to focus not on these well-studied male figures, but on their female counterparts. Each essay interrogates the work of a female modernist writer; authors as well-known as Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes are considered alongside more seldom treated artists such as Sylvia Townsend Warner and Lola Ridge.

In addition to the focuses on pedagogy and feminism, the collection also seeks to treat the role of communities in modernist literature. This idea is less than adequately defined throughout. The introduction tells us that Woolf’s concept of “the world as a pulsating work of art in which the wider audience must play an integral part” and Walter Benjamin’s theory that “the dialectical image afforded by the lately egalitarian place of art in modern society offers a veritable constellation of interpretations” have helped the authors form their vision of “communal modernisms as a twentieth-century aesthetic… which creates the opportunity, through cooperative (re)action, to rebuild community” (2). What do they mean by this, precisely? After reading the collection, I am not entirely sure. Yes, the essays all consider some aspect of life outside the literature being treated, whether material, historical, or otherwise, which is, in itself, at odds with the traditional perception of modernism as the literature of alienation from the world. However, there is little attempt, after the introduction, to reinforce or to clarify exactly to what “communal modernisms” refers. The editors acknowledge that community is defined very differently in each essay— from the “community” of a mother and child connection to the “community” between creators and consumers of art— and as I read through the essays, I found myself forgetting that this was supposed to be a common thread. The introduction tells us that the collection’s editors were mindful of modernist scholar Andrew Thacker’s recent call for more interdisciplinary approaches to the field and believe that these approaches work well in the classroom, allowing students “to bring their own interests to the study of modernism” while offering a “rigorous and engaging entry to the period” (8). Ultimately, this interdisciplinarity may be all that “communal modernisms” really means, as the essays seek to place their literary subjects into the contexts of various facets of the worlds in which they were created.

The volume is divided into three sections: “The Influence of Photography and Film on Literary Communal Modernisms,” “The Politics of Communal Modernisms,” and “Reinvention within Communal Modernisms.” Most of the essays in each section tackle the theme from a decidedly interdisciplinary stance, considering literary works beside material or historical evidence.  Rosenblum discusses magazine images and their role in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand; Kirsten Bartholomew Ortega places Lola Ridge’s long poem about poverty alongside Jacob Riis’ famous contemporary photographs of the impoverished and demonstrates how they enrich our understanding of one another and their time. Other essays, like Judy Suh’s excellent work on Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark and the roles of race, gender, and class in the British Empire, or Rita Kondrath’s look at Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Opus 7 and non-combatant trauma, consider how the historical moment of a literary work, with all of its tensions, should inform how we read and understand it.

 Altogether, then, the collection is flawed, but successful. For the teacher of women’s literature or literary modernism, it merits a full read, as it will provide some worthwhile insight into well- and lesser-known works penned or edited by women in the mid-war period, as well as some fresh ideas on how to present them effectively to students. For the teacher or student of the time period, too, it is at least worth a look for its exploration of how history and culture inform and are informed by the considered literary pieces. Most of the essays themselves, along with the pedagogical approaches they suggest, embrace interdisciplinary thinking and offer concrete ways to introduce students to how literature interacts with the world it comes from, and this, ultimately, is the strength of the volume.