There actually was a revolutionary period in the arts from 1912 (or thereabouts) to 1939 (or thereabouts), wasn't there? It has, after all, a name, modernism; it has, we know, some great and essential texts. Those works, however remote, serene or inaccessible they may now appear to us, have somehow survived, to use Auden's phrase, in the valley of their saying. This one may perhaps lack an arm, another has dropped its nose, but they remain a part of the literary landscape, outlasting, so far, idolatry, neglect and further revolution.
Yet the arts' power of endurance is likely to be balanced nowadays by a sense of its fragility. (Think how many modern poems, say, are fragmentary, mysteriously intricate or voiced by unidentifiable speakers.) Moreover, Julian Symons' dapper survey of some central and not-so-central American and English modernists brings out clearly just how short-lived the triumph of the movement as a whole was. If indeed it ever was a whole, for he ably delineates its factions and nightmarishly tangled affiliations, as well as alluding (few could do more in 300 pages) to the revolution's complex roots and legacy.
Such risks and divergences ran throughout the literary hierarchy. Not only did some of the generals themselves defect--Symons notes, for example, the aesthetic conflict between Eliot's early melodrama "Sweeney Agonistes" and the spongy solemnity of the later plays--but early supporters soon fell away too. Joyce plowed heroically on with "Finnegans Wake" in the face of aghast murmurs from artistic peers, patrons, his brother, even his wife. And from early on, one modernist was set against another: William Carlos Williams leafing through Eliot's Criterion magazine recognized that there was no place in it for "anything I stood for." What pity could they expect, then, from a younger generation? Auden, writing in 1936 at the supposed zenith of modernist hegemony, glanced gleefully at the end of the boom:
Joyces are firm and there there's nothing new.
Eliots have hardened just a point or two.
Hopkins are brisk, thanks to some recent boosts.
There's been a further weakening in Prousts.
And Pound, the most energetic campaigner of all, recognized in simple terms modernism's failure to effect an absolute change of attitude: "If I was in any sense the revolution, I have been followed by the counter-revolution."
Struggling with such an amorphous reality, even the doughtiest surveyor may begin to feel compromised. On the final page of "Makers of the New," Symons, attempting to define the achievement of the masters, turns and addresses his reader with a kind of blurred grimace: "If one were looking to convey them in a sentence, it would say that they changed permanently the language in which poetry is written, and enlarged beyond measure what could be said and the way of saying it in fiction." It is an honor they will presumably have to share with, among others, John Donne ("rediscovered" at just this time) and the movies.
If there is a polemical literary edge to "Makers of the New," it comes from Symons' championing of Wyndham Lewis as a writer equal in stature to any of the great modernists. Unfortunately, though his claims are interesting, they are tantalizingly fluffy. In general, the book is diffuse and (often pleasantly) meandering. As his summary indicates, Symons has chosen to present a broadly historical, evolutionary account of modernism, one that pays greater attention to the personalities and tactics of a literary campaign than to the labor of engaging with the works of art.
Any successful literary movement has to wage--and any full reckoning of modernism must consider--the practical war of propaganda and contract. No doubt Symons' life as a working writer inclines him to stress deals and friendship, the mechanics of a reputation, much as Peter Ackroyd's recent biography of Eliot did, at the expense of drawn-out literary or cultural analysis, but these do at least provide a feasible structure for his vast bulk of material. We start in 1912 with the founding of Poetry (Chicago) and end with the drawing down of blinds on the Criterion in 1939.
The most damaging result of a study that proposes that "the story of literary modernism in the first two decades was the story of little magazines" is the disfiguring of Pound. Trussed and garnished, he becomes a Barnum of the arts and so loses his true status as a great, though intensely problematic, poet. There are, however, many incidental rewards to detailed scrutiny of these publications. Although even here his coverage is far from complete (no mention of Hound & Horn, for instance), Symons does give useful pocket biographies of many secondary but influential figures, including Harriet Monroe, Harriet Shaw Weaver, and John Quinn and Robert McAlmon: fans, backers and editors who helped the artist reach a public.
Among these, he has sprinkled as well some good vignettes of the talentless, feckless or crazed who fringe every literary movement. Surely the most genuinely revolutionary in life if not art was Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, a poet who hung tea-balls from her breasts and advised William Carlos Williams to contract syphilis from her and so, as Symons put it, "free his mind for serious art." She eventually died by her own hand in Paris in 1927.
For the most part, however, the ground covered by "Makers of the New" will be disturbingly familiar to interested readers, who could pick up 10 similar volumes. To the uninitiated, it will probably seem too urbane and unspecific to be of much help. Although Symons has read widely, his work is primarily a synthesis with little original research included. Up to a point, his emphasis on little magazines succeeds because it is a principle with an inclusive power. His main structural brace, though, is less useful. The book returns at regular intervals to the relationships of a quartet whom Wyndham Lewis called "The Men of 1914": himself, Eliot, Pound and Joyce. In fact, this organizing idea is only intermittently illuminating, and it seems to have led to a cripplingly narrow sense of who was or wasn't a modernist. There is, for example, hardly any space for three--to pick out just three--major figures: W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. This is the point when any genuine history or appreciation of the "revolution" dissolves into a simple naming of partisans; Pound's injunction to "make it new" goes unheeded.