“An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking & ultimately nauseating.” So goes Virginia Woolf’s well-known complaint about “Ulysses,” scribbled into her diary before she had finished reading it. Her disparagement is catnip to those many critics who like to view “Mrs. Dalloway” — that other uber-famous, if more lapidary, modernist novel that spans the course of a single day — as Woolf’s rejoinder to Joyce. More than that, though, it tells us something important about our literary history. Nineteen twenty-two, the year of “Ulysses,” may well be ground zero for the explosion of modernism in literature. But the resultant shock wave is better captured by another year: 1925, that of “Mrs. Dalloway” and several other works, all now in the spotlight in 2021, as they emerge from under copyright.
If many an English-majored ear perks up at the sound of “1922,” it’s mostly because of the two somewhat ornery men who published their masterpieces that year: Joyce and T. S. Eliot. “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land” are taught everywhere and almost without exception as “signifying a definitive break in literary history,” to quote the critic Michael North from his book “Reading 1922.” Both the novel and the poem are notoriously challenging, obscurely allusive and highly uneasy about their modern time and the rubble of tradition astride which it stood. Both are also often distressing, egotistic, insistent, raw, striking and (depending on one’s mood) ultimately nauseating. And it is precisely these qualities that account for their hold on our literary imagination. They represent everything that literary modernism is meant to: rupture, difficulty and, of course, making it new.
Yet 1925 is arguably the more important date in modernism’s development, the year that it went mainstream, as embodied by four books whose influence continues to shape fiction today: Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” Ernest Hemingway’s debut story collection, “In Our Time,” John Dos Passos’ “Manhattan Transfer” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Compared with the masterpieces of 1922, these books — all slated for reissue in new editions this year — entered our culture in relatively unspectacular fashion. But it’s precisely their unassuming guise that allowed them, by osmosis rather than disruption, to diffuse their modernist conceits throughout the literary field, ensuring their widespread adoption.
In her 1919 essay, “Modern Fiction,” Woolf rebukes the popular novels of her time: “Is life like this? … Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms. … Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”
It’s commonplace to call Woolf an impressionist in this peculiar sense, and yet it nails her novelistic craft. She is an inhabitant of minds. And the mind, in “Mrs. Dalloway” and later, in a more extreme sense, in “The Waves” (1931), is a kind of nebulous antenna tuning in and out of life’s frequencies, ever enveloped in its luminous halo. As the critic J. Hillis Miller once put it, the reader most often finds that she is “plunged within an individual mind which is being understood from inside by an ubiquitous, all-knowing mind.”
This is evident to us not from the novel’s immortal opening line — “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” — but from the one immediately following, which serves as a kind of mirror to the first, tipping us off that we must reread it as something other than objective assertion: “For Lucy had her work cut out for her.” Suddenly, with the lightly colloquial “cut out for her,” we are in the mind not of an omniscient narrator but of a character — Clarissa Dalloway, as the succeeding lines make clear. The reader ceases to think that she is being told what Mrs. Dalloway said about getting the flowers, and begins to think instead that Mrs. Dalloway is just remarking on that fact, as if to herself. And that changes everything.
This narrative technique, known as free-indirect speech, was part of Woolf’s quiet revolution. Though she did not invent it — arguably Austen, Flaubert and Edith Wharton got there first — Woolf perfected this mode, coloring it with the anxiety of modern subjectivity. Open any novel of the past 50 years, and you will find the narrator reporting thoughts that, for reasons of diction and tense, can only be those of a character. With varying degrees of indebtedness, each of these is an heir to Woolf and her narrators, who enter the world of their fictions as Clarissa Dalloway enters the world of her relations, “being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best.” That a narrator need not fiddle with chess pieces from on high but might linger like a cloud among foggy minds is a feature of modernism that has, as it were, contaminated literature ever since.
Opposed to the singularity of a work like “Ulysses” or “The Waste Land,” we have in “Mrs. Dalloway” the innovation of an enduring, deep structure — something like geometric perspective in painting, that contributes to the development of technique, rather than driving it up a dead end. So it is with “In Our Time,” “Manhattan Transfer” and “The Great Gatsby.” With “Big Two-Hearted River,” the last story in Hemingway’s collection, writers on either side of the Atlantic learned about the power of economy in writing. As if by revelation, it became clear that the solution to the problem of representing a collective trauma like World War I was not blabbering effusion, but its opposite.
“I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg,” Hemingway told The Paris Review in 1958. The “iceberg” technique became the calling card not only of postwar American writers like Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy, but also of the influential cadre of French existentialist novelists, including Céline, Malraux, Sartre and de Beauvoir. Most important, though, Hemingway became an exemplary stylist for the M.F.A. programs that sprang up across America after the war, and through which many of our canonized poets and novelists have since passed. As the scholar Mark McGurl puts it in his book “The Program Era,” “It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Hemingway on postwar writers, and … too easy to forget that the medium of his influence has been the school.”
The legacy of John Dos Passos is less distinct, though no less potent. You do not hear his name much now, but in his day Dos Passos was among the most celebrated novelists writing in English. To Sartre, he was “the greatest writer of our time”; there was none other “in which the art is greater or better hidden.” Perhaps this is because novels like “Manhattan Transfer” were among the first to try to recreate the seamless artifice that cinema appeared to lend to its fictions. Dos Passos’ novel takes as its protagonist not a character but New York City itself, and makes liberal use of literary jump-cuts and montage against a backdrop of action-filled narration that moves at a relentless clip. His is a multimedia literature, a modernist twist on the flabby forms of social realism that stitches a collage of press-clippings, newsreels and radio announcers’ voices into the narrative fabric.
With Fitzgerald, by contrast, we have the inverted alternative to Dos Passos’ realist modernism. In “The Great Gatsby” Fitzgerald — just as Eliot would do in fits and starts throughout his career — seeks the preservation of Symbolism in modern American literature. That a writer could opt not to deploy a literalist account of the consequences of American greed but instead vie to refine a handful of supercharged moments of signification, which might bloom as an epiphany in the reader’s imagination, was this novel’s reverberating testament. Gatsby is but a symbol of himself, a dream that outstrips the reality to which it refers. Until he is not. And the lasting gift of the novel — which has echoes in the late-modernist pastiches of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid conspiracies of signs and the biblical symbology of Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping” — is to demonstrate the difference between the magic when it is on and the magic when it is gone.
It is fitting that “The Great Gatsby” sold few copies when it first appeared. Like the other great works of 1925, it did not announce itself with the bombast of “Ulysses.” Yet, like those other works, it has quietly endured, living on like a mist in our literary unconscious, spawning and shaping successive generations of writers and readers.
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