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More than four decades after its founding, the Journal of Modern Literature remains a leading scholarly journal in the field of modern and contemporary literature and is widely recognized as such. It emphasizes scholarly studies of literature in all languages, as well as related arts and cultural artifacts, from 1900 to the present. International in its scope, its contributors include scholars from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceana, and South America.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Book News: Reappraising Muriel Spark's early works

Muriel Spark's Early Fiction: Literary Subversion and Experiments with Form


Edinburgh UP, March 2021

ISBN: 9781474475969 hardback

9781474475990 ePub

9781474475983 PDF


A compelling reappraisal of Spark’s approach to literary experimentation

  • Offers a distinctive reappraisal of Spark’s fiction, which challenges the rigid critical framework that has long been applied to her writing
  • Interrogates how Spark’s literary innovations work to facilitate moments of subversive satire and gendered social critique
  • Presents nuanced re-readings of some of Spark’s major works, as well as lesser-discussed texts such as her only stage play, Doctors of Philosophy, and early short stories
  • Draws upon detailed archival research to offer a unique insight into the social contexts and personal preoccupations that informed Spark’s writing

This book presents a detailed critical analysis of a period of significant formal and thematic innovation in Muriel Spark’s literary career. Spanning the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, it identifies formative instances of literary experimentation in texts including The Comforters, The Driver’s Seat and The Public Image, with an emphasis on metafiction and the influence of the nouveau roman. As the first critical study to draw extensively on Spark’s vast archives of correspondence, manuscripts and research, it provides a unique insight into the social contexts and personal concerns that dictated her fiction.

Muriel Spark’s Early Fiction is a magnificent achievement, bursting with revealing and original insights into Spark’s fiction and the enduring preoccupations and working methods of this most singular author. The result is a welcome addition to the process Spark scholars have embarked upon in recent years: extricating (or ‘desegregating’) the author from the various literary-critical categories that once confined her. Bailey’s approach is flexible and multi-faceted by contrast, and draws on an impressively extensive use of previously unexamined archival material. The reader is provided with illuminating explorations of ‘instances of narrative daring’ during the first two decades of Spark’s career which range from under-examined early short stories to key texts such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver’s Seat, and place the emphasis on her enduring commitment to highlight the ways women become inscribed in oppressive cultural narratives. It is a rich and readable monograph which lives up to its ambition to establish a more complex and appropriate framework to discuss Spark in our current critical era, and will therefore be essential reading for those embarking on future studies of one of the most brilliant and unusual writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century.

– Bran Nicol, University of Surrey

James Bailey is honorary research fellow in English literature at the University of Sheffield. He is the co-editor, with Emma Young, of British Women Short Story Writers: The New Woman to Now (Edinburgh University Press, 2016) as well as author of articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Contemporary Women’s Writing and European Journal of English Studies.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Ray Bradbury's Afrofuturist Mars


JML author Steve Gronert Ellerhoff discusses the background of his research on Ray Bradbury's anti-racism at work in two science fiction short stories, in a post for Indiana University Press, available HERE.

Ellerhoff's essay is now a read for FREE feature:

"White Supremacy and the Multicultural Imagination in Ray Bradbury's Afrofuturist Stories of Mars." Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 44, no. 4, Summer 2021, pp. 1-18.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

JML 44.4 (Summer 2021) is LIVE!


JML 44.4 (Summer 2021) is now available. Find it on JSTOR at https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmodelite.44.issue-4 and on Project Muse at https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/46333

Crossing the boundaries of race and culture

Steve Gronert Ellerhoff

White Supremacy and the Multicultural Imagination in Ray Bradbury’s Afrofuturist Stories of Mars


Victoria Googasian 

Zora Neale Hurston and the Limits of the Will to Humanize

Suzanne Manizza Roszak

Intersectional Feminism, Black Love, and the Transnational Turn: Rereading Guillén, Hughes, and Roumain 

Chiaki Kayaba

Inadequate Compensation: Economic Agency against the Plantation System in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses 

T.J. Boynton

“The man’s a man if he is black”: Conrad, Modernism, and Race (Again)

Nicole Winsor

“Like a dry-skin itching for growth on our bodies”: Katherine Mansfield’s and Una Marson’s Modernist Fantasies of Objecthood

Paul Allen Miller

On Borders, Race, and Infinite Hospitality: Foucault, Derrida, and Camus

Aled Rees

The Hispanic World in the Multilingual Fiction of Colm Tóibín

Jeffrey Mather

Rising Stars and Fallen Women: Writing Lives in Emily Hahn’s China

Angelia Poon

Re-invention in a Globalized World: (Mis)reading and Metafictional Strategies in Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire 

Qingyuan Jiang

Scaling Holy Mountains: Mountaineering, Religion, and the Politics of Literature in Auden and Empson 

Charles Lock

Negotiating the eruv

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Emergences of Media Ecology and the Modern American Poetry Event


Temple University

Review of

Edward Allen. Modernist Invention: Media Technology and American Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2020. 281 pp. $99.99 hardcover.

Any reader wanting to trace the parallels between modern American poetry in the first half of the twentieth century and the emergence of new media technology —telephone, radio, phonograph, and sound (musical) film documentary (such as Black Magic: A Pictorial History of The African-American in the Performing Arts [1967] and Black Nativity: Gospel on Broadway [1962])— will find Edward Allen’s Modernist Invention useful, informative, and fluent in communication and critical analysis as well as in theories of literary and cultural import. A good example is the reading of Wallace Stevens’s late poem “The Sick Man” (1950; pp.126-130). Allen parallels each poet he samples to an emergent media technology; Stevens’s media muse is the radio. 

After establishing the general media climate or ecology at the time, here via a rehearsal of Stevens’s correspondence with his friends the Churches—especially the widow Barbara Church, in which the poet’s reluctant but finally full-throated love affair with the radio becomes clear— Allen reads the selected example in this specific media context. At first glance, “The Sick Man” does not automatically register as a sick man’s experience of tuning and listening to his radio during the middle of the night. Instead, the poem, as Allen cites it, does make the visible a little harder literally to see, if more imaginatively suggestive for meditation: 

Bands of black men seem to be drifting in the air,
In the South, bands of thousands of black men, 
Playing mouth-organs in the night, or, now, guitars.
Here in the North, late, late, there are voices of men,
Voices in chorus, singing without words, remote and deep,
Drifting choirs, long movements and turnings of sounds.
And in a bed in one room, alone, a listener
Waits for the unison of the music of the drifting bands
And the dissolving chorals . . . (Stevens qtd. in 127)

Allen fills in the most likely context as being the old ill poet listening to and tuning his radio, and first hearing drifting along the air waves bands of black men playing their harmonicas and guitars, and then men—as if being white is the full human state—sounding their wordless chorals dissolving in the air. These massive constitutive American opposite symbols form, for the sick man, “the unison of the music” he creatively imagines and eloquently articulates:

The words of winter in which these two will come together, In the ceiling of the distant room, in which he lies, The listener, listening in the shadows, seeing them, Choosing out of himself, out of everything within him. Speech for the quiet, good hail of himself, good hail, good hail, The peaceful, blissful words, well-tuned, well-sung, well-spoken. (Stevens qtd. in 129)

Allen resourcefully illuminates these late allusions to Stevens’s own earlier poems, themes, figures, favorite tropesincluding the figure of the listener, the winter climate, the well-tuned guitar-accompanied words. Even as we see the new addition, the explicitly self-hailing practice of poetic composition that Stevens joinsand would fully exemplify as he eventually faces the ultimate quiet coming ever closer. Like his poetic father, Walt Whitman, Stevens conceives all his poems as songs of the self, ever courting and yet holding off, the final dark embrace. The only vision of unison held open yet together, at the end. 

With Frost, Allen reads the long narrative dialogue “Snow” from Mountain Interval (1917). Frost stages strategically the use of the telephone, in which a couple listening to their party line discloses what they do not see, another couple’s poignant domestic crisis that Frost reveals wryly for the observant reader via this new media device . Similarly, Allen traces Marianne Moore’s engagements with recording her poetry, especially in connection with Caedmon Records after WWII. But it is the last chapter, on Langston Hughes and how his early and continuing study of cinematic techniques, especially montage, leads him not only to develop documentaries of Black musicals but also to expand the limits of lyric poetry, including his own most celebrated lyric, as in the epic late poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). 

Modernist Invention is most successful in integrating its media technology and American poetry halves in an inventive way every bit worthy of the title adjective modernist in this final chapter on Hughes. While entertaining the established critiques of this late experiment Montage of a Dream Deferred—its repetitive nature, its often-lame colloquial expressions, its epic ambitions overshooting the poet’s own lyrical moments of creativity—Allen instead demonstrates this poem’s self-conscious, even self-parodic intentionality, startling its creator by sudden imaginative surprises in the course of pursuing a jazz improvisational method. Allen devotes nine pages to its analysis, which is why I will conclude with an example from the end of the Hughes chapter. The brief obscure lyric “Advice to Cullud Movie Actors” ends the chapter, as its self-parodic depiction of tinsel-town Black actors’ required method of dramatic portrayal:

If you’ve got to play a native
Play a native good—
Play him like
Your Uncle Tom would.
. . . .
If you’ve got to be a Porgy
Be a Porgy in full
And give Mr. Goldwyn
Plenty of bull.
. . . .
Why I say all this
(You ought to know, son)
Is I’m just mad ‘cause
I didn’t get none (Hughes qtd. in 247-248)

Allen masterfully concludes: “It’s an unforgiving poem, but one that should leave us in no doubt that Goldwyn’s industry had got well and truly under the poet’s skin” (248). This conclusion is fitting all around. 

Framing the book’s analyses is a long Introduction (pp.1-36) and a half the size Coda (pp. 249-261 entitled “Synchronicity.” Allen launches his book under the flagship 1987 paper by Raymond Williams, “When Was Modernism?” The established account of modernism in Anglo-American literary history is punctuated by sacred dates, none more important than the miraculous year 1922, when Ulysses and The Waste Land were published in book form. Modernism tends in this perspective to be represented as a post-WWI development, or better, reaction. The literary innovations of modernism are seen thereby as rather simply reactions to the catastrophe of war and its aftermath. 

Williams’s point, however, is to underscore how modernism is first of all broader than any one or two national bases and also a historical happening with many different moments. In fact, as Williams suggests, modernism was a historical socio-political emergence or series of emergences not limited in time or place, except in the broadest possible terms, and not only associated with literature and the other arts, but widespread in popular forms as well as transnational, global in its impact, and associated with objects and practices we have only begun to plumb (in 1987). 

Allen’s book plows in this field. But unlike the developmental logic of established cultural histories, it would bring together in synchronous fashion the art-forms, elite and popular, American and international, attached less to these elite forms and more to the popular practices and techniques, which blossom as new inventions to shape and reshape the modernist world, moment by moment. Such emergences of this universal modernist event form the ambitious horizon still beckoning, as we leave Allen’s view of Hughes in the throes of his quick-cut montages, thereby suggesting the equally fine books to come.


Daniel T. O’Hara, emeritus professor of English and humanities at Temple University, is the author of nine books, including Virginia Woolf and The Modern Sublime: Invisible Tribunal (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015), and editor or co-editor of six collections, most recently Humanistic Criticism: A William V. Spanos Reader (Northwestern UP, 2015). 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Book News: The cyborgian imaginary in modernism

Fantasies of Self-Mourning: Modernism, the Posthuman and the Finite


Brill, 2019

ISBN: 978-90-04-39034-8 hardback

ISBN: 978-90-04-39035-5 ebook


In Fantasies of Self-Mourning Ruben Borg describes the formal features of a posthuman, cyborgian imaginary at work in modernism. The book’s central claim is that modernism invents the posthuman as a way to think through the contradictions of its historical moment. Borg develops a posthumanist critique of the concept of organic life based on comparative readings of Pirandello, Woolf, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien, alongside discussions of Alfred Hitchcock, Chris Marker, Béla Tarr, Ridley Scott and Mamoru Oshii. The argument draws together a cluster of modernist narratives that contemplate the separation of a cybernetic eye from a human body—or call for a tearing up of the body understood as a discrete organic unit capable of synthesizing desire and sense perception.

BOOK NEWS is an online-only feature announcing new publications in modernist and contemporary literary studies. These announcements do NOT constitute an endorsement by the Journal of Modern Literature.

Ruben Borg is Chair of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published numerous articles on modernism, has co-edited two books on Flann O’Brien and is the author of The Measureless Time of Joyce, Deleuze and Derrida (2007).

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Book News: revised, expanded study of Colson Whitehead

 Understanding Colson Whitehead, revised and expanded edition


U of South Carolina P, 2021

ISBNs: 978-1-64336-174-1 paperback

978-1-64336-173-4 hardback

978-1-64336-175-8 ebook


In 2020 Colson Whitehead became the youngest recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Although Whitehead's widely divergent books complicate overarching categorization, Derek C. Maus argues that they are linked by their skepticism toward the ostensible wisdom inherited from past generations and the various forms of "stories" that transmit it. Whitehead, best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Underground Railroad, bids readers to accompany him on challenging, often open-ended literary excursions designed to reexamine—and frequently defy—accepted notions of truth.

BOOK NEWS is an online-only feature announcing new publications in modernist and contemporary literary studies. These announcements do NOT constitute an endorsement by the Journal of Modern Literature.

Understanding Colson Whitehead unravels the parallel structures found within Whitehead's books from his 1999 debut The Intuitionist through 2019's The Nickel Boys, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. By first imitating and then violating their conventions, Whitehead attempts to transcend the limits of the formulas of the genres in which he seems to write. Whitehead similarly tests subject matter, again imitating and then satirizing various forms of conventional wisdom as a means of calling out unexamined, ignored, or malevolent aspects of American culture.

Although it is only one of many subjects that Whitehead addresses, race is often central to his work. It serves as a prime example of Whitehead's attempt to prompt his readers into revisiting their assumptions about meanings and values. By upending the literary formulas of the detective novel, the heroic folktale, the coming-of-age story, the zombie apocalypse, the slave narrative, and historical fiction, Whitehead reveals the flaws and shortcomings by which Americans have defined themselves. In addition to evoking such explicitly literary storytelling traditions, Whitehead also directs attention toward other interrelated historical and cultural processes that influence how race, class, gender, education, social status, and other categories of identity determine what an individual supposedly can and cannot do.

"With Understanding Colson Whitehead, Derek Maus offers an invaluable, readable, and comprehensive introduction to the work of one of the current era's most important authors. Few writers have shifted genres, styles, and tones so masterfully, and Maus helps readers understand how Whitehead's work all fits together."—Cameron Leader-Picone, Kansas State University

"Understanding Colson Whitehead is an indispensable study about an incredibly inventive contemporary novelist. Derek C. Maus produces superb and meticulous analyses of The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, The Underground Railroad, and Whitehead's other books. This engaging examination advances our views of an author whose idiosyncratic novels captured the attention of countless readers and earned astonishing levels of critical acclaim." —Howard Rambsy II, Author of Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers

Derek C. Maus teaches contemporary literature at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He is also the author of Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire and Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire. He is also the editor or coeditor of Conversations with Colson Whitehead; Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights; Finding a Way Home: A Critical Assessment of Walter Mosley's Fiction; and Angry Rain: A Memoir by Maurice Kenny.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Book News: first person plural in contemporary fiction

 We-Narratives: Collective Storytelling in Contemporary Fiction


Ohio State UP, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8142-1441-1 Hardcover


Natalya Bekhta’s We-Narratives: Collective Storytelling in Contemporary Fiction analyzes a storytelling form shaped by the pronoun “we,” probing the tensions between individuality and collectivity in more recent narratives in English. Despite a growing interest in collective characters and the we-form in narratology and beyond, narrative theory has not yet done justice to the plural voice in fiction. In fact, the formulation of a poetics of collective expression needs clear theoretical conventions and a reassessment of established concepts in order to approach plural voices and agents on their own terms. We-Narratives addresses this demand by distinguishing between indicative and performative uses of the first-person plural pronoun in fiction and by identifying formal and rhetorical possibilities of stories told by group narrators.

BOOK NEWS is an online-only feature announcing new publications in modernist and contemporary literary studies. These announcements do NOT constitute an endorsement by the Journal of Modern Literature.

What does it mean for a multitude to speak as one? How can a truly collective narrative voice be achieved or lost? What are its aesthetic and political repercussions? In order to tackle these questions, Bekhta reads a range of contemporary novels and short stories by Jeffrey Eugenides, Joshua Ferris, Toby Litt, Zakes Mda, Joyce Carol Oates, and Julie Otsuka. She also focuses on narrative innovation by Margaret Atwood, William Faulkner, and Susan Sontag. These narratives feature group protagonists and narrators and therefore offer insight into collective narrative discourse and focalization, construction of communal knowledge and unreliability. We-narrative, taken as a distinct storytelling form, illuminates fiction’s expressive potential and nuances models of narrative analysis.

“Combining theoretical sophistication, interpretive acumen, and a broad range of narratological insights, Natalya Bekhta’s We-Narratives delivers a compelling account of narratives cast in the we-form.” —Marco Caracciolo

Natalya Bekhta is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.