"What was Modernism?" There is no more controversial title in Modernist Studies than this one, published in a 1960 issue of The Massachusetts Review by Harry Levin. The past tense makes for the primary provocation. Levin analyzed the modernist art movement as an accomplished fact that could now be safely filed away in the historical archive. His immediate critics took issue with the diagnosis, arguing that the modernist impulse was hardly over. More recent, indirect respondents are less troubled by the idea of modernism's historical moment being finite than with the particular way modernism has been institutionally remembered. In his recent call for a transnational poetics Jahan Ramazani has challenged scholars to think modernism in expanded coordinates. This enlarged view would include the geographical and transcultural movement long central to notions of international modernism as the art of the expatriate and exile, but also consider "the proliferation of cartography-traversing technologies such as the telephone, cinema, and radio, ... the circulation of avant-garde art and translations among European and North American cities, the rapid global movement of capital, ... the dramatic expansion of the British Empire across a quarter of the land’s surface by World War I, the emergence at the same time of the US as a new political and world power" (A Transnational Poetics 2009, 24).
The proposed paper takes up Ramazani's challenge to think early twentieth-century modernism within expanded frameworks, specifically working to re-remember American modernism's link to both "cartography-traversing technologies" and the expansion of US influence in culture and commerce as well as politics towards what Henry Luce in 1941 (in)famously summed up as an "American Century." My central example is a work that itself seeks to remember. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land can be grasped as the attempt to capture and transport the whole of Western tradition, as its author essentially argues in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919). This ambition has contributed to making The Waste Land canonical. The poem is at the same time controversial. It is often taken as the expression of a will to elitist classicism. More consistently, its status as an example of 'American' modernist writing is contentious because the 'Americanness' of its composition, as well as its composer, seems so much in question.
The presentation aims to approach this question not by confirming a fundamental disassociation from American culture, nor by mining the poem for what Eric Siggs has referred to as Eliot's "deep American past" (The American T.S. Eliot 1989, vii). Key references are rather to processes of affiliation and tactical procedures. What at first appraisal seems a supranational poem removed from the questions of nation, reveals itself upon closer scrutiny to be fundamentally connected to techne of transnational connection that take on national colorings at the beginning of the century. Specifically, I would suggest that Eliot's tactical affiliations with the 'American' have much to do with how he taps into "cartography-traversing technologies" such as the radio or gramophone and the popular art forms they transport. His initial draft of the poem begins with variations of ragtime: a form of word and sound reproduction that remixes known elements into new rhythms. The young Eliot jokingly described American popular music as a means to culturally uplift the Oxbridge natives (The Letters of T.S. Eliot 1898-1922, 80). In his career-making poem he use the form to reconfigure or re-remember the valued cultural past in a transformed tact: "O O O O that Shakespearian Rag---" (128).
Ramazani's revisionist program for a "newer" Modernist Studies participates in a wider desire to pluralize modernism's canons, think beyond its usual suspects, and, most certainly, move discussions beyond the narrative of heroic artistic exceptionalism that shaped accounts of modernism even under the aegis of the form-fixated New Criticism. These goals dialogue well with those of recent American Studies that, in a similar way, aim to push inquiry beyond established routes and figures. As key players in this enterprise such as Donald Pease and John Carlos Rowe tirelessly underscore, this mode of "newer" American Studies offers the possibility of thinking American cultural history "post-nationally" in the sense of moving beyond standard national narratives of achievement, representability, and exception. Closer analysis of a canonical, if controversial text such as The Waste Land, I would propose, suggests that many of these narratives are already complicated in the texts that "newer" scholarly efforts strive to move beyond. The Waste Land in particular interweaves national understandings within transnational flows that both direct our attention to the vicissitudes of national belonging and its ways of remembering in a global modern condition.