Monday, August 31, 2009

Howards End: First Impressions

When reading Howards End, I think the main aspect that interested me in relation to modernism as a movement was the protagonists’ German heritage. I wasn’t sure how much of this aspect was meant to reflect the issues facing German-English families at that time or was just purely symbolic, since I imagined at that time Forster probably had some anticipation of the conflicts that would lead to the war. The Schlegels I guess could then embody perhaps a sort of rebuke to any notion of Germans as being particularly threatening to the country as a whole, with Forster instead using the imperialist Wilcoxes to suggest a more class and traditional values-based conflict at work, so that Margaret and Helen represent more of an inevitability in British culture, as the modernist movement and the war lead England to more of that “melting-pot” society anticipated by the end of novel, which could involve “only connecting” through ascension and reinvention in the upper classes (Margaret), outright challenge through the lower classes (Helen), or basic assimilation through the bourgeoisie and Oxford culture (Tibby).

Though the sisters’ roles as German-Englishwomen do seem consistent with the idea of the more cosmopolitan effect of modernism on literature that came with the war, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them as reflections of the New Woman concept, I guess because Forster seemed to be trying to go for a more naturalistic approach in his storytelling. By focusing so much on two adult sisters who have yet to marry and endure various romantic complications, my first impression was that he may have been going for a sort of update on the traditional Jane Austen-style domestic drama (with Henry’s and Helen’s affairs meant as twists indicating such a formula’s need for change in twentieth-century literature), though I’m not so familiar with Victorian-era approaches to the domestic novel, so it also occurred to me with these twists that he could have been responding to the more tragic approaches of works like Thomas Hardy’s. By keeping the sisters somewhat at a distance from the model representation of the New Woman (as seen in characters such as Shaw’s Vivie Warren or more openly politically-engaged suffragettes) and more disapproving counterpoints (such as the tragic heroines of Pinero’s dramas), I wasn’t sure how much of his approach was reflecting his own apprehensions about the New Woman or just trying to avoid any risks of veering into unambiguous stereotypes, since he seemed to be so focused on establishing the difficulties of class interactions and behavior.

The main interests of the novel seemed to be to be summed up in Chapter XIII, with the second paragraph (79), which seems to share Yeats’ view of time in terms of gyres (reinforced in the ending) while also establishing the urban/suburban conflicts of late 19th/early 20th-century England’s literary landscape. Another specific point that interested me was at the end of Chapter XXVIII, when the penultimate paragraph notes that “When men like us, it is for our better qualities, and however tender their liking, we dare not be unworthy of it, or they will quietly let us go” (174). Aside from its explanations of male/female relationships, I was mainly struck by the uses of first-person pronouns in a narrative that had otherwise remained pretty ambiguous. I had previously assumed that the narrator must be male, since there didn’t seem to be much effort to establish much real personality or voice obviously separate from Forster’s, but this part made me wonder what kinds of conclusions we were supposed to draw about a narrator meant to be female, since the narration otherwise seemed mostly omniscient, even with such a casual opening phrase as “One may well begin with…” (5), suggesting the narrator as a character with a voice that goes beyond the traditional third-person.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Of Modernism

The main ideas that I guess I associate with Modernism that don’t seem to have come up so much in our readings are the concepts of a more globalized and consumerist consciousness. The former I associate mainly with the advent of World War I, as a major event that involved so many countries in such a profound way, so that its literature couldn’t be limited to primarily a British or American perspective. The latter I think of more in terms of the realization of a kind of literary culture (with both “high” and “low” varieties, such as Joyce acknowledged in Ulysses) and a greater interest in the role of money to shape literary ability (as Woolf discussed).

I think in this regard Modernism would be distinguished from Post-Modernism (or perhaps a post-Post-Modernism) by the fact that even while there may be a greater engagement with other mediums (such as art, music, film, etc), there still seems to be for the most part an acknowledgement of cultural difference at this point, without the challenges to genre boundaries and pop culture appropriations that can often be found in contemporary literature. It seems to me that the high/low literary distinctions may be a factor in the differences between British and American Modernism, since my impressions from my previous experiences so far have been that the ideas of highbrow and middlebrow literature have maybe been a bit more fluid with American writers (or at least with popular and acclaimed women writers such as Cather, Ferber, Loos, and Parker). I guess I mainly associate Modernism with both World Wars (and beginning around I guess the 1880s or 90s), though I think it probably changed over time in some way, particularly with the development of, and changes in, the New Woman concept.

With the gender issue in particular, I associate Modernism with a more politicized approach that seeks to address women’s rights struggles more directly in New Woman literature and war poetry, or in a way that seeks to emphasize sensory and conscious perceptions of domestic life over traditional narrative structures (as with the novels of Woolf and May Sinclair). I also associate this period as being when women could take more dominant roles in different literary movements and subcultures (as Woolf and other writers like Loy did), rather than being perceived as rather uncomfortable parts of the fringes (as many women associated with earlier movements like Romanticism were). Of our readings, I was particularly interested in Reed’s discussions of the Bloomsbury group in terms of their approach to domesticity, and the “Utopia vs. Subculture” issue, because it helped me to better conceive what the circle was about. Otherwise I think I may just agree to some extent with Clive Bell’s attitude towards criticism that Reed cited at the end of his Introduction, though that’s probably because I’m not too familiar with the Bloomsbury writers’ actual works (other than some Woolf), so I don’t want to try setting up some specific notion of what Modernism is.