Recalling the modernist generation(s): literary memoir as literary history

Rod Rosenquist

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Since my first book, Modernism, the Market and the Institution of the New, I’ve been interested in the question of generations, particularly in that volume aiming to assess the tensions between high modernists and late modernists on matters of innovation and cultural positioning from about 1926. Of particular interest to me was the question as to how far the high modernists had become institutionalized as a group and how far those who arrived in their wake (so-called second-generation modernists) had to deal with an institutionally- or popularlyestablished conception of the movement. My next project engages with similar questions of literary history and the established conceptions of the movement arising in the period – pursuing the question, as you ask in the CFP, ‘Are Modernists aware of themselves as modernists?’ – by examining in detail the literary memoirs written by modernist artists, writers, publishers, journalists and their friends published between 1929 and 1969. These books often aim to not only assert an individual’s narrative within literary or art history, but to write the narrative of the movement itself – sometimes under the burden of significant personal agendas or ambitions. I would like to present findings from this ongoing research into modernist memoirs at the ‘Generation M’ conference, particularly that arising from the literary historical formulations constructed by these authors as they relate to generations and age groups. Some of the more impressionable terms we continue to use in literary histories, including ‘the men of 1914’ and ‘the lost generation’, were proposed and elaborated in literary memoirs. In 1934, Malcolm Cowley writes about the role of a young writer reading from ‘the Lives of the Saints’, by which he means the older generation (including high modernists like Joyce and Eliot) – finding them, ultimately, insufficient as guides for the younger generation’s problems. In 1937, Wyndham Lewis writes about this same ‘Age Group’ and its origins – as he aims to ‘fix for an alien posterity’ that which the previous generation called, in the words of Ford Madox Ford, a ‘haughty and proud generation’. These two texts, alone, raise questions about where the lines can be drawn within and around modernist generations. But later memoirs add context as well. Hemingway, in 1964, would exfoliate his own 1926 use of the phrase ‘a lost generation’ after it had built up a literary historical definition of its own (even Strauss and Howe use ‘the lost generation’ as signifier for an entire American age group in their influential Generations) – remembering the unfairness of the attack on his own generation by those of the older generation, and seeking to hold them accountable for their own failures. And in one of the last modernist memoirs to be published, John Glassco remembers visiting George Moore in London on his way to Paris, and confiding to the 87 yearold novelist that The Confessions of a Young Man (1886) is one of his favourites. Moore thinks readers must ‘look on that as dated … nowadays’, but Glassco’s companion asserts to the contrary, ‘It will never date, it’s a kind of statement of youth for all time’ – and it is this which leads Glassco to focus on his own memoirs rather than poetry while in Paris. In passages like these, it becomes clear just how far memoir is a tool for asserting a version of one’s own modernity – for narrating one’s belonging to one’s period and establishing its place within literary traditions. Particularly the notion of creating a statement of youth (could we say ‘modernity’?) ‘for all time’ is a subject to be examined as the memoirists seek to place their own work and their own time both against the backdrop of a previous generation and as a legacy for the coming generations, establishing their own literary historical narratives and shaping its contours.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 May 2012
EventGeneration-M Resetting Modernist Time - University of Amsterdam
Duration: 11 May 201212 May 2012


ConferenceGeneration-M Resetting Modernist Time
CityUniversity of Amsterdam


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