The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Modernism, Sex, and Gender

Modernism, Sex, and Gender. By Celia Marshik and Allison Pease. Bloomsbury, 2019. 194 pp. $29.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Geneviève Brassard, University of Portland

This smart and timely overview of the centrality of gender within modern(ist) literature and of the transformative impact of feminism on modernist scholarship should be required reading for all students and scholars of the period. As part of Bloomsbury's “New Modernisms Series,” which “introduces, explores, and extends the major topics and debates at the forefront of contemporary Modernist Studies” (n.p.), Modernism, Sex, and Gender meets the series goals with an engaging style that wears its erudition lightly. Marshik and Pease, separately each accomplished authors of monographs on topics pertinent to this study, join forces to remind us that modernism has always been more expansive and diverse than traditional scholarship suggests. Their book foregrounds second-wave feminism as central to the rejuvenation of modernist scholarship and brings us back to modernism’s historical moment to “uncover” the presence and importance of women as literary producers and consumers. The volume’s evocative image of modernist literature as a “palimpsest, a manuscript that has layers of writing, one on top of the other,” perfectly captures the work of excavation its authors perform (7).

Modernism, Sex, and Gender surveys four key aspects of modernist literature: Feminine Difference; Sexuality; Masculinities; and Sex, Politics, and the Law, with an introduction laying out the volume’s major interventions, and a coda highlighting the limits of the palimpsest model to the apprehension of the field’s increasing complexities. A critical bibliography provides a rich resource for further reading. Chapters chronologically follow the development of gender studies within modernist scholarship, from recovery of individual authors, through theoretical interventions on gender identity and sexual orientation, to more recent attention to structural underpinnings of discourse about gender and literature. The book underscores how the “‘act of looking’—who pays attention to what texts and why—has been at the crux of how we understand modernism, and more specifically, gender and sexuality in modernism” (6).

The first chapter surveys successive waves of feminist assessment of modernism, showing how the recovery of overlooked women writers of the period in Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank, and Scott’s Gender of Modernism, among many others, paved the way for the next phase of feminist scholarship, with its focus on femininity. This expansion of the field, from reading individual authors to “excavating culturally devalued categories,” led to the examination of the sentimental (Clark) and the middlebrow (Hammill, Humble) as modes of writing sidelined and devalued as too popular by disciplinary gatekeepers (33). Marshik and Pease rightfully single out Felski’s The Gender of Modernity as central to this phase of feminist criticism, especially its use of “modernity” as a key term, and its expansion of the archive to include a rich array of texts, discourses, and artifacts (40). Felski’s approach, and the infusion of cultural studies into the field more broadly, has led to the latest shift in focus for feminism, “analyzing structures of dominance writ large” (47).

Chapter two highlights sexuality as a central concern of modernist writers and traces a changing understanding of sexuality as “both identity formation and sexual acts” (53), including the impact of the field of sexology on modernist writers, and on redefinitions of sexuality, such as a designation of “orientation of sexual desire toward a particular sex” (52). Marshik and Pease review Freud’s pervasive influence on authors and scholars alike, but also challenges emerging in the 1970s to a scientifically-based narrative of sexuality, foregrounding Millett’s 1970 Sexual Politics as a pivotal intervention in our understanding of sexuality as socially constructed (60). They also highlight the “inescapable and profound influence” of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, especially as it helped reveal the “role that culture plays in modernist sexuality” (61). They emphasize how Foucault’s ideas continue to “feed a rich vein of scholarship on modernist sexuality that links sexual discourse to social control” (62). They trace the impact of Foucault and of Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble on the study of “discourses of otherness” (64), and on lesbian and gay histories and identities (66). Their overview of lesbian feminist history includes summaries of important work by Faderman, Doan, Medd, and Cohler, and contextualizes the emergence of the term "lesbian" in the 1890s and its shifting meaning by the 1920s, when it became “culturally operative through a field of social and political representations” (72). Marshik and Pease note how scholarship on gay male authors “was slower to take root” than lesbian scholarship, because of self-censorship and “oblique” representations due to the criminalization of “gross indecency” from 1885 to 1967 (73).

The third chapter describes masculinity in modernism as “ambivalent and melancholic” (92) and often defined as “defensive” and “hegemonic” (94). The authors suggest that early to mid-twentieth century criticism was “unselfconsciously masculine” and that masculinity studies, as an “outgrowth” of feminism, would later “expose the presumptions” of this implicit bias (93). They trace three themes in scholarship of modernist masculinities: “reactionary masculinity; figures of soldiers, imperialists, and cowboys; [and] representations of others (Jews, Blacks, imperial subjects) to define masculinities” (107). Marshik and Pease note critical interventions by Sedgwick, Huyssen, and Theweleit in this field, who pointed out the “structural importance of hegemonic masculinity to modernist literature,” and whose work has been extended to study “varieties of masculinities” since the 1990s (96). They single out Kane’s 1999 Modern Men as a useful study delineating “three stages of masculine crisis” in European literature: the trope of the literary double; the focus on intense male relationships in wartime literature; and the rise of fascism as a “paranoid attempt to restore homosocial patriarchy” (104). Marshik and Pease conclude that the “foundational aspect of modernist masculinities is fear”: fear of women, of the masses, of decadence, of sexuality, and of loss of identity (107).

The final chapter, “Sex, Politics, and Law,” makes a compelling case for the centrality of sex and gender in “modernism’s encounter with law and, to a lesser extent, politics” (125). It traces a colorful and disturbing relationship between obscenity law and women in the modernist period and examines “why particular works were censored” (126). The contrasting cases of the trials around the publication of The Well of Loneliness and Ulysses illustrate the claims that female sexuality was “more likely to be censored” and that female bodies served as a locus of legal battles, at once a “reason to suppress work and take the blame for the men who conduct the actual prosecutions” (127). The 1868 Hicklin ruling and its lasting impact on cases in the twentieth century is instructive in that regard; it created the paradigm that young, working-class women were “most in need of legal protection against obscenity” (128). The travails of Ulysses, with attention also paid to critical debates around the impact of the Well of Loneliness trial on Radclyffe Hall’s life and critical reception, provide ample evidence of censorship and obscenity as central to modernism. A short review of copyright and libel law, highlighting work by St. Amour, Spoo, and Latham, points to potentially “fruitful future scholarship on marriage and divorce in modernism” thanks to untapped archival material (148). The chapter concludes with an overview of suffrage, empire, and fascism; Marshik and Pease remark on early scholarship’s typical alignment of male authors with fascism and women with anti-fascism, and suggest that recent interventions by Zox-Weaver, Suh, Spiro, and Frost, among others, have complicated this dichotomy and offered more nuanced analyses of women’s relationships to fascist and/or antisemitic discourse. They single out Płonowska Ziarek’s claim that “the personal is the political and the aesthetic” as key to emerging understanding of female modernists’ relationship to politics (153).
Marshik and Pease achieve their stated goal, to introduce “readers to over a century of debate about modernism informed, then and now, by ideas on gender, sexuality, and the purpose of literature,” especially through the book’s ability to synthesize and contextualize a vast compilation of material (3). The volume’s many noteworthy qualities include masterful handling of a somewhat unwieldy archive, an assured voice, pointed and judicious commentary on a range of issues at the heart of feminist and modernist scholarship, and inspired and inspiring advocacy for the centrality of gender as a prominent category of inquiry within modernist studies.

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