The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death, and the First World War

Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death, and the First World War. By Alice Kelly. Edinburgh University Press, 2020. 304 pp. $120 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Debra Rae Cohen, University of South Carolina

Early in Commemorative Modernisms, Alice Kelly announces her aim: to show through close attention to death and memorialization in women’s texts of the Great War that “the unprecedented war losses and the commemorative cultures that developed are a crucial context for literary development in this period, including modernism” (28). If this idea seems familiar (especially in the wake of the past thirty years of scholarship on women’s war experience and writing), so too does much of the opening chapter, which relies heavily on late-twentieth-century scholarly classics by Jay Winter, Allyson Booth, David Cannadine, and others. Indeed, Kelly presents her intervention as a continuation of these earlier works, bracketing off much of the scholarship from the past two decades. But although it may not break much new ground, Kelly’s richly interdisciplinary account of the special place of death, and women’s relation to commemorating it, in shaping modernist aesthetics proves a worthy addition to existing scholarship, buttressed by archival research and studded with some gems of close reading.

One compelling element of the volume is its structural design; Kelly operates by degrees of proximity, both geographical and temporal, moving concentrically out from the death scene to chart how mass death affected different groups of women and their modes of literary response. She opens with the “intensely proximate” encounters between the dying and nurses, whose narratives, she argues, marshal conventional Victorian literary tropes for the deathbed encounter, attempting what she intriguingly terms “immediate proto-commemoration”—before finding those tropes “inadequate for the mass numbers of war dead” (40). Nurses’ position at the bedside of the dead was already, before the war, highly culturally determined, and this position was reinforced by propaganda imagery; yet volunteers, who often had the emotionally taxing burden of caring for the dying in field hospitals, found themselves overwhelmed. Kelly argues that nurses’ attempt to render individualized death scenes in their narratives—a way of particularizing and personalizing the “multiple anonymous deaths”—only emphasized the break with Victorian aesthetics of death that the war imposed (47). Following the work of Margaret Higonnet and others, Kelly ties the more experimental and fragmentary narratives of nurses such as Ellen LaMotte and Mary Borden to the inadequacy of such literary conventions—and, like Jane Marcus, she suggests that modernist aesthetics may owe much to these narratives, which were “read, reviewed and imitated by the writers who would produce experimental literary work in the wartime and postwar period” (72).

Falling under the aegis of “proximity” as well for Kelly is the wartime writing of Edith Wharton, the focus of chapter two, particularly her 1915 propaganda work Fighting Forces. Kelly seeks, she says, to complicate “our notions of Wharton as a jingoistic propagandist” (27)—an “our” that carries perhaps too much weight, given recent work on Wharton. Kelly sees moments of “deliberate literariness,” “an excess of figuration” as anxious lacunae in the propaganda whole that signal Wharton’s unease about the war dead (83); the aesthetic question of finding a genre equal to articulating the war’s casualties is thus, in her argument, psychologized. The initial assertion that literariness=anxiety becomes the basis for a diagetic analysis: “My chronological reading allows me to trace the trajectory of Wharton’s war writings and suggest that these became more literary as the war proceeded and therefore ever more fully indicative of anxiety, even as Wharton became more outwardly propagandistic” (83–84, italics added). Kelly intriguingly lays out Wharton’s use of personified buildings as stand-ins for the war dead and explores the way Wharton plays with narrative framing, authenticity, and genre in her wartime short stories—particularly her troping on genre cliché in “Coming Home.” But the chapter seems to withdraw from any clear conclusions, claiming only that it has “demonstrated the literariness and complexity of Wharton’s propaganda, and shown that a re-evaluation of her war-related writings is necessary” (112)—that its intervention, in other words, is to show that intervention is needed.

The second section of Commemorative Modernisms both claims and achieves more, building on Booth’s notion of “civilian modernism” to move one circle out from immediate proximity to the war dead, and to illustrate the way that “abstract” modes used by civilians to depict them generated key developments in modernist aesthetics (122). For Katherine Mansfield, HD, and others, the war permeates their writing, often transmuted into sufferings written on the female body. Kelly compellingly demonstrates the development of experimental transmutation of the war through Mansfield’s appropriation of “affective tropes and superlative descriptions” in her private writings and through HD’s movement “from graphic to elliptical” figures (129, 165). She offers a stunning close reading of Bid Me To Live’s cinema scene, building on the work of Laura Marcus in exploring the affective and cultural links between cinema and memorialization, and showing how HD makes use of these in her own rendering to offer a fraught and complex positioning of the civilian’s guilty incomprehension.

Such readings feel more assured than some of Kelly’s cultural arguments, which, despite the interdisciplinary richness of the text, often feel slightly off. Her contextual delineation of the home front and her discussion of mourning customs are largely Anglocentric, sometimes muddling arguments about the American authors she includes: statements about “American propaganda,” for instance, sometimes fail to make clear the distinction between homegrown pro-interventionist arguments and those originating at Britain’s Wellington House.

Kelly gives the impression that she is most at home in the archive—really, an impressive array of archives—and she offers a series of compelling arguments that draw on, for example, an unfinished Wharton story and early drafts of HD’s Bid Me to Live. A richly interdisciplinary array of ephemera bolsters her readings of nurses’ stories and also her last chapter, on postwar memorialization, where locating Jacob’s Room within contemporary rhetoric about the Unknown Warrior richly and suggestively elaborates otherwise familiar readings of Woolf’s delineation of character. This reading lends support to Kelly’s claim that there is yet work to do in parsing the “critical simultaneity” of high modernism and the culture of commemoration (196); here, Kelly makes that cultural conversation clear.

Other conversations, however, will need to be filled in by Kelly’s readers—most saliently, those connections that call out to be made with other recent work, such as that of Elizabeth Outka on the confluence of war and pandemic. One wishes that, in parsing out the space for her argument, Kelly had engaged with some of the relevant scholarship she gestures to in footnotes and bibliography; the book would have benefited, I think, from some interaction with the important body of work on modernism and mourning, particularly that of Tammy Clewell and Patricia Rae; with recent theoretical scholarship on the temporalities of war; and with gender theory, which here, strangely, seems to be kept at arm’s length. Kelly’s book, a welcome addition to the war-and-modernism bookshelf, is certain to provoke many such intertextual conversations.

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