The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review | Modernism in the Metrocolony: Urban Cultures of Empire in Twentieth-Century Literature

Modernism in the Metrocolony: Urban Cultures of Empire in Twentieth-Century Literature. By Caitlin Vandertop. Cambridge University Press, 2021. 208 pp. $99.99 (cloth).

Reviewed by Shawna Ross, Texas A&M University

Precedents exist for most monographs, making it prudent for a scholar to frame their book’s value as a welcome addition to an existing conversation. But for Caitlin Vandertop’s Modernism in the Metrocolony: Urban Cultures of Empire in Twentieth-Century Literature, justifying the project by its sheer novelty is viable. Although the centrality of metropolitan spaces to modernism has long been acknowledged, and many scholars consider decolonizing modernism the field’s most urgent task, Vandertop combines these scholarly foci in a way that feels both fresh and long overdue. That is because recent trends have made such a combination finally possible, with the necessary puzzle pieces supplied by the geographic expansion of modernism with the New Modernist Studies, the rise of infrastructure studies, and the increasing attention given by humanist scholars to the Anthropocene. Vandertop has assembled these pieces with true interdisciplinarity and an impressive amount of historical knowledge about the built environment. In bringing this knowledge to bear on her literary analyses, she deftly blends the infrastructural and textual dimensions of the argument rather than communicating a great deal of facts before unidirectionally applying them to texts, as if literature passively awaits truths that only historians can proffer. As a result, Vandertop convincingly casts modernists as profoundly interested in the built environment and attentive to the unequal development that scarred (literally and figuratively) metrocolonies, by which Vandertop means that modernist writers “transform[ed] the monumentalized landscape of the colonizer into the stage for a violent collision between claims to abstract universality and everyday conditions, between grand colonial ideas and the exclusions upon which they rest” (19).

Modernism in the Metrocolony surveys artistic responses to this uneven development in Bombay, Dublin, Singapore, and Suva from the 1900s through the 1970s. She argues that “the uneven, asynchronous modernity witnessed so visibly in metrocolonial spaces came to influence a range of writers associated with modernism,” particularly through the introduction of “the divisions, dislocations, and incongruities of everyday life into the formal texture of their work” (5). While three of its five chapters focus on familiar white writers, most prominently Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, two chapters center non-European voices: Mulk Raj Anand and Fijian activists, scholars, and authors Subramani, Epeli Hauʻofa, and Vanessa Griffen. These chapters make the book less vulnerable to recent arguments by decolonial scholars that research focusing on imperial agents and settler-colonial experiences over indigenous populations and perspectives is not fully decolonized, even when such research is critical of empire. Vandertop sidesteps this problem by committing to “decentering the Euro-American metropolis,” recognizing that its cities are “both colonial and colonized at once,” and dismantling myths that colonizers brought hybridity, mobility, and modernity to cities that previously lacked them (7, 9). The author even “raises the question of how subversive academic accounts of colonial cities as hybrid, cosmopolitan contact zones continue to be,” thus offering a salutary reflection on the cosmopolitanism scholarship of the early 2000s (15).

Chapter one is essentially an extension of the introduction: it outlines Vandertop’s theoretical framework, disambiguates this framework from existing approaches to metropolitan modernity, and carries out necessary definitional work. Much of this work is centered around the assertion that metrocolonies are “peripheral.” By invoking this term, Vandertop does not “imply that they lagged behind on the path to modernity” but rather identifies “partially modernized, semi-industrialized, or colonial cities in which temporality itself appears visibly to fragment, clash, and coexist,” thereby “complicating urban modernity’s chronological assumptions and illuminating the coeval temporalities that structure its logic in global terms” (36-37). Subsequent chapters offer more purchase for readers who prefer seeing the framework put concretely into action. Chapter two, “Architectures of Free Trade in Conrad’s Singapore,” which is beautifully executed and excitingly written, positions Singapore as a central image across Conrad’s fiction and delivers a potent rejoinder to Fredric Jameson’s notorious 1991 essay on “third-world” literature. Chapter three, “Synchronizing Empire Time in Joyce’s Dublin,” distinguishes Dubliners’ urban perambulations in Ulysses from the anonymous leisure of the Baudelairean flâneur, arguing that encounters on the street embody “the tension between spectacles of participation and experiences of exclusion, between performances of pride and the shame-inducing realities of dependence” (87). Vandertop’s account of multiple temporalities is a highlight of this chapter and may be of more use to scholars than the less definite concept of “local universalism” that she discerns in Joyce’s writing.

Chapters four and five, “Anglo-Indian Crises of Development” and “Ecologies of Empire in Oceanian Modernism,” pursue Modernism in the Metrocolony’s global perspective by focusing on authors and activists from India and Fiji. Chapter four constitutes a real advance for Anand scholarship because of its attention to his second novel, Coolie (1936), which has received less scholarly attention than his earlier novel Untouchable (1935). According to Vandertop, Anand’s sophomore effort “launches a modernist challenge to the developmental telos associated with the European novel” and “subverts the national-linguistic clarity associated with the genre by drawing on the lack of clarity and failure of communication produced in colonial environments” (114). Chapter five’s promise to analyze images of “gendered walking” constitutes the book’s only engagement with gender, but in practice the chapter’s ecological dimension predominates, leaving the task of exploring the intersections among gender, sexuality, and the metrocolony to future scholars. Vandertop’s strategy can be understood as a calculated risk, for understanding imperialism as an ecological crisis is a crucial insight for ecological modernist studies. The conclusion, “Mega-Dublins,” points out that “colonial-era borders continue to determine levels of access to the institutions of cultural production” (152), which underscores the book’s contemporary exigence.

If a criticism were to be made, it would be that causal links between metrocolonies and stylistic experimentation are left unproven. To provide one example, Vandertop claims that Joyce’s Ulysses demonstrates how “the complexities of metrocolonial experience were generative of modernist formal innovations” (77). Certainly, a scholar should not be compelled to provide, say, quotations from letters in which Joyce declares that the contradictions embedded in Dublin’s colonial architecture inspired the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Still, many of the claims of influence rest on analogical similarities (a kind of circumstantial evidence), and the space for close readings, which could have cemented the causal links, is routinely appropriated for providing historical context and critiquing prior theorists of modern urbanism (both meaningful missions). Ultimately, what matters is what Modernism in the Metrocolony does accomplish: it revitalizes the study of modernism and the city by casting out calcified concepts from the 1980s and 1990s and replacing them with new critical preoccupations and methodologies.

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