Beginning again then: History, progress, and American modernism
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My study is about modernist writers who reinvent the function of historical knowledge through literary form. Working against the notion that modernist texts evade history, I examine writers--especially William James, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Gertrude Stein--who perform powerful critiques of American historiography in experimental texts. Across disciplinary and political commitments, I argue, James, Du Bois, and Stein challenge and reform exclusionary practices manifested in narratives of national progress. The comparisons I develop disrupt divisions between aesthetic and political practices that the category of "modernism" often implies in order to reveal modernist innovations as political strategies that can work to reform collective identities. I begin by examining historical progress as the central mode of "writing the nation" in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. My first chapter surveys the operation of this progressive narrative among theorists and proponents, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Jacob Riis, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, as well as various responses among literary modernists, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Willa Cather, and Zora Neale Hurston. Moving from this broad context to a more specific study in my second chapter, I show that William James's concept of progressive continuity made by conscious thought, rather than imposed by external order, suggests alternative possibilities for turn-of-the-century historical science. My third and fourth chapters trace the more deliberate, career-long challenges W.E.B. Du Bois and Gertrude Stein, two of James's students, made to the idea that progress must shape psychological and national life. Whereas Du Bois's historical revisions are meant to achieve justice and redress for African Americans in racist society, Stein's similarly fractured "histories" function more inconclusively to reveal the dangers of fixing identities and actions. My coda considers how two contemporary writers, Gloria Naylor and Suzan-Lori Parks, confront the unresolved problems of historical progress embedded in modernist reformulations. This study identifies American writers who make historical texts in order to imagine new forms of collective living. Beyond expanding the shape and force of U.S. literary modernism, the writers I study offer alternative practices of national identification that are non-exclusive and open to revision.