Nathan O’Donnell (Trinity College Dublin) reports on the conference, Maverick Voices and Modernity, 1890-1939. This report (the first of three) focuses on how the conference uncovered the individual “maverick” writers outside the mainstream of modernism.
In his keynote address for the Maverick Voices conference, on 5 July, 2013, Michael O’Neill made a pertinent reference to Frank O’Connor’s formulation of ‘the lonely voice.’ Over the course of the two-day conference, a number of those presenting spoke to precisely this sense of ‘the lonely voice,’ the voice of the individuated, often isolated writer – writers who operated outside of collective movements and programmes. The thematic focus on the ‘maverick’ led understandably to a preponderance of papers grounded in scrupulous historical contexts, and to a distinct – happy? – deficit of critical theory.
“The ‘modernists’ have always been heroised as ‘mavericks’ of one sort of another”
Predictably, also, given the thematic timeframe and the stress upon the ‘maverick’ writer, there was a definite focus on ‘modernism,’ though it did seem as if the conference theme had been chosen to circumvent, or at any rate to challenge, the predominance of the modernist paradigm. The ‘modernists’ have always been heroised as ‘mavericks’ of one sort of another: committed to originality, experimentalism, the individual voice. So a conference setting out to identify and assess a band of ultra-mavericks, as it were, writers even more modernist than the modernists themselves, always ran such a risk.
Proceedings began with a panel on writers ‘in the shadow of Virginia Woolf,’ a definite forecast of what was to follow over the next few days. There remained a sense throughout of the inescapability of ‘modernism’; which is not to say that there were not some fantastic and original contributions from the assembled presenters. Some very assiduous and sophisticated, and fruitfully interconnecting, papers on Arnold Bennett (by Anthony Patterson), on Wells (by Jan Vanvelk) and on their correspondence (by Jonathan Wild) constituted an impressive reassessment of the work of these two long-neglected writers. Papers on the forgotten suffragette theatre-makers in Yeats’s circle (by Katharine Cockin) and on the religious impulse of modernism itself (by David Fine, looking specifically at a 1931 text by Rebecca West) provided fresh and illuminating perspectives on other writers outside the modernist mainstream; while two very erudite and original papers on the reactionary heritage of William Morris (by Bradford Haas) and on Mythopoeic Fantasy (by Anna Vaninskaya) pushed at the disciplinary margins.
Certainly by the middle of the second day, it felt as if we had been collectively engaged upon an almost archaeological project together, uncovering the disappeared voices of other kinds of modernism, other models of experimentation. Yet the shadow of modernism remained, and it was the second keynote address, given by Chris Baldick, to tackle it. In a surprising and rousing counterattack to what had been coming to feel like consensus, Baldick addressed the continuing predominance of the modernist paradigm in the approach of English studies (and, he might have said, art and architectural history) to the early twentieth century. He argued against the way in which ‘modernist’ has become synonymous with ‘canonical,’ so that increasingly scholars are forced, by professional and publishing pressures, into demonstrating the more or less spurious ‘modernism’ of this or that obscure literary figure. Baldick argued instead for a chronologised approach which did not prioritise ‘modernism’ above all other literary forms, a move which would allow those writers who were not modernist to be treated on their own terms, and would simultaneously give back to modernism a sense of its actual, sometimes strict, not always appealing, parameters.
“For the study of the literature of the early twentieth century, the theoretical field of ‘modernism’ has become a distorting and unhelpful omnipresence”
This was a bracing and astringent argument, which challenged some of the assumptions which had brought the participants of this conference together, but also engendered a sense of purpose to the work of uncovering in which we had been engaged. For the study of the literature of the early twentieth century, the theoretical field of ‘modernism’ has become a distorting and unhelpful omnipresence. There are, I believe, reasons why the academy might feel some particular affinity with the high modernist writers: in a twenty-first century in which the university is faced by singular ideological pressures to commodify, to marketise, to mimic the operational structure of the global corporation, the resistance of the modernists to the forces of mass-production, homogenisation and consumerism, might make them conspicuously congenial. But this cannot justify the continued special treatment afforded ‘modernism’ as a classificatory device. And if it was, as I believe, the aim of this conference to interrogate this special treatment, then certainly in many significant ways it was a success.