Modernism Outside the Mainstream: A Report on Maverick Voices and Modernity, 1890 – 1939

Maverick Voices 3Luke Seaber (University College London) reports on the Maverick Voices and Modernity, 1890-1939 conference. This report (the second of three) asks whether scholars have unduly neglected the wider historical contexts in which major modernist authors worked, and the connections they made to popular culture.

One of the two keynote speakers at July’s Maverick Voices and Modernity, 1890-1939 conference, Chris Baldick, dwelled on the problematic definition of ‘Modernism’ and a certain academic tendency towards taking it as the only truly valid area of cultural creation in the early twentieth century in Britain. This risk of self-imposed blinkering was successfully avoided by the conference, which saw a range of papers looking at figures characterized by innovativeness and their positions as ‘mavericks ‘ – a usefully undefined term that offered a way into discussion of an impressive array of figures within and without various canons.  As Anna Vaninskaya rightly pointed out in her paper on Dunsany, Eddison and Tolkien, many of the maverick voices examined – Chesterton, Bennett, Wells, Hardy and Wilde, for instance – were very much part of the literary establishment. However, the value of a term like ‘maverick voice’ was that it allowed a focus on ‘marginal’ aspects of such figures – good examples being Michael Shallcross on Chesterton’s parodies of Eliot, Bradford Haas on William Morris, small presses and the Woolfs, John Cameron Hartley on Hugh Walpole and the Gothic and Elizabeth Brunton on May Sinclair and dead babies.  It also allowed for examination of figures more truly outside the establishment – Jose-Luis Moctezuma on Humphrey Jennings, for example, or Katharine Cockin on Pamela Colman Smith and Alexandra Lawrie on Richard G. Moulton.

The great value of conferences that have such a wide variety of papers spanning a broad spectrum in terms of content, approach and focus is the unexpected and unlooked-for connections that are made as little-known figures are unearthed and better-known ones re-examined. As a personal example, my paper on Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels underwent changes based upon Bradford Haas’s observations on the small press movement, a linkage that would otherwise almost certainly never have occurred to me.

“Modernism has seized so much of academic attention, obscuring the historical context”

The chief role of such events, it may be argued, is not in fact to provide answers, but rather to raise questions and open up new lines of enquiry. This Maverick Voices did.  A theme running throughout the panels, perhaps more explicitly in question-and-answer sessions than in papers themselves, was the degree to which Modernism had seized so much of academic attention, obscuring the historical context.  Various examples of this and possible approaches to investigating the ramifications of recognition of this fact were explored, but much remains to be done, and the recognition of ‘maverick modernity’ in so many disparate authors has provided an excellent point from which to press forward.

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