Omnivorous “Modernism”

I'm marking A-Level scripts at the moment, and am ploughing through the produce of a centre whose sixty-odd candidates have all studied Cold Mountain, a (not very good) recent novel  by Charles Frazier. It's about the American Civil War and uses some of the tropes that post-1960s British novelists have applied to the Great War –  soldiers are essentially victims, there's no moral difference between the two sides, the only decent man is the deserter, etc.

But never mind that. It's a text that some students can engage with well, and I was thrilled to be able to give a script 20 out of 20 this morning.

What interests me is something that several students at this centre have written, so I suppose they got it from their teacher:

Cold Mountain is a typical modern novel, because it has two separate strands of narration, and the reader has to move between the two. This is a typical device of modernism.

Well, maybe, but it's a device of Charles Dickens in Bleak House, too. And what about the epistolary novels of the eighteenth century where we shift between the viewpoints of goodness knows how many letter-writers?

This teacher has fed his/her students an academic line that anything with an interesting technique and/or complexity and/or ambiguity must therefore be "modernism".

You find this in discussions of Great War literature by people like Vincent Sherry, who fulsomely praises the language games of Homage to Sextus Propertius , while ignoring the fact that the same sort of parody of officialese can be found in much journalism of the time. Alison Booth's Postcards from the Trenches over-rates the modern canon in the same way.

Even Joanna Bourke, who is usually quite good, can fall into the trap. In An Intimate Hisory of Killing she describes Kipling's Mary Postgate and says that it's so complex and ambiguous that it's almost modernist. As though anyone writing before the moderns wasn't capable of complexity…

The more I read in the literature of the war the less I am impressed by those who flew the flag of modernism (Ford Madox Ford always excepted). While among those who didn't belong to this literary gang one can find writers like Patrick MacGill and J.B.Morton, who really do have something original to say about war and soldiers.

Ah well, back to my marking…

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