In July of 1922, British artist and author Wyndham Lewis dropped in on Ezra Pound at his studio in Paris and found him boxing with a “splendidly built young man, stripped to the waist, and with a torso of dazzling white.” That young man, a journalist covering Paris for the Toronto Star (who was beating Pound handily), remembered Lewis somewhat less favorably. Decades later, when the world knew him as Ernest Hemingway, he wrote that Lewis had a frog-like face and the eyes of an “unsuccessful rapist.” It’s not a particularly momentous anecdote, but the human scale of the scene—two cultural giants goofily sparring—gives the impression of an extraordinarily intimate cultural milieu.
Such bits of chatty gossip coupled with the strange coincidences that so delight our longing for patterns are the bread-and-butter of Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One. Indeed, it is to one of these accidents of fate that Jackson pegs his book: The publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at the beginning and end, respectively, of the year in question.
It is hard not to feel a certain prejudice for the biography-of-a-year format, which seems to spring up regularly of late. To name a few: in 2006 there was Charles C. Mann’s 1491, Adam Goodheart gave us 1861 in 2011; in 2012, there was Music in 1853: The Biography of a Year, and this fall Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. (It seems a lifetime ago that David Halberstam covered an entire decade in 1994’s The Fifties.) A year can be an exciting, momentous period of time, but it is the best way to depict history’s arc?
That’s not to say that any one of these books is not a well-researched and thoughtful undertaking; but the recycled set-up is the publishing equivalent of a meet-cute, asking writers, and readers, to focus on a certain timeframe, while accepting blurrier versions of the surrounding years. Of course, these books don’t narrowly follow an artificial sliver of history, but the suggestion that readers should feels vaguely demeaning.
But while Jackson’s twelve-month structure (chapters are divided by month, and each event is listed under its date) threatens to move the genre’s gimmick into schtick, the book takes on the feel of a literary diary, resulting in an engaging work that dares to associate “Modernist literature” with “romp.” It’s sort of a less sensational and more accurate Hollywood Babylon for the literati. In this case, the biography-of-a-year structure works well, giving focus to what could be a scattered undertaking. In this case, the tangents and asides are the argument.
With the publication of Ulysses, at least according to Pound, 1922 was the beginning of a new age: “The Christian Era ended at midnight on Oct. 29-30 of last year. You are now in the year 1 p.s.U. [post scriptum Ulysses],” he wrote to H. L. Mencken. Jackson balances the formal fates of Ulysses and The Waste Land with the musings of contemporaries in letters and notebooks. Woolf detested Joyce’s work—“the poor young man has only got the dregs of a mind compared even with George Meredith”—but was fond of Eliot, while Hemingway called Ulysses a “most goddamn wonderful book.”
Woolf detested Joyce’s work—“the poor young man has only got the dregs of a mind."
But Jackson doesn’t confine himself to critical reactions, bringing in plenty of historical detail to flesh out the people behind the masterpieces. Young writers, take heart: The two literary greats spend plenty of time moping, drinking, complaining, being alternately wounded and delighted by reviews, and in the case of Eliot, turning down what he considered inadequate payment. (He declined $150 to publish his poem in the Transcendentalist journal The Dial.) Eliot also contemplated giving up literature altogether; miserable as he was toiling in a British bank, writing pained him dearly as well. Joyce, who should have been in high spirits considering the attention—good and bad—showered on his revolutionary book, was still drinking heavily and dragging his large family around Europe.
Jackson draws from well-known sources but is adept at juxtapositions that breathe fresh life into their intertwined stories.1 The book delights in recounting the legendary alliances and feuds flying around this small circle of writers: Virginia Woolf was jealous of Katherine Mansfield; Katherine Mansfield was in thrall with the mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Pound was (supportively) jealous of Eliot (“Complimenti, you bitch,” he famously wrote the poet). Plumbing the networks between these Modernists also gives rise to incidental but entertaining asides. Of being forced to submit to a rectal exam, Rudyard Kipling joked, “If this is what Oscar Wilde went to prison for, he ought to have got the Victoria Cross.” Then there’s the single meeting between Joyce and Marcel Proust (who died later that year), which by all accounts reduced the two greatest novelists of their time to monosyllabic chitchat.
But the book wisely enriches these vignettes with political and cultural context that stretches the limitations of its one-year parameter just enough, using minor events to hint at what lies ahead. For example, while a 1922 October riot by the Jugenbund isn’t a well-known event, it is used here, along with other early Nazi activities, to foreshadow the continent’s looming totalitarian threat. Such moments only occasionally feel like contortions; their future implications remain, well, implied, rather than excessively asserted. In one short passage, he notes that French Prime Minister Raymond Poincare banned the use of English words in official documents after reading a magazine article critical of “Franglais” penned by an immigrant from Asia who wrote under the pen name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), better known later in life as Ho Chi Minh. While discussing “possibly the single most important day in the history of jazz,” Jackson provides a touching biographical sketch of Armstrong’s early years in a footnote. (Footnotes, generally, are not to be missed; his digression on the affair between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is as delicious as anything given center stage).2
“The remarkable collective achievement of the Bloomsbury writers and artists,” Janet Malcolm wrote in A House of One’s Own, “was that they placed in posterity’s hands the documents necessary to engage posterity’s feeble attention—the letters, memoirs, and journals that reveal inner life.” This book benefits from not only the Modernists’ public and private writing, but also their photographs, audio recordings, films, and related desiderata. This was the year that the first “facsimile picture” was sent using phone lines, the BBC held its inaugural broadcast, and Warren G. Harding became the first American president to give a speech by radio. And as Oxford University’s Hannah Sullivan argues in her recent book The Work of Revision, the Modernists were some of the first writers to benefit from the relative ease of new technologies such as the typewriter and machine-set type.
The Modernists’ preoccupation not only with their work but with the evidence of working makes their lives more comprehensible to us, readers who are accustomed to seeing the process of production and a constant stream of public confession. Jackson doesn’t probe how any one of these writers saw themselves, but he does provide a sense of how they saw themselves compared to one another. He allows us to weigh their thoughts against future achievements and the goings-on of their contemporaries—something like a pre-Facebook time capsule mapping a social and intellectual world. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, and this biography of an annus mirabilis transcends a contrived structure to present a modern sorting of those fragments.
Cara Parks has written for the L.A. Review of Books, Slate, and The New York Times. Follow her @caraparks.