Modernist Studies Without Modernism: Preprint

About a decade ago—painful words to type—I started working on an empirical study of the bibliography of scholarship on modernism. I intended it to be a quick side-project, maybe a piece of an essay or a book introduction, that would bolster my theoretical argument for alternatives to “modernism” as a period concept for studies of the twentieth century. It was also my first foray into quantitative work, which possibly explains why it has seemed to need so many further iterations since then. In any case, I now have an essay version, which I call “Modernist Studies without Modernism,” which I am ready to make public. I have posted it to an Open Science Framework repository which also points to a reproducibility archive with R markdown source code for the essay and (processed and cleaned) data.

The essay argues that modernist studies is structurally committed to appreciating a canon of major figures of Anglo-American modernism as the paragons and central objects of its study. It is heavily predisposed to introduce and understand any new objects through the lens provided by this celebrated modernist core. The winner-take-most economy of modernist studies forecloses many possibilities for the study of the larger twentieth-century literary and cultural archive. In order to open this archive up to a broader twentieth-century studies, we need ways of making cultural objects interesting other than designating them as “modernist.” In fact we already have many of these, which simply need to be recognized and taken on their own terms.

The essay’s fate in peer review is still to be decided. I had a version ready a little more than two years ago for the journal Modernism/modernity. The editors refused to send it out for peer-review, on the grounds that they couldn’t publish an essay that made the journal itself its central topic. I didn’t agree with this reading of my essay’s analysis. In any case, the past two years have continued to move my attitude to modernist studies ever further away from Voice and ever more towards Exit. (I hope Fictions of Autonomy rules out Loyalty, though it certainly makes its small contribution to the Matthew effect for modernist authors.) That, and tenure, have made me willing to put a manuscript version into circulation more informally while I look for a formal home. It’s taken some time further to polish the thing again and update it where warranted.

Distrust commercial database vendors (as usual)

In fact I wanted to update it much more thoroughly by updating the main data set I study, which consists of subject headings for thousands of articles downloaded from the MLA Bibliography. The inquiry focuses on which authors have been the subjects of articles in modernist and twentieth-century studies. But I was stymied by the discovery that the EBSCOhost “bulk export” function has stopped working. At Rutgers, EBSCO offers a generous 25000-record limit on exports, so, with a little planning in devising good search queries, it is possible to compile large bibliographic datasets for study without too much suffering. This appears to work, but I found that the subject-heading information I obtained in 2018 was full of omissions compared to what appeared paging through the MLAIB on the web—and compared to what I had obtained when I first compiled a dataset in 2014 and 2015. With help from my Rutgers library colleagues I reported the issue to EBSCO; they acknowledged it is real and said it would be fixed. Two months later, no further developments.

So: don’t rely on the completeness of records downloaded from any EBSCOhost database in any format. It doesn’t surprise me when database vendors are not particularly exacting about testing the reliability of export functions; I’ve been through this before. Then again, I wonder if EBSCO charges my institution extra for the bulk export capacity. In any case I certainly feel no hesitation about making my data available to anyone who wants to try re-running my very simple analyses or seeing what else they can pick out. I do feel hesitation about circulating large numbers of complete MLA bibliography entries, so what I have uploaded is pared down to only the bibliographic information I actually aggregate. No bibliographer was harmed in the preparation of the essay. Probably.


I guess lots of scholars put work on the internet in order to solicit helpful feedback for further revisions. I’ve lived with this particular thing so long that I am not sure how much revision it could really survive. But anyway, read away. Talk to your friends about the wisdom of adding a Joyce/Woolf/Eliot/Pound/Stein chapter to their work at this late stage of human civilization.