BEFORE MODERNISM: Inventing American Lyric

Virginia Jackson

ISBN 978-0-691-23280-5  Princeton  £30

reviewed by Alan Dent

At the core of this study is an interesting thesis: that 19th century American poetics turned a poetry of genres into a poetry of persons, the latter being, in essence, what “lyric” poetry is deemed to be. Jackson has written the definition of lyric poetry for the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics: 

In Western poetics, almost all poetry is now characterised as lyric…..A modern invention,…lyric has profoundly influenced how we understand all poetic genres. 

The “almost” admits many exceptions and it might be worth asking who the “we” refers to. Do poets care whether their work is thought of as “lyric”? How would the poetry of Fred Voss fall into the category? Does it express “personal feeling”? In a way, but much more. The categories are of greater significance to academics than to poets themselves. As is true of all art forms. Art lives by subversion, definitions which help academics, hinder artists (political definitions are the death of art). 

Jackson brings welcome attention to important but neglected figures, Phyllis Wheatley, Ann Plato and Frances Ellen Watkins for example. The latter was born in 1825, published her first book of poetry aged twenty, was a vigorous abolitionist, public speaker, and in 1892 published Lola Leroy, a novel which pulls the rug from beneath white supremacism. That she is less well-known than many white, male writers of no greater distinction is no surprise. Her achievement, given the forces working against her is remarkable and it’s heartening that academics like Jackson are reviving the reputations of such writers. Jackson isn’t doing this simply to set right a sin of neglect, but to elaborate her hypothesis that American lyric poetry owes a debt, and perhaps its major debt, to the work of non-white writers. Literature, like everything else in American life, she is arguing, is marinated in white supremacism. Naturally, non-white writers who broke the ground which led to Whitman and the rest of the lauded white men, have been sidelined and in the process, a false view of the development of American poetry installed. American poetry began, she writes, “as something it no longer is: popular literature addressed to print publics that crossed genres and media and nations and genders and races and educations and classes.” It’s perhaps a pity she employs “races” as, Richard Lewontin’s critics notwithstanding, they don’t exist. We have the word “race” like we have the word “unicorn” but neither have any reality. That aside, the change from stress on the genre of poem to category of person is an interesting idea.. A multiplicity of forms became essentially single: the lyric. What mattered was the identity behind it.  

The book is an exploration of this notion through the literature of the nineteenth century. It’s full of fascinating detail and Jackson’s research is impeccable. What the book doesn’t do, however, is respond critically to the work it considers. There’s discussion, for example, of Little Eva’s story from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the work engendered by it. The novel, as Flaubert pointed out, may have some value as a tract (though even that is dubious), but is artistically weak because of its sentimentality. Jackson isn’t concerned, in this work, to submit literature to close critical scrutiny; her purpose is to marshal the evidence which sustains her hypothesis. That’s reasonable, but the issues of the quality of writing isn’t peripheral.  

One of the best examples of writing in this book comes from James Baldwin’s famous essay about Stowe’s novel: 

“ Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” 

Kafka upbraided Dickens for the failing, writing that “there is a heartlessness behind his sentimentally overflowing style”, which doesn’t stop him being taught as an exemplar of great writing.  

Jackson is no James Baldwin. Academics can’t be expected to be great prose stylists. No one expects a study like this to rise to the level of George Orwell. Yet Jackson’s style at points becomes somewhat defeating. Of course, there is a requirement for a certain degree of jargon and impenetrability for reasons of academic careerism; but the thesis is straightforward enough, the evidence available. What’s wrong with making expression as clear as possible? She also intervenes at several points to explain what she’s doing which begins to feel like a slight lack of confidence in her project.  

She makes reference to Adorno, Marx, Hegel, Jonathan Culler. The latter is famous for his structuralist approach to literature, an enterprise which has produced mountains of unreadable tosh purporting to be akin to science. Literary criticism isn’t a science and it’s foolish to try to imitate the kind of procedures physicists or chemists employ. Literature is a form of human behaviour, which simply isn’t (if only for ethical reasons, but in fact also because of the limits of our cognition) available for study in the way physical forces or chemical reactions are. We should be glad of that. We aren’t scientists, we’re just people thinking about books. What’s wrong with that?