FREE AS GODS: HOW THE JAZZ AGE REINVENTED MODERNISM
By Charles A. Riley II
University Press of
TRANSLOCATED MODERNISMS: PARIS AND OTHER LOST GENERATIONS
Edited by Emily Ballantyne, Marta Dvořák and Dean Irvine
Reviewed by Jim Burns
It’s a fascinating story and numerous books with titles like The Crazy Years have documented the personalities and events in a lively way. There’s nothing wrong with such accounts, which often emphasise the experiences of the American expatriates who flocked to the French capital, but it is essential to know that much more was going on than the merely anecdotal evidence suggests. A lot of important and inventive work was being done in the fields of literature, art, and music.
Charles A. Riley’s Free As Gods is a wide-ranging account that goes a long way towards redressing the balance in terms of the manner in which it deals with the various disciplines, demonstrates how they often inter-acted with each other, and points to some lesser-known (to most people, I would guess) figures around Paris in the 1920s. It is his contention that: “To read a poem or examine a painting in isolation from the cultural history is especially inadvisable because this was an era of collaboration more than of individual genius toiling in seclusion”. And he further states: “This study argues that the form-shattering tendencies of modernist art, music, and literature were accompanied by a concomitant will to create form”. The 1920s witnessed “a march towards abstraction through expressionism but also a resurgence of figural and still-life painting, realism in fiction, and classical ballet on stage”.
To emphasise his point about how the various branches of the arts frequently interconnected, Riley says that, in the 1920s, minds and tastes were changing at “an accelerated pace” and the boundaries among media were “blurring”: “Some of the greatest writers, such as Hemingway and Stein, were also contemporary art insiders, just as Gershwin, Porter, cummings and Dos Passos were serious painters. Pound was writing an opera in the twenties. Le Corbusier was painting as well as designing buildings and laying out a revolutionary new magazine. Léger was making movies, and Picasso was designing sets for the theatre”. Add to all this the fact that, according to Riley, jazz musicians had encouraged people to “take improvisation as the gold standard of originality” and everyone felt free “to be gay, straight, black, Jewish, bohemian, or aristocratic,” and so “slipped into fluid roles that defied specialisation”.
If Riley is to be believed, “a working knowledge” of jazz is
essential to an understanding of the “cultural history of the
period”. He seems to be knowledgeable about music generally, though
perhaps a bit hazy about jazz history, and I’m not sure how Dizzy
Gillespie’s “bent trumpet” altered the “physical culture of music”.
There are various explanations about why Gillespie came to use his
distinctive “bent” instrument in the 1950s (the popular, though
unlikely one is that someone trod on it and bent it out of shape and
Gillespie found that he achieved a better sound with the bell
pointing upwards), and it does seem to be accepted, in jazz circles,
that Gillespie got the idea from a British musician at the Ritz
Ballroom in Manchester, England, in 1937. (see Alyn Shipton’s
Groovin’ High: The Life of
Dizzy Gillespie, Oxford U.P., 1999).
And it’s said that a trumpeter/comedian named Merwyn Brogue who
played with Kay Kyser’s novelty band in
On the question of jazz generally, Riley again arouses my suspicions when he talks about “Understanding the thrill in 1924 of what it meant to import jazz from club to concert hall…”. Some might argue that in doing so the essence of jazz as an improvised music, with audience reaction almost a part of the performance, was likely to be lost. What Riley seems to be talking about is a watered down version of jazz, tailored to make it respectable. I enjoy Gershwin but his music isn’t jazz. And as for Paul Whiteman, Riley quotes the French jazz critic, Robert Goffin, who referred to Whiteman’s music as “weak dilution devoid of all real musical character”. And did Gershwin really write “history’s greatest serious jazz?” What is “serious jazz”? I have an uneasy feeling that Riley thinks jazz is “serious” when it takes on some of the orchestral characteristics of classical music.
Riley brings in some well-known names, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald,
Hemingway, Malcom Cowley, Harry Crosby, and Gerald and Sara Murphy,
all of them regularly mentioned in other accounts of
Of more interest is the chapter about Archibald MacLeish. “It is a pity that nobody reads or teaches the poetry of Archibald MacLeish anymore,” Riley plaintively says, and with that kind of statement it’s only fair to wonder why? Poets come and go, and fade from sight as fashions change, but there may also be a case for suggesting that it’s perhaps because their poems are not very interesting. Riley doesn’t offer any complete poems, or even substantial extracts from them, for us to consider. I turned to some anthologies and couldn’t get excited by most of what I read, which is, of course, a purely personal response and my judgement may be at fault. I have to say that Riley makes a persuasive case for at least looking at MacLeish’s work again.
Nancy Cunard, Ernest Ansermet, Eugene Jolas, Picasso, Hart Crane,
even Oswald Spengler, all receive attention from Riley, and one way
or another, he does manage to build up the idea of a period in
ferment. I did notice a few errors along the way. On page 55 there’s
a reference to the “1929 film version of
American in Paris”, with
a dream sequence “staged by Vincent Minelli and Gene Kelly”. Riley
presumably means the 1951 Film version, and at the risk of again
being called pedantic, isn’t it Vincente? On page 58 John Dos
Passos’ novel, One Man’s
Initiation, published in 1922, is said to be about the Spanish
Civil War, which didn’t break out until 1936. Dos Passos was writing
about the First World War. A later novel,
Adventures of a Young Man,
published in 1939, did touch on the war in
I’ve raised some queries about aspects of Free As Gods, but it still seems to me a stimulating book, partly because it takes a different approach to its subject, Paris in the 1920s, than many other books. And it looks at some of the lesser-known, or less talked about, writers and others who were around, but perhaps not noticeably so.
A couple of the writers who were in
Neither Glassco nor Callaghan produced anything of major
significance about their
It is suggested, in the essay about Callaghan in
that he revised many of his stories to make them fit in with
writings by “more well-known American modernists who lived in
Callaghan’s story certainly satirised Glassco and Taylor, and within
the conventions of the time, clearly indicated that they were
homosexuals. McAlmon was, too, but Callaghan played down that side
of the character based on him. When Glassco’s
Memoirs of Montparnasse
was published in 1970 he painted a somewhat condescending portrait
of Callaghan, picturing him as provincial and not very imaginative.
This was probably an act of revenge on Glassco’s part because he had
been annoyed by the way Callaghan had portrayed him in his story.
The question of how truthful or accurate Glassco’s memoirs are needs
to asked. It’s suggested that “Memoirs
of Montparnasse is grounded in a self-reflexive engagement with
fabrication. He intentionally destabilises the factuality of his
memoir in favour of the performative and the fictional”. In other
words, Glassco wasn’t trying to present a true and accurate picture
of what he had experienced, but instead wanted to get across how it
felt to be in
I mentioned earlier that
Translocated Modernisms isn’t solely about
Brion Gysin was associated with William Burroughs and the coterie at
the so-called Beat Hotel in
Other essays focus on Wyndham Lewis, Katherine Mansfield, and Malcolm Lowry, with the emphasis being on how they “translated and dislocated cultural practices across oceans and continents”.
Translocated Modernisms is a useful addition to the library of books engaging with the history of modernism. There were moments when it seemed to be in danger of sliding into the quicksands of academic theorising and jargon, but on the whole it’s readable, though not designed for a non-specialist readership looking for entertaining anecdote about expatriate escapades.