Composing Cultures

Composing Cultures: Modernism, American Literary Studies, and the Problem of Culture

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Composing Cultures
    Book Description:

    The term "culture" has become ubiquitous in both academic and popular conversations, but its usefulness is a point of dispute. Taking the current shift from cultural studies to aesthetics as the latest form of this discussion, Eric Aronoff contends that in American modernism, the concepts of culture and of aesthetics have always been inseparable. The modernist concept of culture, he argues, arose out of an interdisciplinary dialogue about value, meaning, and form among social critics, artists, anthropologists, and literary critics, including figures as diverse as Van Wyck Brooks, Edward Sapir, Willa Cather, Lewis Mumford, John Crowe Ransom, Raymond Weaver, and Allen Tate. These figures proposed new ways to conceive of culture that intertwined theories of aesthetic and literary value with theories of national, racial, and regional identity. Through close readings, Aronoff shows that disciplines and approaches that are often thought of as opposed-cultural anthropology and aesthetics, American literary history and literary criticism, and multiculturalism and regionalism-are in fact engaged in common debate and proceed from shared arguments about culture and form.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3485-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Problem of Culture
    (pp. 1-22)

    In their recent survey of the state of literary studies, William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin argue that the time has come—as their title proclaims—for “stopping cultural studies.”¹ For Warner and Siskin, the reason is straightforward: “cultureisthe problem with cultural studies” (104, emphasis in original). Before cultural studies, they claim, literary study struggled under the limitations of “literary history, author-centered study and various species of formalism (genre theory, close reading, rhetorical analysis)” (94). With the rise and triumph of cultural studies from the 1980s through the early twenty-first century, however, literary critics learned to “inscribe literature...

  5. 1 Van Wyck Brooks and Edward Sapir: Divided America and the Form of Genuine Culture
    (pp. 23-56)

    This chapter sets the context for what I argue is the interdisciplinary debate over culture in early American modernism, and it lays out several key contours of that debate—contours that will in different ways in different disciplinary arenas structure debates within modernist anthropology, literary criticism, and “Americanist” canon reformation. Specifically, I reveal the way in which the interdisciplinary journals of politics, arts, and opinion that in many ways shaped the contours of modernism were also important organs through which the debate over culture circulated, as articles by anthropologists, literary critics, social scientists, and artists formed what Richard Brodhead has...

  6. 2 Possessing Culture: Willa Cather’s Aesthetic of Culture in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House
    (pp. 57-84)

    In 1923, Willa Cather’s essay “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle” appeared inThe Nationas part of the journal’s series “These United States.” Despite the editors’ possible intention, Cather’s description of the “great cosmopolitan country known as the Middle-West” was less a contribution to a unifying vision of “these United States,” and more a description of a transnational, polyglot region defined by its differences from the rest of the country. Reflecting what I have been arguing are emerging modernist versions of cultural pluralism—articulated in various ways by humanist critics like Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, and Horace...

  7. 3 Cultures, Canons, and Cetology: Modernist Culture and the Melville Revival
    (pp. 85-135)

    I have argued that culture formed a central problematic for American anthropologists, writers, and critics in the 1920s and 1930s. Even as American artists and critics attempted to redefine thecontentof a particularly American culture, theformof culture was itself under intense debate, as nineteenth-century definitions of culture as a general process of development or refinement intertwined with new competing definitions of culture as “whole,” “meaningful” ways of life. As American intellectuals struggled to come to terms with the rapid economic, technological, and social changes of the century’s first decades, the dominant metaphors for describing the social scene...

  8. 4 Recovering the Whole: Culture, Region, and Poetry in the Literary Criticism of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate
    (pp. 136-180)

    In his essay “Literature as Knowledge” (1941), Allen Tate tellingly begins his survey of recent semiotic and psychological theories of language not with a discussion of semiotics or psychology, but with a discussion of “culture”—specifically, the “Culture” of Matthew Arnold. Faced with “the accumulating body of the inert, descriptive facts of science,” Arnold, Tate argues, decided “something had to be done about it”; he proposed Culture as that thing.¹ Arnold’s “program,” according to Tate, was “culture added to science, and perhaps correcting it” (“Knowledge,” 72). This formula, he concludes, “has not worked,” in part because of the very relationship...

  9. Conclusion: Composing Critical Cultures
    (pp. 181-194)

    Composing Culturesargues that “culture” formed a central problem(atic) for American modernism between 1915 and 1941—a problematic that not only shaped the literary and other artistic compositions we think of as “modernist,” but also crucially shaped, in complexly parallel ways, the disciplines of anthropology, literary criticism, and American literary history as they emerged in their modern forms. As a problematic, or an orienting cluster of questions about meaning, value, aesthetics, and identity, “culture” became a central term for a variety of figures working from different disciplines, with different conceptions of what defined “culture,” but nonetheless in common conversation. Each...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 195-218)
  11. Index
    (pp. 219-226)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 227-227)