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New Book: Mock Modernism

Posted by Leonard Diepeveen on August 18, 2014 in Research

This past winter University of Toronto Press published Len Diepeveen’s Mock Modernism, a collection of early twentieth-century parodies of modernism. Among other things, the book includes Max Beerbohm’s send-up of Henry James walking in a London fog; J. C. Squire’s account of how a poet, writing deliberately incomprehensible poetry as a hoax, became the poet laureate of the British Bolshevist Revolution; and the Chicago Record-Herald’s account of the Art Institute students’ “trial” of Henri Matisse for “crimes against anatomy.”

Mock Modernism finds its sources in daily newspapers of 1913 Chicago, mainstream magazines like Punch and Vanity Fair, little magazines such as the Egoist and the Little Review, and a children’s book—The Cubies’ ABC—published to coincide with the 1913 Armory Show. Over the course of the book the parodies address the big events of modernism: the Chicago manifestation of the Armory Show and the 1910 and 1912 London Post-Impressionist exhibits, as well as the arrival of free verse and imagism—here addressed in the pages of the Columbia Jester, humor magazine of Columbia University:

Imagiste Love Lines
I love my lady with a deep purple love;
She fascinates me like a fly
Struggling in a Pot of glue.
Her eyes are gray, like twin ash-cans,
Just emptied, about which still hovers
A dusty mist.
Her disposition is as bright as a ten-cent shine,
Yet her kisses are tender and goulashy.
I love my lady with a deep purple love.

The parodies skewer not only their target texts, but the relation of modernism to bolshevism, anarchism, democracy, and theosophy—as well as to advertising, madness, and sexual license. The authors of the parodies include both high modernism’s skeptics and high moderns who had a skeptical streak: T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hart Crane.

In addition to providing some great comedy, Mock Modernism offers a picture of how people thought modernism and its artists attracted attention and came to power. Limiting itself to 1910-1935, the book works with texts and art movements that were created before their targets were important, before modernism’s features were clearly understood, while modernism was still fresh, when responses still exhibited baffled surprise.

These parodies, then, are not the result of looking at an already constructed edifice, they occur during the moment when the viability of a proposed edifice was in doubt. The responses collected in Mock Modernism interpret modern-ism’s works and the movement as a whole, the social conditions that were granting it attention, and the conditions under which someone could take such work seriously.

They interpret, then, not just the central features of works of art, but the forms of criticism, publishing climate, and social conditions that enabled these works to seize public attention and gain serious attention.

Mock Modernism’s texts are negotiations about, and interventions into, what their source works really signified—what they meant, but also how they created meaning, and how they inserted themselves into culture. And, if they make you laugh out loud, there’s no harm in that.