ReMapping Modernism

Re-Mapping Modernism: The Style of Border Modernists

In detailing an alternative literary modernism this chapter incorporates and departs from

the work of Christopher Schedler as well as Rachel Adams. The term “border modernism” is

coined by Schedler, and as is demonstrated more extensively below, refers to a sparse prosaic

quality and an emphasis on orality. Significantly, Schedler’s iteration of border modernism is

undergirded by what this chapter shows is a reductive binary between border modernism and

what he identifies as “metropolitan modernism.” If Schedler re-situates modernism on the border

in his exploration of the literary, Adams does so in her account of visual representation.

Specifically, Adams demonstrates that a reconsideration of previously overlooked American

women artists illuminates “the spread of a Mexican element in international modernism” (104).

This chapter follows Adams’s lead that tracking unexplored circuits of literary production creates

fresh “geographies of modernism” (101). However, the crucial difference lies in explicating what

precisely Adams means in her account of “South Bank” modernism. The project’s focus, she

states, is in tracing the “rise of an American modernism that was specifically oriented toward

Mexico but also traveled outward to the continent and the world” (104, 105). Adams does so by

examining aesthetic production in “Mexico City and its environs” (104). By contrast, this chapter

analyzes the rendering of a local South Texas border in George Washington Gómez as well as

how the border as site-specific is deterritorialized in the service of establishing a hemispheric

American empire via The 42nd Parallel. In thus focusing on a local and site-specific border, this

chapter moves away from the centrist discourse of Mexico City as the privileged site of aesthetic

development. Before analyzing in detail how each text enacts border modernism an extended

discussion on this chapter’s use of the term versus that of Schedler’s is warranted.

According to Christopher Schedler, “border modernism” names a response to the crises

of being and knowledge which are also constitutive of canonical literary modernism. The

difference, he argues, in the border modernism variant is both historical and aesthetic; that in

border modernism, the relation between text and its historical context, as well as its aesthetic

features, are fundamentally and necessarily distinct. Canonical literary modernism is defined by

its radical formal experimentation and, Schedler asserts, is embodied most visibly in the works of

privileged Anglo writers. Within this conception of modernism the limits of form are pressed

most forcefully by stream of consciousness narration;1 this formal “inward turn,” furthermore,

runs parallel to the assertion of modernism’s avoidance of external historical realities.2 In

contrast, the prose of border modernism is plainly matter-of-fact and its outlook is resolutely

historical. However, in order to analyze and interpret a distinct set of cultural and aesthetic

practices as “border modernism” Schedler must elaborate them based on what they are not. That

is to say, while Schedler’s neologism suggests plurality, his articulation of the term into a fullyfledged

concept only comes into relief when diametrically set against what he calls

“metropolitan modernism.” Aside from risking the polarization of an immense set of texts into

an either/or scenario, Schedler’s definition-by-opposition also faces the problem of specificity. A

border, he writes, is “that marginal space (the frontier, the colonial periphery, the borderlands)

beyond the metropolitan center, where distinct cultural groups come into contact and conflict”

(xi). This conception of the border is problematic not for its multifariousness but in trying to

contain tendencies which run contrary to one another: the frontier is the imagined, and thus

abstract, horizon of colonial and imperial power while “colonial periphery” registers fixed

geographic points of colonial violence;3 moreover, “borderlands” is evocative of the theory

proposed by Gloria Anzaldúa that Chicanas in the U.S. occupy a liminal social space except that

Schedler’s analysis is absent any Chicana authors. The problem, therefore, is not that Schedler’s

border is both site-specific and abstract but that it signifies contradictory processes.

In addition to the ambivalent conception of “border,” Schedler’s elaboration of

“metropolitan modernism” is based on a misleading dichotomy. “The devices of metropolitan

modernism,” Schedler asserts, “are used to express an individual, alienated identity through an

internalized view of the urban world” (xii). In order to make this argument Schedler invokes

T.S. Eliot’s “J. Alfred Prufrock,” “the quintessential subject of metropolitan modernism” (xiii).

Such a reading of modernism assumes that “the internal world of the individual subject” is the

definitive site of meaning; by extension geographic location and historical context are secondary

at best, but even then are “isolated” from the fictional text (xiii). Given that there is never an

explicitly stated definition of “metropolitan modernism” but instead a named trio of Ezra Pound,

Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, it is implied that what Schedler has in mind in emphasizing the

metropolis is the modernism practiced by a literary and cultural, and Anglo, elite. There is no

denying that one strain of modernism was produced by white writers, many of whom had

connections to people of means, if they were not privileged themselves, and that these artists

often self-organized into insular collectives, the most posh of which is ostensibly the

Bloomsbury group.4 But one misses the mark by assuming homogeneity, and apolitical

disposition, among writers that could also be labelled metropolitan modernists.5 Clearly these

labels can quickly prove troublesome: D.H. Lawrence, whom Schedler groups as a border

modernist (xvi), is also championed as representative of “the great tradition” in English novels

and would therefore appear to be part of the canonical modernism that Schedler finds

problematic for an increasingly limited worldview whose most severe outcome is resistance to

historical awareness.6 The point, however, is not to decree a stern set of criteria for who and what

is either metropolitan or border modernist but that such an opposition does not leave enough

room for nuance. Still in all, despite the means by which Schedler arrives at an alternative

account of modernism, following his lead that there is a modernist aesthetic which emerges from

within and in relation to borders can prove fruitful.

If the unifying link across all modernisms is an urge for new orderings of language as a

means of capturing fundamental changes in human perception imbricated by material and

intellectual sea changes,7 this chapter’s adaptation of the concept of “border modernism” orients

this principle of language innovations around the 1848 inception of the U.S.-Mexico border and

its re-articulation beyond the 19th century. 1848 signaled the culmination of one stage of U.S.

political and economic conquest and it also established the terms of ensuing border asymmetries.

Thus, while border modernism refers to stylistics it also focuses on a particular content. In this

regard, and using Schedler’s term as a point of departure, this chapter modifies border

modernism to designate a set of representational strategies comprised of both formal and

thematic elements. In border modernism the prose is straightforward and often marked by

geographically specific vernacular (the speech habits of local communities); typically there is a

third-person narrator whose commanding voice is reminiscent of literary realism yet this voice

also remains distant. Following Michael Levenson, this chapter understands realism not as

“neutral or ‘objective’” but as “finely managed critique” (57). In this regard, the presumed

objectivism of realist fiction is actually what Levenson terms “a detachment that is at once a

judgment” (57 italics original). Thus, in border modernism objectivity is not a plainly given

narrative quality but rather a deliberately created mood achieved through a carefully worked

relationship between the presentation of the aesthetic goals of the text and the persona ordering

them. The term “persona” rather than “narrator” is used because as will become clear in the

following analysis, while the narrator of George Washington Gómez is highly involved, however

objective they may appear to be, in The 42nd Parallel it is not a traditional narrator who orders

the text’s aesthetic vision but instead a different sort of narrative force altogether. As a matter of

fact, given Dos Passos’s formal innovations across the trilogy in general, and their application to

the subject of the U.S.-Mexico border in The 42nd Parallel in particular, the border modernist

qualities of this text warrant further detail.

If border modernism’s stylistics refract both the historical and contemporary production

of U.S.-Mexico borderlines in The 42nd Parallel, Dos Passos’s treatment of language clarifies the

U.S. role in border-making during the 1910 Mexican Revolution. A more thorough discussion of

this role is provided below, but here it must be stated that the border modernism in Dos Passos’s

novel highlights the U.S. appropriation of Mexican revolutionary politics for economic profit by

de facto control of Mexico’s oil reserves; and by extension the consolidation of U.S. political

force via the institution of a pro-capitalist government regime in Mexico even after the fall of

Porfirio Díaz. Dos Passos achieves this historical clarity in part by adapting the realist principle

of accumulating a mass of external detail as one interworking component of the multimodal

structure of The 42nd Parallel. In thus drawing on realism, The 42nd Parallel is similar to

Paredes’s George Washington Gómez. The difference in Dos Passos, however, is that the

external world is detailed and ordered less by an individual narrator than by form itself—the

aggregation of the abovementioned four narrative modes. That is to say, one will not find in The

42nd Parallel a didactic assessment of border history as in George Washington Gómez. Yet a

critique of the U.S. involvement in the Mexican Revolution is nonetheless rendered through the

interplay between distinct literary modes, on the one hand, and the angles in which they depict

the events of 1910, on the other.

This chapter updates critical readings of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy by illuminating how

The 42nd Parallel adapts the realist emphasis on capturing the totality of historical change on and

below the border and combines this strategy with modernist fragmentary form. Indeed, critics

frequently remark upon the trilogy’s documentary qualities in general and Dos Passos’s

reportorial style in particular.8 To be sure, one of the trilogy’s four forms, “Newsreels,” is

modelled after the journalistic idea of reporting local and global events. While these readings

accurately situate the accumulation of historical detail within the context of Dos Passos’s grand

narrative about the pernicious effects of American capitalism, they overlook the crucial role of

the U.S.-Mexico border in the text, in particular its reproduction during the period of revolution.

Part of the reason for this omission, as is demonstrated below, is both an overemphasis on and

misreading of the montage modernism utilized by Dos Passos.9 As a matter of fact, The 42nd

Parallel (and the trilogy itself) is marked by a formally innovative modernism as well as its

adaptation of realism, in particular the calculated organization of immediately visible, rather than

psychological, content. Dos Passos, however, modifies this realist strategy by making this

organization less about a single narrator than formal and thematic sequencing. Specifically, this

chapter analyzes the dialogic action between “Newsreels” and character sections which not only

detail the external world but, echoing Levenson above, provide the terms for a critical

interrogation of this world.

In addition to these distillations of realism there are also elements of subjectivist

narration (not limited to Dos Passos’s stream of consciousness) in border modernism, and among

these free indirect discourse is key. According to Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, free indirect

discourse is a combination of quoted speech with “indirect discourse,” that is, speech not marked

by authorial flagging (110, 111). As the chapter shows, border modernism is stylistically defined

by a commitment to portraying both readily available as well as unconscious thoughts in a mode

that, significantly, is bound up in mediating historical processes of border-making. In doing so,

the chapter provides a way of re-thinking the literary history surrounding modernism, the

stylistics associated with it, and its inextricable relationship to modernity. No doubt an array of

distinct historical events and cultural formations influenced the periodization of canonical

modernism, yet this timeline continually assumes a European axis.10 To be sure, these events

remain significant within the purview of border modernism yet the crucial distinction is the

latter’s emphasis on the legacy of 1848 in the early 20th century. Given that border modernism is

a new concept it makes sense that its historiography is scant. Surprisingly, however, while the

failed European bourgeois revolutions of 1848 have been invoked as constituting the historical

basis for the cultural and political transformations which shaped literary modernism11 there

remains as yet no theoretical elaborations between 1848 and a modernist aesthetic that emerges

from the U.S.-Mexico border. This analysis is not a study of the links between modernism proper

and 1848. Instead, the chapter shows how a revised account of U.S. colonial modernity and its

history of border-making is both illuminated and productively linked to the early 20th century by

tracing the development of distinct border-based modernist aesthetics. Ultimately, the chapter

argues that it is these border modernist aesthetic practices which allow for a re-thinking of the

time-space paradigms underpinning and colonial and imperial modernity.

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