U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Fresh Look at Twentieth-Century American Modernism


Robert Genter, Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). ISBN 978-0-8122-4264-5. 375 pp.

Review by Paul Murphy

Grand Valley State University

January 2011

In Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America, Robert Genter illuminates a time in American intellectual life when social critics not only garnered broad public attention but also adhered to a modernist outlook that was at least formally oppositional and anti-establishment. In Genter’s book, we encounter modernists deeply opposed to the ascendancy of science, suspicious of the organizational ethos of American life, and committed to human freedom and cultural autonomy. As he shows, many modernists drifted towards conservatism, but American modernism itself had an undeniably liberal and anti-authoritarian political valence.

Genter distinguishes between high modernists and romantic modernists. Both groups were alive to the threat of authoritarianism in American society, seeing totalitarian implications in commercial culture, mass politics, scientific progress, even patterns of child-rearing. However, where the high modernists cast themselves as defenders of the humanities and premised their defense of freedom on the absolute integrity and autonomy of the artist, the romantic modernists renounced any structures—aesthetic, institutional, psychological—that would limit the essential, instinctual self as an incipient form of mind control. Genter’s real contribution lies in his recovery of an additional, distinctive modernist strain, which he labels “late modernism”; he believes it comprises an “overlooked movement in American intellectual history” (16). He traces this late modernist position to the work of critic and rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke and a small band of like-minded intellectuals: the sociologists David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, and Erving Goffman, the Freudian critic Norman O. Brown (in his early phase), the painter Jasper Johns, and the writers James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. This group fashioned a full-blown aesthetic and social theory, a “third tradition that charted an entirely different course” (10) from high and romantic modernism.

Genter, who earned his doctorate at Columbia University and currently teaches at Nassau Community College, has written an indispensable and accessible introduction to postwar modernist criticism that will be essential reading for graduate students in American intellectual history for years to come. His mastery of contemporary critical theory, psychoanalytical theory, modernist aesthetics, and the history of the New York School of artists are on display throughout this extraordinary first book. Genter’s explication of high modernist aesthetic theory and social criticism stands out, but he excels, too, in his treatment of visual artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnet Newman, and Jasper Johns. His presentation of William Burroughs as a cryptic, outlandish, but unfailingly perceptive romantic modernist makes a convincing case for his importance in American intellectual history. (Genter’s book is a volume in “The Arts and Intellectual Life in America” series edited by Casey Nelson Blake for the University of Pennsylvania Press. Andrew Hartman and Tim Lacy have reviewed two other volumes in the series on this site.)

Late Modernism consists of eight chapters, most of which follow a similar pattern: Genter introduces an aspect of high or romantic modernist criticism, often with some contextualization in Cold War social history; he details the debates among the respective modernists and analyzes their critical shortcomings; he then introduces a late modernist critic or two, whose theoretical insights anticipate postmodernism but also reflect a desire to fulfill the ambitions of the modernist critical project. For example, in his second chapter, Genter analyzes the high modernist concept of the “authoritarian personality,” by which they ascribed the incipient fascism of American mass politics to weak ego development. His sympathetic analysis of these thinkers’ ideas, their motivations and anxieties, and the ways they re-thought and adapted positions in the face of a changing political context inevitably amounts, it must be said, to a form of gentle evisceration. The late modernist criticism which follows inevitably seems more creative and less cramped. In chapter two, Genter uses David Riesman as a late modernist foil to the high modernist doctors of the American psyche, arguing that his concept of other-directedness was a critique of high modernist obsessions with ego autonomy and not, as the high modernists misleadingly suggested, a confirmation of their own diagnosis of failed character. To Riesman, both inner-direction and other-direction were forms of conformity characteristic of most people in modern life. What the other-directed personality portended was not a new conformity but a healthier society built on sensitivity to others and an understanding of the social dimensions of human personality.

In other chapters, Genter brings Norman O. Brown forward to correct the high modernist’s misreading of Sigmund Freud and their exclusive focus on genital sexuality; Erving Goffman and C. Wright Mills to present the fluid, performative, and relational self in contrast to the romantic modernists’ hedonistic hipster; and James Baldwin to correct the modernists’ (both high and romantic) misogyny and homophobia. In the final chapter, Genter explains Burke’s theory of rhetoric and traces its presence in the social thought of Mills and the fiction of Ellison.

Genter provides a full, rich account of the high modernist stalwarts: the New York Intellectuals, Frankfurt School theorists, and New Critics. High modernist aesthetics were premised on the autonomy of the artist and marked by the obsession with the art object itself as a self-defining thing—an object insulated from culture, values, and religion. Lionel Trilling and the Frankfurt theorists, most significantly Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno, immersed themselves in orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic theory as an alternative to Marxism. They posited the stunted and neurotic authoritarian personality as the unique danger to modern society and took as normative a well-integrated ego born of a successful negotiation of childhood Oedipal conflicts. They were also anguished critics of instrumental reason, bureaucratic rationality, and the postwar hegemony of an unreflective scientific establishment. “At its core, high modernism was a defense of the humanities in the face of this rising enthusiasm for science and an argument for a disinterested and polite observance of the natural world in contrast to the aggressive hand of technology” (24). Modern individuals lived under the long and dark shadow of the Enlightenment, endangered by technological marvels wielded by barbarians and suffocating bureaucratized institutions governed by philistines. High modernists placed their hopes in art and literature, and their feverish efforts to fashion a modernist canon, promote difficult and esoteric modernist works, and sanctify the authority of the autonomous artist betrayed their desperation. They were thoroughly elitist, ultimately unable to maintain their grip on a popular audience, and eventually quite conservative in their views on politics, gender, and culture.

The Romantic Modernists—the Beats, the abstract expressionists and action painters, and Norman Mailer—opposed the high modernists even as they shared many of the same critical concerns and newfound obsession with psychoanalysis. They were youthful enragés who reveled in their apostacy, indicting liberals and fellow modernists as much as conservatives for the totalitarian tendencies in American culture. “It’s about time you wised up to Trilling….,” William Burroughs wrote Allen Ginsberg. “He’s got no orgones, no mana, no charge to him. Just soaks up your charge to keep the battery of his brain turning out crap for the Partisan Review” (14-15). As the reference to Wilhelm Reich’s post-Freudian theories and Native American shamanism suggest, romantic modernists opposed authoritarianism through the liberation of the id from the constraints of the ego and spiritual self-aggrandizement. (Reich believed the libido to be a physical substance that derived from a “primordial cosmic energy,” which he called orgone. In turn, orgone could be dispersed onto patients through a wood- or wool-lined box called an orgone accumulator. Native American shamans believed “mana” was the supernatural force binding the world together.) Totalitarianism, which they tended to analogize to a cancer emanating from the established powers of society, was “any tendency toward social or psychological control.” Or, in the words of Norman Mailer: “totalitarianism has come to America with no concentration camps and no need for them, no political parties and no desire for new parties, no, totalitarianism has slipped into the body cells and psyche of each of us” (132). Thus, romantic modernists embraced the body, or at least, the sexual drives within it, and rejected character itself as a function of disease. They advocated spontaneous art as an expression of the unconscious, turned towards North and South American primitive art forms, and, following Reich’s cue, participated in the cult of the orgasm.

Late modernists, first and foremost Kenneth Burke, critiqued the excesses of both camps, anticipating postmodernism while retaining the “vocabulary of the self” (323) and robust and serious moral vision of the modernist tradition. Whereas the high modernists promoted the realm of art as autonomous, aloof and disengaged, the late modernists insisted that the artist and the audience enter into a dialectical relationship. Art is, by definition, a form of communication with the public, not a means of repelling it. On the other hand, the romantic modernists were entrapped, they believed, in a futile search for the imagined pure and socially isolated self, an “ontological foundation for subjectivity uncontaminated by modern culture” (140). In contrast, the late modernists insisted that the self is social and personal identity intersubjective. To the late modernist Jasper Johns, the self was very much material and embodied—the product of those social and historical forces that impose themselves on the body, indeed, the very scars they left behind. To the late modernist, there was no uncontaminated self to find, no universal truth outside of the particularities of history and culture.

Burke started from the assumption that all human action is symbolic action and thus some form of rhetoric. The study of language held the key to human intentions and thus action. This led him to the marginalized academic field of rhetoric, for which he created his own new theories. For Burke, language was fundamentally about creating community. Rhetoric—the art of persuading an audience to your position, of moving people to action—was about building identifications between humans. The agent gains a response by appealing to sympathy, care, trust, or the need for acknowledgment. Rhetoric entails fostering identifications, and identity becomes the process of opening oneself up to attachment with others. Art, in Burke’s view, ought not to be about fostering isolation or seeking a purity of statement imagined as apart from one’s cultural partners but rather about communication with fellow citizens.

In the social theory of C. Wright Mills as well as that of Erving Goffman, both of whom were indebted to Burke, Genter discerns a similar conception of the self as constituted by discursive practices and social performance. To understand the self, Goffman held, start on the outside and work one’s way into the center. (The romantic modernists held the opposite—“write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing cramps…. Come from within, out,” averred Kerouac [208]. The self was something inside that the artist had to release.) In the writings of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Genter discerns a similar imperative to disrupt the boundaries of the self, establish connection and identification, and build community.

The ultimate utility of Genter’s claim to have discovered a new “late modernist” tradition is less clear. All of Genter’s subjects (high, romantic, and late modernists alike) seem to be late in the modernist tradition chronologically, all active in what Genter identifies in his introduction as the third and last exhausted stage of modernism, which developed after World War II. Burke and his crowd worked contemporaneously with the high and romantic modernists. The “late” label serves Genter’s intention to position them as the sensible via media between high and romantic extremes, those who managed to maintain the modernists’ moral seriousness, commitment to the self, and faith in the redemptive role of art but who also assimilated the postmodern troika: contingency, multiplicity, and relativism. By designating his preferred group of thinkers “late,” Genter suggests for them a culminating role in the modernist tradition and an unheralded and frequently obfuscated status as postmodern pioneers. One could imagine a different, Deweyan context for this group of Burkeans—connecting them in one direction to Jane Addams, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead in the tradition of progressive social philosophy and in the other to the early New Left and the neo-pragmatism of Richard Rorty (with a lateral affiliation with the more democratic and communitarian aspirations of the Young Intellectuals of the 1910s and 1920s). In this sense, they are less “late modernists” then another link (or a middle term) in the long and distinguished tradition of twentieth-century democratic social theory.

Kenneth Burke has been fortunate in receiving such favorable, perceptive, and sympathetic historical attention. Genter’s work should spark renewed interest in his work. By engaging mid-twentieth-century American social thought and aesthetic theory in fresh and challenging ways, Late Modernism will find a wide audience, not least among students of American intellectual history.

One Thought on this Post

  1. A belated thanks for this excellent review. I’m reading Genter with Rodgers – an interesting pairing, especially since I read Rodgers first.

Comments are closed.