Review: Transatlantic Modernisms, Transatlantic Literary Women Series

Transatlantic Modernisms Workshop, Transatlantic Literary Women Series, University of Glasgow, 8 February 2017.

At the Transatlantic Literary Women Series launch night, series founder Dr Laura Rattray (University of Glasgow) gave a warm welcome that determined the relaxed, informal and friendly atmosphere for intellectual discussion which has been characteristic of the series since. Rattray, along with Saskia McCracken, Marine Furet, and Louisa Burden-Garabedien—who complete the committee—revealed a diverse programme of events in appreciation and interrogation of transatlantic women’s writing. Generously funded by the British Association for American Studies and the US Embassy, the series includes book group meetings, informal creative-writing competitions (the first of which produced a witty dating profile for Edith Wharton’s New York socialite, Undine Spragg), an evening of poetry at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Art, specialist talks, a film screening, and even a visit to Pollok Park’s recreation of the trenches for a talk on women and war. Graphics designer for the team, Katrina Falco, was at the launch to capture the bustling yet intimate atmosphere in the room. Indeed, it is Katrina who is responsible for the stylish, eye-catching posters dotted around various venues in the city.

A particular highlight of the programme was the Modernisms Workshop, an afternoon of papers dedicated to modernist female writers, and presented by esteemed female academics. Questions raised regarding American expatriate women and their often conflicted attitudes to homeland resonated with contemporary concerns, given the heightened awareness of Britain’s relationship to the rest of Europe and the United States following both the Brexit vote, and the presidential election of Donald Trump.

Image result for gertrude stein paris france 1940Bryony Randall (University of Glasgow) began discussions with her paper, ‘Gertrude Stein’s Expatriate Identities.’ Initially contextualising the movement for any unfamiliar audience members, Randall  commented on the large American presence in Paris, gender differences, the sexual and social liberation provided by the city, all of which held relevance for the duration of the workshop. In the background of Randall’s paper was Daniel Katz’s assertion that rather than anti-American sentiment, expatriatism was a ‘highly venerable form of ‘American identity.’[i] Randall argued for Stein’s belief that writers still ‘belong’ to their birthplace, using this to consider how Stein’s own relationship to America was enhanced by distance. Stein’s continuing dependence on her homeland was evident throughout, with Randall citing works such as ‘Wherein Iowa Differs from Kansas and Indiana,’ the essay ‘The Difference Between the Inhabitants of France and the Inhabitants of the United States of America,’ and the literary focus of Randall’s paper, Paris France (1940).

Speakers continued to explore the distant influence of the United States, with Virginia Ricard (University of Bordeaux-Montaigne) presenting ‘Edith Wharton’s French Lessons,’ also emphasising the role the French salon played in enabling Wharton to view the United States objectively as an expatriate. Ricard described the salon as Wharton’s ‘model of intellectual engagement,’ which helped shape new perspectives, not only on America, but other issues of the day such as women’s suffrage. Highlighting the often-overlooked significance of Wharton’s continuing to write in English after permanently relocating to France, Ricard argued that although Wharton may not have penned in French, she did translate French culture and society into English, and vice versa. This claim was accompanied by enlightening critical evidence, with Ricard examining French reviewer’s responses to The House of Mirth (1905). In contrasting the readings with their American counterparts, it became clear that though reading a translation of the same novel, French readers were interpreting a vastly different story.  This consideration of transatlantic reading and reception added a new dimension to the discussion, demonstrating the value of comparative transatlantic interrogation of these writers and texts.

Image result for nightwood first edition coverIf social media was anything to go by, Alex Goody’s (Oxford Brooks University) paper ‘Djuna Barnes and Beastly Modernism’ was certainly a highlight of the day. Goody demonstrated that the anthropomorphism in Barnes’ later novel, Nightwood (1936), can be traced back to her early journalistic career in New York, which Goody also linked to the craze for animal dances in 1910s. While Goody continued to explore the lasting impact of the United States, she also stressed explicitly that this modernist aesthetic was fully-formed before Barnes’ expatriatism, thus confronting the misconception that the writer’s exploration of modernist subject-matter did not mature until after she relocated to Paris. The paper ended on an exciting note, revealing forgotten articles which had not previously been attributed to Barnes, unearthed by Goody during her research. The closing piece of the paper, ‘Should Anyone Call You “Catty,” Make No Mistake It’s a Compliment,’ further demonstrated Goody’s view that when it came to the relationship between human and animal, for Barnes there was no ‘either/or’ but a ‘both/and.’ Going on the brilliance of the latter article, not to mention the light this work will shed on the development of Barnes’ modernist aesthetic, we can eagerly await the appearance of the other pieces.

The final speaker of the day was Elizabeth Anderson (University of Stirling), exploring the craft activities of H.D. in ‘Community and Craft: H.D.’s Tactile Transatlantic Style.’ Anderson continued to probe into a topic touched on earlier in the afternoon by Randall—the protection and cultivation of art—also drawing parallels between H.D.’s weaving and the way in which she combined influences from both the land of her birth and her adopted land in her writing. A reference to the use of embroidery as a form of resistance by imprisoned suffragettes provoked a short discussion between the speakers and audience, in which it was suggested that Glasgow Women’s Library held an example of this. After querying this, the GWL have advised they have no such piece, however, they did suggest another object which might be of interest: a cast iron umbrella stand which was allegedly painted by suffragettes in Duke Street Prison. Aside from being fascinating relics in their own right, these artefacts offer considerable potential in terms of furthering our understanding of feminine experience and agency in the context of material culture.

The workshop demonstrated a variety of approaches to women writers, highlighting specifically constructions of nationality and identity which arguably underpinned their work. The TLW series provides a comfortable space for this discussion, in a diverse atmosphere which strikes a happy medium between casual and academic. That the series is open to all and free to attend is essential in creating an atmosphere where people can come and go freely, to express and exchange views. In addition to this, the combination of multiple genres demonstrates that the TLW series is not just about appreciation of existing literature and art, but also about encouraging the creation of new work. Due to wrap up in summer 2017, we can but hope that this unique addition to the exploration of women’s writing extends their presence.

[i] Katz, Daniel, American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene: The Labour of Translation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. p.3.

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About Kari Sund

Kari Sund completed her Masters at the University of Edinburgh, where she focused on alcohol and work in F. Scott Fitzgerald's critique of the leisure class. She has recently started a PhD at the University of Glasgow, focusing on American literature, in particular the genre of the Hollywood novel in the early twentieth century.
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