Essay

#DownWithCentennialism

by Harris Feinsod

There are plenty of reasons one might dread the coming of the year 2022. As a scholar of modernist literature and culture, I derive a particular form of professional dread at the prospect of the commemorative panels and Daily Telegraph articles celebrating the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. April, 2022 will be an especially dreadful month in this respect. Elsewhere in the world, 2022 will be ruining Trilce for Peruvians, and centennialists may flock to a spate of delusive Blooms-century events in Dublin, brought to you by an overeager International James Joyce Foundation.

I’ve been growing weary of this scenario since 2009, when Italian Futurism got hot and then cold again awfully fast. And again in 2010, the centenary of the year in which everything changed, according to Virginia Woolf. And 2014, with its wave of World War I commemorations. New Directions issues a centennial edition of Ezra Pound’s Cathay this fall. Important though it was, this slender chapbook—originally published in modest brown wraps—makes a dubious inductee into the “monumental” logic of centenaries. Likewise dubious is FSG's spate of commemorative reissues for the 1914 birth of John Berryman. “The anniversary invites a second look at Berryman’s life, art, and reputation,” writes Helen Vendler in The New York Review of Books. Second since when? It is suddenly as if without the centenary, there had been no books available, no poems written under the Berryman influence, no articles or reviews, since...when? 

The Modernist Studies Association’s annual conference in Boston this year explores the theme of revolutions. Yet they also make room for what they call “anti-revolutionary repetition," which looks a lot like centennialism: “The proposed conference theme invites us to consider as well forms of anti-revolutionary repetition: 2015 marks not only the centenary of D.W. Griffith’s controversial but formally innovative film The Birth of a Nation but also the revival of the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia.” Even as the committee that authored this sentence passingly acknowledges the historical violence of the KKK “revival,” it bears out the logic of centenaries all too quietly: a shift in the emphasis of “revolution” from rupture to cyclical return.

Indeed, centennialism might be especially incoherent when professed by devotees of the revolutionary historical avant-garde, for centenaries are often anathematic to avant-garde practice. Vladamir Mayakovsky wrote:

"Stop once and for all these reverential centenary jubilees, the worship by posthumous publication. Let’s have articles for the living! Bread for the living! Paper for the living!"

I expect these incitements will be missing from the 2017 centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Even poets who invite the most pious forms of centenary worshipfulness often disavowed this form of attachment to their works. This year is the centenary of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but as Prufrock muses, “Would it have been worth while [...] / To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.’” Here, the bizarre mood of the future past, the arch and artificial tone of “I shall tell you all,” with its lull of double ls, the contentless repetitions, the clamorous pointing to oneself to be heard: this is the hollow time of centennialism. As Prufrock also puts it:  

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker

The poem’s only ellipses come as Prufrock later sputters out, lamenting “I grow old… I grow old…” Prufrock bakes his own sense of obsolescence into his verse. His lines themselves grow weary. Let's honor their recognition of their own decay.

Why not view centenaries as natural moments to pause and commemorate some of the great achievements of literary expression, haloed by the vague and fleeting light of public interest? Because the empty occasions of calendrical time impose their false coherence on us. They inhibit the possibility of a critical program guiding our sense of a usable past, celebrating instead only Prufrock’s flickering diminishment. Centennials do not augment historical expressions, they carve them into the thin slices of a party cake, consumed with the last coffee or drink of the evening before a big sleep.

I hear that University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is pulling out all the stops for a “statewide” Gwendolyn Brooks @ 100 celebration of her birth in 2017. True, she’s easily the most important poet in the history of Chicago. Sign me up. But many aspects of Brooks’s career remain inaccessible, owing in part to the belated sale of her papers. Down with the centenary as long as more durable forms of Brooks stewardship remain in abeyance. Where is the “beyond ‘We Real Cool’” Brooks unit on the curriculum of every CPS student? Why has there been no critical biography since George Kent’s incomplete effort, published after his death in 1990? The most substantial collection, Blacks, is no substitute for an overdue Collected Poems. At least since Ferguson, many have been tacitly celebrating the 46th anniversary of Brooks’s poem “Riot”—a work with a special purchase on our present—by the simple act of circulating and reading and talking about the poem. I join them and will again when it turns 47. How about an immediate, free reissue of the remarkable first-edition pamphlet brought out by Broadside Press with Jeff Donaldson's gorgeous illustration, placed innocuously amid the informational literature at every police station in the country? Let no one wait for a Golden 50th.

There are other centennials requiring our pause. Chadwick Allen wonderfully explores the meaning of the 1976 bicentennial of the American Revolution for indigenous peoples in his recent book, Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies. But let the rest pass unannounced. Instead of commemorative holidays, let's have programs for the present, plans for the future, “articles for the living!” Let's remind others of what's neglected at the most inconvenient hours.

Harris Feinsod is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. His work focuses on 20th and 21st century literature of the hemispheric Americas, modern poetry and poetics, and maritime cultural history, especially in the age of the steamship. His first book is The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2017).  

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