Race and the Modernist Imagination

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Cornell University Press, 2010 - Literary Criticism - 251 pages
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"In Race and the Modernist Imagination, Urmila Seshagiri makes a capacious case that the aesthetics of Anglo-British modernism are fundamentally shaped by a racial imagination. She argues persuasively that race operates not only as a theme in modernist texts but also as a structuring aesthetic force within colonial frameworks, including in stories of wayward or unsettled English identities. In surprising juxtapositions, Seshagiri finds race embedded in texts where we might not suspect it (such at The Good Soldier and To the Lighthouse) and in popular texts where it operates in unexpected forms below the surface of crude racial polarizations (as in the Fu Manchu stories)."---Laura Doyle, University of Massachusetts, author of Bordering on the Body: The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture

"Race and the Modernist Imagination is a provocative and altogether compelling demonstration of how race permeated British social attitudes and inspired the bravura experimentalism of modern art in various mediums and genres, from cultural sensations like the Ballets Russes to the avant-garde entertainments of the Cave of the Golden Calf and from the `high' modernist writings of Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Ford Madox Ford to the pulp excitements of the Dr. Fu Manchu mysteries. A work of remarkable range and insight, Urmila Seshagiri's book is indispensable for understanding the centrality of race in the making of modern culture."---Maria DiBattista, Princeton University

Race has long been recognized as a formative element of American modernism, but its role in England is less clearly understood. While critics have examined race in the works of British writers such as Kipling, Conrad, and Forster, they have done so mostly from a postcolonial perspective. In Race and the Modernist Imagination, Urmila Seshagiri finds that race---as a matter apart from imperialism---served as an engine for the creation of new literary forms by a wide range of writers, including Oscar Wilde, Ford Madox Ford, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, and Virginia Woolf. In Seshagiri's view, race provided these writers with a set of tropes and plots that rejuvenated the British aesthetic tradition: new ideas and fresh forms found their way into British literature through characters and settings that evoked other peoples, other places.

In addition to her readings of a fascinating array of works---The Picture of Dorian Gray, Heart of Darkness

The Good Soldier, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and the short stories of Mansfield and West---Seshagiri considers examples that fall outside the usual purview of British modernist literature, such as Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu tales, the avant-garde review BLAST, and Vita Sackville-West's travel writings. Throughout, she places her subjects within their social and cultural contexts: British Chinatowns, avant-garde cabaret clubs, exhibitions of African art, and dance performances by the Ballets Russes. Urmila Seshagiri's interdisciplinary study reveals a common core of race in the modern imaginary and, more broadly, establishes race as a crucial concept for understanding the cultural field of modernity.

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About the author (2010)

Urmila Seshagiri is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

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