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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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A Pound for Pound: Modernist Elitism

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

As part of my research into a textbook on modernism (about which I keep meaning to blog, whilst failing to find time to do so) I was interested to read in Lawrence Rainey's account of the economics of modernism (in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism) about a series of lectures given by the modernist poet, Ezra Pound.

Modernism was, for its critics, a notoriously elitist affair. That early period of the twentieth century was sandwiched by nineteenth-century authors such as Dickens, who consciously appealed to a buying public, and post-modernism, which happily embraced mass culture and media. Between these two populist movements, modernist authors sought to distance themselves from the crowd. As Peter Carey pointed out in his controversial book on The Intellectuals and the Masses, modernism can be understood as a reaction to the large reading public who were created by the educational reforms of the nineteenth century. Modernist authors sought to be elite and difficult, to form cliques and cabals (most famously the Bloomsbury group) of like-minded intellectuals. To some extent, this persists today. Who outside of the academy reads The Waste Land or Ulysses?

Rainey shows further evidence of modernism's elitist economics in a set of three lectures that Pound gave at the home of a wealthy aristocratic family:
The price for the three lectures was a steep one, £1  1s, slightly less than the weekly wage of the average male industrial worker. The audience was "limited to fifty," as a contemporary program announced, and the site was to be the "private gallery" of Lord and Lady Glenconner, located at 34 Queen Anne's Gate. With no expenses to cover (the event was offered "by the kind permission" of the Glenconners), Pound might earn between £50 and £60. Equally vital, however, was the effort to endow the lectures with an aura of aristocratic glitter, to distinguish them from mere offerings of the contemporary economy. Programs were not posted in public places, but privately distributed; tickets were not commodities to be purchased, but favors to be courteously requested ("TICKETS may be had on application to Lady Low," the program stated; Lady Low lived just off Kensington Gardens and hosted "evenings at home" for a circle of upper middle-class intellectuals including G. W. Prothero, editor of the Quarterly Review).
As a teacher I have qualms about the word elitism, as it risks rewarding mediocrity and undervaluing those who are genuinely more capable than others. But as a participant in literary culture, the anti-elitist trend of the last two decades or so, for which New Labour was condemned, has had great benefits. We could not be further from the conscious exclusivity cultivated by Pound, in our modern era of free museum entry, blockbuster exhibitions at galleries, and programmes of outreach and education that all our cultural institutions are required to perform to receive public funding. It is surely something to be grateful for that I can think of no author today who, wanting to promote their work, would be willing or able to charge the admission fee of an average weekly wage.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:42 pm

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