With an examination of a number of memoirs by and about modernist authors and artists published during the 1930s, this article raises questions about the complex relationship between the high-art subjects of these volumes and the popular forms of gossip and celebrity anecdote that make them marketable to a broad new audience for modernism. First revealing how literary life writing of the 1930s establishes its place in the historical developments of the genre, from “table talk” to autobiography to celebrity gossip, the article then argues that a key tension at the heart of memoirs by modernist writers is between the celebrated or elevated subject matter and the ordinary or everyday approaches of the modernist aesthetic. In some memoirs, particularly those authored by celebrity modernists themselves, including Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, and Wyndham Lewis, the high-art subject matter is framed by mundane matters and the daily lives of the exceptional artists, placing genius authors in the most generic situations. In other cases, as with work by Robert McAlmon and Malcolm Cowley, the celebrity figures with whom the memoir writers come into contact are made to look effectively ordinary, thereby deflating the celebrity value achieved through publicity and literary reputation based on the cultural value of the author. The combination of popular celebrity gossip and the modernist interest in daily life thus draws together the high and the low, the aesthetic and the popular, repackaging the modernist experience for a new audience.
Rod Rosenquist; The Ordinary Celebrity and the Celebrated Ordinary in 1930s Modernist Memoirs. Genre 1 December 2016; 49 (3): 359–383. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-3659122
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