Fall 1988, Volume 5.2
Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets by Lisa M. Steinman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 256 pp., $20.00.
Lisa M. Steinman's book on the interaction between scientific and artistic modes of thought in the early decades of this century is a meticulous and valuable contribution to the history of Modernist poetics. Dr. Steinman's central thesis is that poets of this time attempted to compensate for the low esteem in which their art was generally held in the United States by the "chameleon-like strategy of associating poetry with technology." Writers consciously sought out validating models of scientific thought in an attempt to overcome the popular image of poetry as an inherently effete and escapist occupation. Wallace Stevens, for example, whose early aesthetic phase constituted an attempt to define poetry in opposition to the positivistic tendencies of nineteenth-century science, was nevertheless a sufficiently conventional product of his culture to feel a sense of "something absurd about all this writing of verses"; and in 1913 he asked his wife to keep secret his attempt to put together a collection of poems. Stevens at this time guiltily perceived poetry as "lady-like," and he was happier, suggests Steinman, when he discovered that he could claim the abolition of "concreteness" proposed by theoretical scientists of the early twentieth century as an analogy to his own poetic enterprise. In a 1935 essay, Stevens gleefully pointed out the absurdity of any attempt at "sticking to the facts in a world in which there are no facts."
The guru of these new physicists was, of course, Einstein, whose theories of relativity were honored in poems by William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish, and others. Indeed, Einstein soon became a figure whose popular legend matched (or even outmatched) his scientific reputation, and even today posters of Einstein are nearly as commonplace as those of Groucho Marx or Marilyn Monroe. This is a very curious phenomenon which can be at least partly attributed to Einstein's photogenic quality: his image fits every stereotype of the benevolently mad scientist. One does not see large posters of Heisenberg or Sir James Chadwick, for instance, though their contributions to physics were equally significant. And this actually suggests one area in Steinman's book which may be underexplored: the extent to which literary intellectuals of the 1920s were misreading the new physics, or plundering it shamelessly for its mythic rather than scientific qualities. Einstein in the 1920s became the subject of popular parodies and jokes, in burlesque theaters, in popular magazines likeVanity Fair, and so on; but in her chapter on Stevens, Steinman seems to be attempting to pin down some specific, even scholarly, scientific stance deriving from Stevens's readings without fully acknowledging the possibility that Stevens's own ruminations about science may have been random and inconsistent and based largely upon what he came across in popular magazines. Though it is interesting to hear about Jean Paulhan's attempts to explain scientific concepts to Stevens, there seems an indecisiveness in Steinman here which may unwittingly replicate a vagueness in Stevens's own view of the subject. Steinman is more convincing in forging a direct link between science and poetry in her chapter on William Carlos Williams, who of course himself underwent many years of scientific training in preparation for his medical career; and the chapter on Marianne Moore skillfully outlines how ideas of technology work their way into the formal (as well as thematic) construction of Moore's poetry. The first issue of Broom in 1921 praised her work as "ingeniously constructed, intricate little pieces of machinery . . . with cogs and wheels and flashes of iron and steel."
Made in America starts with three general chapters on the development of the American artist within the contexts of emerging Modernism and scientific discovery, and concludes with three chapters on the individual work of Williams, Moore, and Stevens. The book is carefully researched and documented, and it has much to tell us about the interrelationships between different branches of knowledge at this time. Steinman also raises fascinating questions about gender amidst all these nervous attempts to turn poetry and art into "masculine pursuits"; and this is intimately tied up with the efforts of Williams and others to invent a quintessentially "American" poetic tradition which was tough and worldly rather than one imbued with the nostalgia and gentility they believed to be characteristic of the European scene. Steinman's assiduous reading of the numerous "little magazines" of this time also enables her to recount illuminating instances of the attempts made by Leo Stein and others to equate American scientific, commercial, and artistic progress. Some of the comments on the development of Modernism in Chapter 2 are a touch flat and obvious: taking the trouble to inform us that Cubism was "characterized by the use of geometrical shapes and the manipulation or fragmentation of planes and perspectives" may be an example of Steinman becoming rather overcautious in her exposition. Generally, though, this book is a mine of useful information, and a fine account of how interdisciplinary studies were flourishing in an ad hoc manner during the 1920s.