In Rooms of Their Own: How Coterie Culture Shaped Literary Modernism
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Taylor, Michelle Alexis
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CitationTaylor, Michelle Alexis. 2021. In Rooms of Their Own: How Coterie Culture Shaped Literary Modernism. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractIn Rooms of Their Own investigates the socio-literary practices and material cultures of the modernist coterie (i.e., the intellectual-artistic group or clique) in order to demonstrate modernism’s attraction to and dependence upon the creative and intellectual affordances of amateurism. Through a survey literary works that enjoyed a limited or restricted audience — such as parlor theatricals, epistolary verse, and private publications — alongside professionally published writings, this project argues that coterie culture and practice continually restored a sense of play and presence to a literary culture increasingly committed to professionalism and posterity. Each chapter examines a different aspect of coterie culture and its role in shaping modernist literature more broadly: it begins by looking at T. S. Eliot’s use of coterie (in)discretion as a means of destabilizing literary taste and escaping the institution’s purview, connecting his understudied contributions to Noctes Binanianae to Four Quartets to show how coterie indiscretion, as a form of “folly,” is offered in Four Quartets as a kind of moral justification for modernist practices. It then examines how the coterie’s mediation of audience, its straddling of the public/private divide, allowed Virginia Woolf to model new ways of relating to her readers in both Orlando and Freshwater. In the third chapter, Nancy Cunard, the underrated and controversial celebrity poet, publisher, activist, and heiress, models how coterie can turn influence — a dyadic model of a struggle to assert dominance and power over the influential, often dead, writer — into something I call “confluence,” a more horizontal way of understanding style as a force of intimacy and attachment; her example also demonstrates the limits, or at least the potential limitations, of the coterie’s practices of affiliation as it butts up against large racial and class disparities. The final chapter considers the maligned legacy of the modernist coterie as it was shaped by a subgenre I call the “kunstlerroman-à-clef,” a novel that satirizes contemporary literary culture while making reference to real historical persons (in the mode of the roman-à-clef). These novels depicted the coterie as perverse, insular, superficial, and antagonistic to the exercise of the individual’s genius. On the other hand, contemporary women’s autofiction imagines the modernist coterie as a force for preserving individual genius, even as it searches after the kinds of literary community described throughout this project; such novels demonstrate our need for these underexamined models of literary sociality and restricted production, consumption, and circulation. In Rooms of Their Own demonstrates that even the most institutionally-embedded modernists relied on the transhistorical cultural model of the coterie for the alternatives it offered to the institution’s mediation of cultural life, suggesting that amateurism and professionalism might not be opposites so much as the nodes of a dialectic that could sustain our contemporary cultural moment.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37370221
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