Daniel Katz

American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene


Daniel Katz. American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene: The Labour of Translation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 208pp. ISBN: 978–0748625260 (hardback). £45 (UK), $90 (USA)

Reviewed by Daniel Kane, University of Sussex (April 2009)


Does the very phrase ‘American Modernism,’ sound, well, a bit strange? After all, an aura defined by cosmopolitanism and internationalism so often hovers around and envelops the work of writers including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Henry James. These novelists and poets vigorously invoked England and the ‘Continent’ in their work. A glut of biographical material further situates and celebrates these authors’ years in Rapallo, London, Paris, and so forth, in company with other artists from Ireland, Italy, France, and beyond.

Indeed, cosmopolitanism and modernism are so inextricably linked in most readers’ minds that it comes as a fascinating shock to read Daniel Katz’s revision of this most basic of modernist clichés. As Katz so readily illustrates, expatriation is ‘in itself a highly venerable form of “American identity,”’ and ‘the “Europe” and “Europes” of the authors studied here are quintessentially American scenes.’ ‘James’s Paris,’ Katz asserts, ‘is no less American…than Frost’s New England, or Faulkner’s South’ (3). Employing an approach informed to some extent by psychoanalytic, postmodern and poststructuralist theory, Katz spends much of his time exploring the following major questions: ‘[T]o what extent does expatriation allow for a distanced and dialectical re-encounter with the “homeland,” now become decentered and uncanny itself? To what extent does this render the relationship to language, even one’s “native” tongue, above all one of translation? And to what extent does the massive modernist experience of expatriation represent a seeking out of this space of generalized translation, despite the paradoxical fact that actual practices of translation, emphasizing a grafting of the foreign into the domestic, are often mobilized against this very threat?’ (5).

The Labour of Translation answers these questions in a generally chronological manner organized around a series of key figures. Chapters One and Two focus on that doyen of transcontinental modernism, Henry James. Beginning with an analysis of the ‘cosmopolite’ in The Portrait of a Lady and in James’s travel pieces, Katz calls on Freud and Jean LaPlanche to explore how theories of the uncanny and linguistic ‘purity’ informed James’s writing. Katz then moves on in Chapters Three and Four to consider the ways in which Pound extended James’s project, exploring the significance of how Pound defines James as quintessentially American precisely because of James’s ‘very estrangement from his American identity’ (7). Via an excellent reading of Pound’s translations, Katz produces a fine study of how Pound simultaneously affirmed and suspended ‘his sense of American difference.’ Katz’s fifth chapter proceeds to address ‘Gertrude Stein’s clear dialectic of expatriate estrangement as preservation of cultural identity in the context of Wyndham Lewis’s article “The Dumb Ox”’ (17), dallying along the way to consider Lewis’s indictment of Stein’s influence on Ernest Hemingway. The final two chapters find Katz coming home, so to speak, by moving his study from Europe back to America and moving forward from historical modernism to historical postmodernism through a reading of the work of John Ashbery, James Schuyler and Jack Spicer.

Katz’s analysis on Henry James provides readers with a series of assertions (illustrated through convincing close readings of texts including The American Scene and The Ambassadors) that provide a ground from which we can understand expatriate experience and its attendant focus on literal and metaphorical translation as ‘invigorating estrangement’ (22). James’s work, Katz argues, illustrates that the cosmopolite, ‘who by definition has no home,’ is essentially ‘every American,’ that is, that ‘Americanness’ is ‘an originary cosmopolitanism’ (32). The American idiom itself is predicated—unlike its Continental pure-bred cousins—on mongrelization. ‘[The] scandal of the American idiom,’ Katz writes, ‘is that it serves to rehistoricize all languages, to deconstruct all effects of nativized authenticity’ (33).

Katz then moves on to explore what Pound and Stein did with their former master’s evocations of identity. Beginning with Pound’s essay on James, Katz shows how expatriation and the ‘grand tour…is in and of itself an American scene; the extent to which estrangement from cultural identity is, precisely, American identity’ (55). Pound’s own work in translating from the Chinese thus becomes not a quasi-imperialist rubbing out of difference but rather an attempt to make nationality ‘more relevant,’ a way for Pound to promote an ‘amicable accentuation of difference’ (73). Katz’s reading of Pound’s Cathay sequence is enlightening. Katz practically parses individual lines from poems including ‘The Beautiful Toilet’ in order to highlight Pound’s simultaneously friendly diction and his ability to invoke an ‘uncanny alterity’ through strategies as deceptively simple as repeating the word ‘blue’ twice. Likewise, Stein’s own seemingly hermetic strategies of ‘repetition, decontextualization, and defamiliarization’ (113), far from projecting a universalized system of values, is in Katz’s refashioning a wholly American phenomenon. One especially interesting moment finds Katz unpacking Stein’s definition of American G.I.s abroad after the Second World War. Stein insisted the G.I.s were real ‘men’ because they developed an ability to ‘change their language…by choosing words which they liked better than other words, by putting words next to each other in a different way than the English way’ (113). Katz insists that Stein here is essentially providing a metaphorical model for her own work as ‘quintessentially American’ (114).

Things take a turn when Katz makes a shift to the postmodern, beginning with an astute analysis of Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. Now, Spicer might at first seem like an odd choice for such a project, given his ‘aggressively regionalist poetics’ (118) in tandem with his perhaps clinically neurotic resistance to publishing and socializing outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. However, Katz’s focus on Spicer’s Lorca ‘translations’ ends up illustrating just how Spicer’s poetic practice ‘in its dialectic with an “Outside” enacted notably through translation, is a clear inheritance of the expatriate modernists of the previous generation’ (118). Translation for Spicer becomes not an evacuation of his own adamantly regionalist, Americanist persona in an effort to fill the void with an idealized Europanized ‘other,’ but rather an opportunity for ‘dialogue’ (emphasized most literally in the series of ‘letters’ Spicer composed between himself and the dead Lorca).

Katz’s final chapter rather quickly skims through Spicer’s detective novel The Tower of Babel and John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s collaborative novel A Nest of Ninnies. This chapter is somewhat problematic in that Katz spends more time paraphrasing the events in The Tower of Babel than he does tying it to his guiding questions. Additionally, Katz’s focus on Ashbery and Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies struck this reader as rather arbitrary, especially given Ashbery’s own place as an expatriate writer in Paris. Why focus on A Nest of Ninnies as opposed to, say, Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath in light of the fact that Ashbery wrote this notorious book during his stay in Paris even as New York was fast becoming the central place for visual and literary arts? One can argue that Ashbery's stay in Europe appears to have encouraged him to Americanize his language more radically than he might have had he remained in New York, and to see in Paris precisely the denaturalized environment he needed to isolate and explore the richness and possibilities of American speech and literature. Katz might have fruitfully noted, for instance, the many references to canonical American writers in The Tennis Court Oath, particularly as they collide with their French counterparts. Additionally, poems in the book including ‘Europe’ and ‘America’ point to Ashbery’s overt engagement with ideas of authenticity, translation and the ‘naturalness’ of identity in a manner that pertains quite directly to Katz’s overall thesis.

That said, these are minor complaints. Overall, American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene goes far in revising standard ideas about what constitutes not just a ‘cosmopolitan’ transatlantic modernism, but what constitutes identity, more broadly considered, as it is tied to patterns of the discourse and rhetorics of authenticity.


 © Symbiosis, 2009