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Daniel Katz, American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene. The Labour of Translation

Roxana Oltean
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Daniel Katz, American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene. The Labour of Translation, Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures, 2007, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014, 208 pages, ISBN-10: 0748625267, ISBN-13: 978-0748625260, Paperback £ 19.99, Hardcover £ 75.00

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1Daniel Katz’s sophisticated and subtle study of an array of (proto)modernist (and not necessarily expatriate) writers and their labors of translation can be approached from the perspective offered by his considerations upon Gertrude Stein as voicing a “dialectic of the domestic and foreign” which is “achingly familiar,” but which also yields particularly intriguing nuances. In fact, Katz’s reappraisal of modernism and expatriation (and the close, yet by no means straightforward, link to translation) dwells on the interstices of that now widely-accepted association to point to the exercise of willed dislocation: “it is not a case of finding one’s true home, a more suitable one than the contingent home in which one happened by chance to be born, but rather of forcibly absenting oneself from it. One settles, precisely, where one does not belong” (Katz 96).

2The correlation between writing and exile in general has, of course, been amply explored before, from Bhabha and Said to Seidel, to mention only three instances from an impressive critical canon. Similarly, the reflection on the embroilments between expatriation and a global, essentially deracinated identity have also been tackled in studies such as Peyser’s, while more recent investigations into cosmopolitanism as determined by a radical homelessness in nineteenth-century American literature point to the early incipience of an awareness of the uncanny (i.e. un-homely) experience of the local (see Tally).

3In this context, Katz’s own endeavor is fresh not in point of theme, but in point of the insights disclosed in these readings of writers generally included in the expatriate modernist American canon (although the last chapters convincingly extend this legacy into surprising new territory). In fact, Katz himself states, it is the cliché coupling of (modernist) writing and estrangement/exile/expatriation (already conceptualized as cliché by Henry James) that merits a new look. Drawing on Paul Giles’s discussion in Virtual Americas of the “position of estrangement” (Giles 3) and on Ramazani’s vision of transnationalism as “primary” to modernism (Ramazani), Katz emphasizes the extent to which expatriation is “not a flight from American identity, but rather becomes the means for a displaced and dialectical encounter with it,” thus questioning easy oppositions between nativist and internationalist, or cosmopolitan and universalist in the understanding of American modernism. This is fruitfully interwoven with an understanding of the work of translation to reflect on how “cultural appurtenance,” “linguistic identity,” or “translation” and a “specifically “American” literary idiom” (Katz 2-3) are crossed by a sometimes dialectic, sometimes resonant relation between what one might call home and elsewhere.

4Katz’s book begins, quite naturally, with Henry James, who constitutes the focus of the first two chapters, and whose musings on expatriation and (impossible) return in particular in The American Scene make for an intriguing poetics of estrangement as writerly prerequisite, and of cosmopolitanism as eloquent of an identity at once global and essentially expatriated. Katz interestingly formulates what critics have understood as the Jamesian predicament of American displacement by pointing to James’s awareness “of the transcendental American condition: that of linguistic homelessness” and ponders the wider implications of American as a language already affected by translation because severed from its native location (“how does one live when one’s language is itself a 'translation,' when the native tongue has been separated from its condition of nativity?” (Katz 14)). The Jamesian international theme in this sense emerges as an encounter with the radically other–related by Katz with the uncanny–marked by the need to “transpose that foreign into the comprehensible terms of the domestic” (Katz 15), thus echoing the central quandaries in Jamesian stories of the ghostly, including The Turn of the Screw as well as the “The Jolly Corner,” but also in narratives foregrounding the impossibilities of expression and the need for translation (of children’s perceptions, for example), such as What Maisie Knew. What is of particular interest to Jamesian criticism, one might add, are Katz’s arguments (also continued in chapter 2) about James’s relevance not only in terms of his understanding of expatriation, but also of his “patriotics,” or the “study of the construction of the home and the homely which in James so often begins precisely not at home” (Katz 29), and continuing with its further implication, of cosmopolitanism as an American condition, or James’s construction of “Americannness” as an “originary cosmopolitanism” (Katz 32). Indeed, if one were to turn to the imperial imagination permeating the late Jamesian American settings and characters in particular, not only in The American Scene, but also in writings such as The Ivory Tower, Katz’s observations fruitfully illuminate the cosmopolitan reverberations (also understood as replete with connotations of homelessness and the uncanny) of the American homes that absentees return to, and suggest a complementary image of the intersection between the American and the global imagination, as discussed for example by Peyser. This positioning also leads Katz to a consideration of translation effects in James’s The Ambassadors, tuning in to the presence of the foreign, the native, of cosmopolitanism and Americanness in the transatlantic, ethical and erotic negotiations undertaken in that novel, and played out between Strether and a series of maternal instances.

5Chapter 3, devoted to Ezra Pound, starts from the latter’s casting of James as an “avatar of Americanness” brimming with complex cultural implications, which Katz significantly sums up as “the manner in which James points to translation as an eruption within the native as much as an encounter with the foreign” (Katz 54) and focuses the discussion on the inherently outside perspective through which America is necessarily constructed, also pointing to how “estrangement from cultural identity is, precisely, American identity” (Katz 55). This perspective inevitably engages, one might add, a long-debated (exceptionalist?) twist in American Studies, formulated by Fluck in connection to critics’ privileging of anti-Americanism as expressive of the American ethos. Katz’s subsequent reading of Pound through James, centering on the notion of “provincialism,” but also on travel and exile cast not only as means of escape but also as ways of returning to the native, “against which only the “foreign” can inscribe itself” (Katz 57), also traverses a discussion of (Pound’s) Whitman as a counterpart–even “Doppelgänger” (Katz 60)–to the American identity expressed, in Pound’s vision, by James, and culminates with an analysis of translation effects in Pound’s poems/translations. These are, Katz argues, informed by a double awareness–translation as a “fight for communication against provincialism” and, at the same time, translation as a “struggle for the recognition of and preservation of difference” (Katz 65)–which only serves to emphasize the bitter irony that Pound’s “humanistic enthusiasm for communication and exchange” and for telecommunication itself became, in effect, fertile ground for “the seeds of his own abhorrent and botched polyglot ambassadorship for Mussolini’s Italy” (Katz 67).

6The complex expatriate and native legacy informing Pound’s poetics is related in chapter 4 to his view on creation and translation. The discussion, Katz warns, should steer away from extremes: seeing Pound’s translations as a marginal exercise, on the one hand or, on the other hand, regarding the translations as original works in their own right, thereby effacing the foreignness of the Cathay poems for example, which actually seem to provide an “alibi for introducing the sorts of verbal extravagances and liberties that “imagism” often proclaimed to militate against” (Katz 80). In fact, Katz argues, in the logic of modernism’s intrinsic foreignness, the status of translation “is essential to their success, even when considered as original English poems” (Katz 81). The view of translation as “pretext for transgression” (Katz 81) moves Katz’s focus to a discussion of the vernacular in general (and American vernacular in particular) as poetic language, and of Pound’s double Dantesque heritage (Dante Alighieri and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). This leads to particularly salient observations upon the power of the “lively, young but traditionless” vernacular–be it Italian or American English–as alternative to a “conventionalized, normative, essentially “foreign” tongue (Latin or Victorian English)” in providing a “poetic idiom” (Katz 83) which, Katz reminds us, is not actually a real, “live” language, but an imaginary projection of what an Italian or American might have spoken, thus inscribing writing into a Derridean space of death.

7The complex interplay of foreignness and displacement in the construction of an American literary idiom during the modernist period would certainly not have been complete without a due consideration of Gertrude Stein, whom Katz discusses alongside Wyndham Lewis in point of an emphasis on geographical and cultural displacement “as a necessary preliminary to the creative act, particularly writing” (Katz 96). The forcible absence which, as argued above, can be understood as Katz’s key perspective, is addressed here in relation to Stein’s musings on the difference between writing and speaking as echo of, or supplement to, the difference between two civilizations in “An American and France” and Paris France, and also in the context of Wyndham Lewis’s concern with cultural borders and “those that separate writing from speech” (Katz 101). While pointing to the “neo-Nietzschean underpinnings” of Lewis’s opinions in Men Without Art, which condemn influence as running counter “to an ideal of subjective autonomy or self-sufficiency,” thus notoriously expressing a position far removed from Stein’s (Katz 101), Katz pursues a series of surprising, even uncanny (given Lewis’s “distaste for Stein’s work” (Katz 104)) affinities between Stein’s and Lewis’s own transactions with American culture and language, situated at a complex node between Lewis’s disturbing anti-Semitism, Stein’s puzzling and apparently enthusiastic support for the collaborationist Vichy government and her celebration of G.I.s in her later writings (see Katz 110) but also in the context of Stein’s “sense of the evolution of Americanness in literature and language,” concerns which echo “to some degree […] the anxieties pertaining to responsibility, originality, and the relationship between expression, language, and inaugural or executive will which so troubled Lewis” (Katz 111).

8It is in particular Stein’s “distanced, abstracted reappropriation and display of the 'American' material” (Katz 117) that both accounts for Katz’s placing Stein in an ultimately Jamesian American legacy, and that also accounts for the surprising presence of Jack Spicer in the discussion of modernism and expatriation in chapter 6. In fact, what Katz himself admits may appear an “anomalous” inclusion (Katz 118) can be seen as a test case for one of the central contentions of this study, that expatriation is necessarily linked to the construction of the native element, which in turn allows for the foreign to be perceived and, one might add, that the intensely local is yet another expression of forcible absence from the national scene. In fact, Katz argues, Spicer’s “aggressively regional poetics” is positioned in a dialectic with an “Outside” “enacted notably through translation,” and thus constitutes a “clear inheritance of the expatriate modernists of the previous generation,” meaning that the “typically modernist double engagement with the foreign, implying a new elaboration of the domestic, could be said to come home” (Katz 118). Moreover, Katz’s commentaries on Spicer’s embroilments with Otherness, with translation as an inevitable poetic trope involved in Spicer’s figuring of dictation or even of ghost writing in After Lorca, and with foreignness as lying at the heart of artistic expression, make for a compelling close reading both of Spicer and of the latter’s place in what might be termed an essentially expatriate(d) American tradition but also in a problematized gay canon, all reflected and refracted in Spicer’s translation of Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman.”

9Katz’s Coda brings Spicer into conversation with Ashbery and Schuyler to elaborate on “uncanny homecomings” and on “the ambiguities of cosmopolitanism” (141), fruitfully relating Ashbery to a modernist sensibility as evinced by his musings on expatriation and on art, and dwelling on the manner in which Ashbery’s and Shuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies engages issues of marginality, foreignness and exoticity echoing previously-discussed transatlantic tropes. The Coda also elegantly brings together the main elements of the modernists’ meanderings and the book’s own complex sinuous arguments, while foregrounding a contrary, but no less modernist-inspired movement: “In Spicer, Ashbery, and Schuyler, we see where American transatlantic cosmopolitan modernism also invariably, dialectically tended – the suburbs and the other coast– while the museum, with walls or without, fades into its other which since James at least has also been its double: the shopping mall, which Europe’s ghosts ask no better than to haunt ” (Katz 159). Away from Jamesian Paris as a starting point for expatriation, the book closes with the suburb and the mall, poignantly capturing modernism’s own (re)turn towards home as an experience of the uncanny.

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BHABHA, Homi K, “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation,” Nation and Narration, Ed. Homi K. Bhabha, 1990, London, Routledge, 1995, 291-322.

FLUCK, Winfried, ““The American Romance” and the Changing Functions of the Imaginary,” New Literary History 27.3, 1996, 415-57.

GILES, Paul, Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary, Durham, Duke University Press, 2002.

PEYSER, Thomas, Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of American Literary Realism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998.

RAMAZANI, Jahan, “A Transnational Poetics,” American Literary History 18.2, 2006, 332-59.

SAID, Edward, “Reflections on Exil,” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Boston, Harvard University Press, 2000, 173-86.

SEIDEL, Michael, Exile and the Narrative Imagination, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986.

TALLY, Robert, Poe and the Subversion of American Literature: Satire, Fantasy, Critique, New York, Bloomsbury, 2014.

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Roxana Oltean, « Daniel Katz, American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene. The Labour of Translation », Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2016, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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Roxana Oltean

The University of Bucharest

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