A “Constellation of Genius” significantly underwhelming

In a very different world, today would be 5 December 92 p.s.U., or the fifth day of the twelfth month of the ninety-second year after the epochal publication of “Ulysses.” For a short time, Ezra Pound, author of “The Cantos” and the man responsible for much of Joyce’s and Eliot’s fame, toyed with this idea, signing off his letters “post scriptum Ulixi.” He would later adopt the calendar of Mussolini’s regime. But it is the first calendar that “Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One” is concerned with. Its author, Kevin Jackson, rests his scholarship on the idea that 1922 really was the defining year of Modernism, and that by taking “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land” as the sun and moon of the era, we can begin to trace the orbits of the lesser bodies and ultimately ground the elusive movement in a historical period of interacting forces, literary and political. The title and introduction suggest a kind of literary astronomical calendar; the result is significantly less inspired, often amounting to no more than a series of brief and whimsical celestial sightings.

The book is composed as a series of diary entries in the form of “6 MARCH [paragraph break] NEW YORK [paragraph break]” generally followed by several paragraphs of content, occasionally by something like “Babe Ruth signed a three-year contract with the New York Yankees for $52,000 a year.” Presumably, he was a big fan of Yeats. In these instances, Jackson seems to be doing little more than throwing trivia at the wall to see what sticks. What does is mostly anecdotal: a multi-page dictionary of “flapper” terminology, the sole encounter between Proust and Joyce wherein they commiserate over health issues, or Hemingway’s description of Wyndham Lewis’s face as like that of “an unsuccessful rapist” (a literary gibe second only to Louisa May Alcott’s assertion that Thoreau’s beard “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity”). These instances shine amidst a constellation of duds: D.H. Lawrence’s sojourns in Australia and Taos, bland summaries of Hemingway’s journalistic travels, and numerous mini-bios of popular entertainers. Jackson’s decision to follow a strict chronology is compounded by his readable but uninspired summary tone, which has a leveling effect on content: pedophile brothels in revolutionary Russia are surveyed in the same language of wiki-ese as the debut of Stravinsky’s “Le Renard.” When an authorial voice does emerge, it is colored by a superciliousness enabled by hindsight: one critic’s observation that with Ulysses, fiction seems to be diverging from what the general public desires to read is wholly dismissed (however much I love “Ulysses,” I’ll admit there’s something to that comment), and a synopsis comme summary-dismissal of “Siddhartha” as a work of fiction, which Jackson begins with “There is not much plot:,” is frankly embarrassing.

T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) recurrently appears in the latter half of the book, and Jackson observes that he is one of the most prominent victims of the literary-political cult of celebrity. The irony is that the entire book is predicated on this system. Like other works of pop non-fiction, “Constellation of Genius” is predicated on a form of gratification that panders to the reader’s foreknowledge of the “characters” as celebrities. We delight in the idea that these giants walked and talked and ate, often in each other’s company. This sort of gratification is by no means bad (though “twist” constructions like “…and this film was shot by a young director by the name of Alfred Hitchcock [!]” are more than a little grating). The problem is the book never goes beyond this. It is constrained by its strict chronological form, and at the very end we end up with little more than a handful of dates and the knowledge that Virginia Woolf really disliked “Ulysses.” It even prompts a newfound respect for authors like Erik Larson: he was able to construct “The Devil in the White City” out of several weeks in Chicago; Jackson’s work spans the world and an entire year and he barely holds a narrative together. The gravest irony, however, is that the book, which purports to survey and connect the historical threads of Modernism, itself feels so very antiquated.

In his essay on Ulysses, Edmund Wilson observes that in the “Ithaca” chapter of “Ulysses” Joyce, through his painstakingly empirical descriptions of Bloom’s actions, highlights the inadequacy of scientific language to communicate the impulses behind human actions. A similar criticism could be applied to “Constellation of Genius.” Jackson does his best to chart Modernism by observing phenomena: letters, overheard conversations, anecdotal accounts of meetings and premieres. But at the end we are left with a collection of data, and Jackson declines to bring any commentary to bear on it. Compounded by the fact that he is forced to assume a mostly ignorant audience, we get portraits only slightly more nuanced than standard literary glosses: the final assessment of Pound is that he was a literary giant led astray by the evils of fascism. Now, we know how things turned out, but there might have been one or two developments that, at the time, made fascist control attractive, like the recently deceased 37 million and the rampant usury that would tank the economy before the end of the decade. If you want to read an account of Modernism by an author up to the task, read Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound Era.” As for Jackson’s book, well, if he had read a little more closely he would have realized that his encyclopedic approach is the very object of Joyce’s parody.