Midcentury Suspension: Literature and Feeling in the Wake of World War II.

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Date: Sept. 2021
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 67, Issue 3)
Publisher: Hofstra University
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,742 words
Lexile Measure: 1540L

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Midcentury Suspension: Literature and Feeling in the Wake of World War II, by Claire Seiler. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. 290 pages.

In The Sense of an Ending (1967), based on his 1965 Mary Flexner Lectures, Frank Kermode notes that, while the end of epochs attaches itself most easily to the end of centuries, we also "have it now" (97), now being the mid-twentieth century. For Kermode, the end-feeling of modern times is most clearly registered in and voiced by modernist literature: "The End itself, in modern literary plotting loses its downbeat, tonic-and-dominant finality, and we think of it, as the theologians think of Apocalypse, as immanent rather than imminent. Thus .. we think in terms of crisis rather than temporal ends" (30). Kermode's touchstones--Wallace Stevens certainly, but especially Beckett and Sartre--reveal "a pattern of anxiety that we shall find recurring, with interesting differences, in different stages of modernism. Its recurrence is a feature of our cultural tradition ... for in some measure our ways of thinking and feeling about our position in the middest, and our historical position, always at the end of an epoch, are determined" (96). This sounds to me rather like 2021, but of course the "mood of end-dominated crisis" (97), for Kermode, was that of the atomic age, of the midcentury.

The Sense of an Ending is never mentioned in Midcentury Suspension, but I heard it echoing throughout Claire Seiler's important book on "being at the middle of the twentieth century and feeling self-onsciously midcentury, inhabiting an epochal middle at once freighted with historical significance and merely chronological" (137). Seiler's critical frame of reference are other midcentury projects, notably Raymond Williams's and William Empson's, as well as Alain Badiou's more recent examination, in Le siecle, of the century as a conceptual attractor for meaning not just for scholars but for those living it. Her book comes in, indeed, to rehabilitate the midpoint that frequently loses any sense of itself, falling, in popular and scholarly imaginations, into a vague historical postwar period or into an aesthetic gap between modernism and postmodernism. She asks instead how the midcentury felt at the time, how writers and readers "attached] historical significance to it or ... conceptualized] themselves as mid-century subjects" (136) and how "such experiences attest to the period's sense of suspension" (137).

Dispensing with the book review's usual suspensions, I weigh in now: this is a terrific book. Not just "the most scholarly study of the midcentury to date," as Allan Hepburn writes in his backcover blurb, it offers some truly impressive readings and some fascinating archival findings that add up to an invaluable, generative intervention into the "critically rich but unmined set of experiences, feelings, and ideas of suspension in the century's fraught middle" (6). Seiler does the study of twentieth-century literature a major service, bringing us a significant step away from its "chronic underestimation" (197). I sense that midcentury literature is on the verge of becoming a field in its own right--witness, for example, recent...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A678425549