CFP: Local Modernisms: 1890-1950

Modernism – cosmopolitan and international in its connections and networks – found its home in cities, regions and locales. And yet provincialism and localism are still dirty words in criticism surrounding literary and artistic responses to modernity: they remain tinged with the reactionary and the conservative. Many narratives of artistic culture of the period 1890-1950 maintain that advanced aesthetics move from core to province, losing vitality as they become part of a supposedly ‘middlebrow’ culture. But what if the current were reversed? What if the local, the regional, the provincial, the civic and the municipal were the sites of artistic energy rather than cultural backwaters? Terms such as ‘local’ and ‘regional’ have more recently been animated by the reaction against financial and consumerist globalisation, but a glance backwards reveals that artists and writers of the modernist period were engaging with ideas of the local too, and that many of them were located far away from the metropolitan ‘centre’.

This two-day conference on 22nd-23rd June 2015, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity at the University of Birmingham, invites academics, postgraduate students, curators and other arts and heritage professionals to come together to discuss the many ways in which our current literary and artistic maps of modernism might be redrawn so that proper attention can be paid to local cultural nodes and networks. The organisers are looking for papers on any aspect of the topic. Potential speakers might talk about such issues as the following:

  • Literary and artistic responses to civic, local, municipal, regional and provincial modernity
  • Local, civic, municipal and regional activities, groups, coteries and enclaves
  • Rural modernisms
  • The concept of the ‘region’
  • Rejections/reformulations of internationalism
  • Town planning and urban design
  • Public art
  • Contemporary re-imaginings/re-workings of the spaces and places of civic modernity

For further information about the conference, or to submit an individual or panel proposal, contact Dr Daniel Moore ( The deadline for proposals is Monday 18th May.

See the conference website for more information.

Rosalind Fursland’s New York City, Part I

Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis,  ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929′ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts.

1. Queen Mary II

I have read many times that everyone’s New York is different. Prior to September 2014, my only real knowledge of post 1930s America had been accumulated though cultural osmosis as a 1990s child. That is to say, having studied the city as it was in the 1910s and ‘20s, and having only ever been outside Europe at the age of 4, my whole perception of modern day New York was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster comprised of Friends; Will & Grace; Stuart Little and Ghostbusters. As the glowing city entered my bleary vision at 3am, its skyscrapers rising beyond the decks of the Queen Mary 2, I had no idea of what to expect.

I chose New York 1910-1929 as the main subject for my PhD thesis (in progress). I had never been to America, nor had the money or plans to go anytime soon. I think I was inspired by the idea of challenging my preconceptions and learning about somewhere completely new. I grew up in a household filled with jazz and this, alongside loving The Great Gatsby at school, fuelled my interest in the 1920s. As we arrived into Brooklyn harbour, I hoped above all else that some remnant of the New York captured by the writers, painters and photographers I have studied, would be traceable amid the 21st century city.

The decision to embark on a transatlantic voyage was initially circumstantial, although quickly became more meaningful as I was struck by the significance of this notoriously volatile journey. We were truly following in the wake of history. I reflected on the millions of individuals who had made this passage, whether forcibly or voluntarily, each with their own burden of expectation. I thought about what America might have represented to them, whether it be a land of new hope or likely suffering. As we arrived, I remembered the essence of Carolyn Burke’s opening to the biography of the Futurist poet Mina Loy, Becoming Modern:

TRAVELERS ARE OFTEN awestruck on their first sight of New York Harbor. In the decades before planes, however, they had time to let their impressions take shape. Passengers arose at dawn – and went on deck in a dream. After weeks of pitching and tossing, seasickness, and the ordeals of steerage, Manhattan looked like paradise […] Often their only welcome came from the female figure that greeted ships on their approach. “I felt grateful that the Statue of Liberty was a woman. I felt she would understand a woman’s heart,” recalled a traveler about her arrival in 1916, when German warships on patrol intensified the hazards of transatlantic passage.

That year, on October 14, Mina Loy saw Manhattan for the first time. At dawn, after a perilous trip past mines and submarines that lay along its path through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic, her ship – the Duca d’Aosta – entered the harbor. The Statue of Liberty was invisible beneath the fog. Mina peered through the dim light with the other passengers, mostly Italians […] Mina, too, thought that New York looked like paradise – but paradise imagined by a Cubist or a Futurist. As the famous skyline emerged through the mist, its buildings floated above their foundations like ladders reaching to heaven. Soon thousands of windows shone like coloured glass. Although these glistening towers reminded her of medieval spires, the most beautiful Italian buildings were dwarfed by comparison. Then, as the mist evaporated, the air brightened and the city woke up. Watching its skyscrapers sharpening their angles, she composed a mental picture of Manhattan’s vast cityscape. [1]

I feel incredibly fortunate that my first vision of New York followed in this timeless tradition. “I can see lights” were the first words I uttered that day, after only two hours sleep. “Are you sure?” said Ellie, “I think those are stars”. We had been scrutinising the ship’s webcam for some minutes before we agreed that the lights of New York were indeed emerging from the darkness. Wearily but euphorically we left our cabin and climbed to the highest point on the ship where a small gathering crowd was waiting to spy the still distant spectacle.  It seemed to take an eternity as we huddled together like penguins in the cool Atlantic breeze. Eventually as the boat ducked perilously under the Verrazano Bridge and rounded the corner, Manhattan arose in all its splendour. We bypassed Ellis Island which had once been home to the immigration inspection unit and now stands as a monument to the millions who passed through it’s gateways between 1892 and 1954 on their way to a new life. As promised, Liberty greeted us as she had greeted so many, with her shackles undone and her torch aflame, a symbol of hope and freedom. The words of Emma Lazarus’ renowned poem (‘The New Colossus, 1903’) inscribed at the base of Liberty’s pedestal, echoed in my ears:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”



One of my initial observations was how the city changes colour almost kaleidoscopically. By sunrise when we docked, the skyscrapers had taken on an almost emerald glow as their million iridescent windows winked in the morning light. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between our arrival and the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939) in which Dorothy and her companions first catch sight of The Emerald City. The bejewelled metropolis, comprised of ‘beautiful marbles in which are set a profusion of emeralds’, is an overt display of a radiantly gleaming modern city with quasi Art-Deco towers and lights akin to New York. [2] They are in awe as the majestic city rises before them and glints through the darkness, its jagged assortment of towers closely resembling the haphazard growth of uncut emerald in its crystalline form. For Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, the city is symbolic of the fulfilment of dreams, perhaps even the American Dream, as each is rewarded with what they seek; a way home; a brain; a heart and courage.



As New York sprawled out before us, I reflected, as many had before, on what it was I was seeking from this city.


Henry Bacon (1839-1912) ‘Distant Thoughts’

[1] Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy [New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996] (pp. 3-7)

[2] L. Frank Baum, The Emerald City of Oz (New York: HarperCollins, 1910) (p. 29).

[Next installment – Greenwich Village]

Carolyn Steedman (University of Warwick) ‘A Lawyer’s Letter: Everyday Uses of the Law in early Nineteenth-century England’

As part of the School of History & Cultures’ Modern and Contemporary History Seminar Series, Professor Caroyln Steedman of the University of Warwick will be giving a talk, ‘A Lawyers Letter: Everyday Uses of the Law in early Nineteenth-century England’.


The session will take place at 4.15pm on Wednesday 25 February, Art Lecture Room 8 (301 Arts Building). All are welcome!

Next seminar paper: Hayley Flynn on ‘The Victorian Dream’

On Wednesday 11th February, 4.30-5.30pm (Arts Building Room 105, University of Birmingham) as part of the EDACS postgraduate seminars, Hayley Flynn will be giving a paper entitled ‘The Victorian Dream’. The paper will consider the importance of the dream in the Victorian period and its subsequent influence on literature, focusing specifically on the work of Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald. Staff and students alike are welcome to come along!


CFP: Modernism’s Child

Call for Papers: Modernism’s Child

One-Day Conference
April 20th 2015
Centre for Modernist Studies, University of Sussex

Keynote Speakers: Professor Douglas Mao and Dr. Natalia Cecire
In 1802 William Wordsworth famously declared, “The Child is father of the Man”. Some 100 years later Sigmund Freud would bring new relevance to this statement with his burgeoning psychoanalytic theory of the determinative nature of childhood. The 1920s saw a wealth of intellectual development theorists, among them John B. Watson, whose Behaviorist work famously produced the controversial ‘Little Albert’ study of 1920. Then, in 1952, phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty delivered his lectures on Child Psychology and Pedagogy at The Sorbonne, exploring childhood from a standpoint that attempted to articulate and examine the alternative academic points of view at work in child development studies. Now, in the early twenty-first century, it is possible to distinguish ‘Philosophy of Childhood’ as a recognizably independent field of enquiry within mainstream philosophy.
Taking inspiration from Merleau-Ponty’s desire to approach the question of childhood from multiple standpoints, this conference aims to explore literary representations of childhood in modernism. Things we may consider include why what Katherine Mansfield called in her journal the “rage for confession, autobiography, especially memories of earliest childhood” was so prevalent in modernism? How reading the contemporaneous work of psychologists and sociologists can affect our understanding of literary discussions of childhood, thereby querying what it means for modernists to write the child at a time when childhood itself was undergoing both radical theoretical and practical changes? In what ways the modernist desire for “newness”, youth, and innovation is captured by the style, form, and breadth of its literary engagement with children and childhood? Particularly, how the techniques of children’s literature or the use of childish language operate within modernist texts produced both for children and adults? In addition, how the visual arts of the era respond to the question of childhood and, moreover, what reading the visual arts and the literary arts as being concerned with a similar project to explore childhood does to reveal each discipline’s engagement?

Subjects to be considered may include but are not limited to:
* Modernism’s child in autobiography / life writing / personal writing
* Psychoanalysis – childhood repression at work in modernism, childhood sexuality etc.
* Children’s being-in-the-world – self-/other-awareness in children
* Gender development in children as displayed in modernism
* The aesthetically sensitive child in modernism
* Childish embodiment – how children’s lived bodies are written
* The child in the visual arts and literary modernism
* Children’s literature in the modernist period
* Portrayals of the acquisition of language or of childish language in literary texts
* Childhood and private / domestic space – writing the spaces of childhood
* Representations of toys / children at play
* Social, economic, and cultural changes relating to children between 1900 and 1945
* Voluntary / Involuntary memory – the mental resurgence of childhood and the legacy of Proust
* Writing the psyche – how the young self is psychologically portrayed in modernism
* Comparative work on Victorian and modernist discussions of childhood
* Representations of maternity and paternity in modernism
* The child as a vehicle for modernist concerns – newness, innovation, progress, youth, etc.
* Familial texts – writers writing for / within literary families

Proposals are encouraged from all researchers working in modernist studies with abstracts from graduates and early-career researchers particularly welcome. Preference will be given to papers that foster interdisciplinary exchange. Abstracts of 250 words are invited for 20-minute papers.
Further details can be found on the website:
Please send abstracts along with a brief biographical note to by 1st March 2015.