Networked NY Q&A: Cecily Swanson

Originally posted at Patell & Waterman’s History of New York.

Next up in our Networked New York Q&A series, we have Cecily Swanson, a doctoral candidate in the English department at Cornell. Her dissertation, “‘A Circle is a Necessity’: American Women Modernists and the Aesthetics of Sociability,” considers the legacy of salon conversation for writers who conceived of literature as not just a text, but also a way of talking.

Your paper examines how social relationships structure literary experiences by focusing on two groups of writers from the 1920s and 1930s.  Can you elaborate on the contrast you identify between the reading group and the salon?

The modern salon has been characterized as both a location for transgressive sociability and a holdover of old world aristocratism. As Janet Lyon argues in “Sociability in the Metropole:  Modernism’s Bohemian Salons,” the modern salon sought above all else to give the appearance of anti-bourgeois spontaneity, refusing claims to institutionality and conventionality even as these gatherings accrued cultural and material capital. Indeed, it is very difficult to distinguish between the modernist salon’s institutional side – in other words the way the it enabled through patronage networks and marketing strategies the development of a self-conscious, autonomous “scene” – from its more experiential side, where art and life blur through casual banter, a shifting guest lists, and its emphasis on participation, rather than a museum-like separation of guest from the artwork. Natalie Barney, one of modernism’s most influential salon hostesses, claimed, “I never had a salon, I only had  têtes-à-têtes,” characteristically refusing to acknowledge her salon’s institutional stature even as it became a fixture of literary Paris.

But the modernist reading group, as my research of several Gurdjieff reading groups suggests, sought to institutionalize “spontaneous” conversation through the framework of documented philosophical analysis. These reading groups, in other words, attempted to formalize the salon experience into a codified literary practice, where authorship could be produced through carefully documented social exchanges but was not necessarily tied to a published text.  Jean Toomer’s Harlem Gurdjieff reading group minutely recorded not only their discussion, but also the affect of each participant, seeking to account for and legitimate these ephemeral moments. Toomer thus seems to have conceived of his reading groups as a “masculine” alternative to female salon sociability. But Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s Gurdjieff reading group, run in Paris and comprised of lesbian expatriates, found through this effort at Gurdjieffian self-documentation an opportunity to more freely express, record, and consecrate, their non-normative sexual choices and lifestyles.

What archival sources were most central to your project?  Can you say a bit about how archival materials shaped your understanding of the circles you examine, especially the relationship between Jean Toomer and George Gurdjieff?

My dissertation as a whole considers three principle archives: (1) The Natalie Barney papers at the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet in Paris, (2) The Muriel Draper Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library and (3) The Jean Toomer Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

My “Networked New York” paper explored the Toomer collection, arguing that question of racial passing that so vexed Toomer throughout his career finds a solution, or at very least a theorization, in Toomer’s proliferation of papers. Authorship, as professed in his archive’s myriad versions of himself, is always a form of passing, of articulating a variety of possible identities, which may or may not consolidate into a single “truth,” or, to use Gurdjieffian terminology, an “objective” being. I connected Toomer’s exploration of the non-identity of the author to the conversational aesthetic promulgated by the social experience of the literary salon. Toomer’s New York Gurdjieff reading group attempts to formulize the spontaneous chatter of the salon through a Gurdjieffian practice that entails keeping a detailed record of personal experience.  Through Gurdjieff, Toomer could confer authority on the conversational and social dimension of written production, demanding that the social performance of an authorial persona “count” as much as the published work when the question “what is an author?” is answered.

Critics have tended to read Toomer’s unpublished and published writings after Cane as either a failure, the consequence of an over-investment in Gurdjieffian mysticism, or as a the logical continuity of Cane’s success, arguing that the effort at “self-objectification” was already present in Cane, but then further exploited (and perhaps made ridiculous) through Gurdjieffian tenets. My paper tried instead to read Toomer’s post-Gurdjieff archival papers another way, as neither break nor continuity with the authorial identity established by Cane but instead as an exploration of the social context that enabled, but also delimited, such a persona.

Your dissertation, “‘A Circle is a Necessity’: American Women Modernists and the Aesthetics of Sociability,” considers the legacy of salon conversation for writers who conceived of literature as not just a text, but also a way of talking.  What other writers and communities do you take up in your project?

My dissertation considers the aesthetic legacy of the literary salon for American women writers who are now remembered more for the bohemian gatherings they hosted, or the artistic connections they facilitated, than they are for their own literary contributions. These women, I argue, have been difficult to “read” as important figures of literary modernism because their contribution was less literature as we are accustomed to perceiving it than a new conception of the literary, which championed the aesthetic merits of salon conversation. I consider a range of materials: Natalie Barney’s unpublished memoirs written after the heyday of her literary salon in Paris; Muriel Draper’s music salon in London and her subsequent career as an NBC radio broadcaster; Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s notorious 1916 “blank issue” of their influential literary and art journal, The Little Review; and the way in which two reading groups devoted to the writings of mystic George Gurdjieff, one in Harlem and one in expatriate Paris, promulgated the myth of an artistic or literary temperament that is not dependent on actual aesthetic production.

Conversation and literary exchange exist as such heavily freighted, gendered concepts in cultural and historical analysis.  Can you elaborate on the tensions between conversation and writing in New York’s modernist literary salons?

“Autonomy” and autonomy’s preferred modernist synonym, “impersonality,” are words that were almost compulsively used by modernist writers and that have enjoyed an after-life in explanations of the period. Recent scholarship, of course, has begun to question these terms’ viability, the result of a critical climate that has offered productive readings of collaboration and social networks. But even the critiques of the modernist autonomy have tended to assume an a priori stable text, a modernist classic of Stein’s, William’s, or Eliot’s, which becomes relatively open or less open through interpretation. By exploring the conversational aesthetic that emerged through salons and social gatherings in a variety of media formats (such radio broadcasts, reader-response columns, and reading group discussion), it is it not the “openness” of interpretation that is at stake but the very text itself. Attention to social context, audience reception, and unpublished archival material helps make visible an alternative form of modernist textuality, where literary production occurs at the threshold of speech and writing and in the material form of fans’ written responses.

By turning attention to the social relationships structuring any literary experience and the literary potential of “conversational” forms, the women writers of my analysis challenged modernist claims for the autonomy of the literary object and offered new possibilities for female authorship, where even the most casual conversations can have literary power. In this way, my dissertation hopes to make visible an early, overlooked feminist critique of the text-as-object. The restitution of neglected women writers to the canon has been one of feminist studies’ great successes. But as I show through the evaluation of a range of archival materials, these writers’ significant contributions to modernism cannot be appreciated simply through the recovery of lost classics because their literary legacy lies in the interstices between oral and written forms. Only through the archived responses of countless female fans and communities of “writing” readers can we begin to see the literary importance of the conversational aesthetic my dissertation traces.

What immediate questions or concerns did you take away from the conference that relate to your work?

I was fascinated by my co-panelists presentations on digitizing social networks. Micki McGee’s work on the Yaddo Archive Project and Edward Whitley’s digital mapping of 19th century bohemian circles offered me great insight into the possibilities, and the potential difficulties, of digitizing the raw data of my own archival research of modernist salons. When literary circles are made accessible online, scholars can more easily examine the social world of their research, interrogating the canonical position of major literary figures through their minor friendships and intellectual alliances. These maps allow scholars working from different fringes of the same period to turn partial knowledge into more “total” picture by collaboratively building these circles together. But I am also interested in the way the writers of my own work offered a critique avant la lettre of social mapping that makes the locus of each digital circle an autonomous individual, connected by spokes to other autonomous individuals. Toomer, for example, quarreled with the idea of a coherent self, preferring to see himself as productive example of dual identity, where authorship emerges less in product than in process.  It would be fascinating to cull together more information on the social maps writers drew before the internet age. Natalie Barney drew a map of her salon that looks a lot like the digital social maps of our era, with names of each guest tessellating outward, although she positioned herself “outside,” more a boundary point than the center [see image at left]. But Toomer’s “maps” are quite different. His archive contains index cards documenting social affect, making the fluctuating emotion and comportment of each participant more important than their “individual,” or stable, selves.  It would be hard to digitally present a social circle where valences of anger, discontent, or elation matter more than names, although it would certainly be useful to have this information more readily available to other researchers.

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