One Year in a “Modernist Mosaic”: Kevin Jackson’s “Constellation of Genius” Reviewed

James Joyce

Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One
by Kevin Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 544 p.

Ezra Pound, that wild artist, muse, and patron of genius, referred to to 1922 as Year One of a new age. He felt so convinced of this idea that he began to date his letters  “p s U” – post scriptum Ulysses. That post-war year saw the publishing of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, among other jewels of modernist art, so a case could be made that in a limited sense, Pound was right. British writer, Kevin Jackson, entertains and defends this assertion of Pound in his newest book, Constellation of Genius, a shockingly readable, compelling, and plain ol’ enjoyable book about the roots, nature, and reach of Modernism. Jackson, in an ingenious style, goes on to tell the story of Modernism through the prism of an often-haphazard timeline of 1922. After years of meticulous research, Jackson culled together a veritable biography of one year, with a focus on his heroes Eliot and Joyce, so that fashion jostles for space against literary manifestos and other delightfully strange historical bedfellows paint a larger picture of the times.

Some of the entries stand alone as brilliant pieces of history, and most do indeed cohere into a larger picture. One of the best entries is Jackson’s 22 February in which he documents the phenomenon of the Flapper:

Both in reality and in popular mythology, the flapper was a hedonistic and promiscuous single woman, who would smoke, drink, sniff cocaine and dance to Jazz music. Though her face might be me heavily made up (and recall that before the First World War, the wearing of all but the most discrete cosmetics was widely held to be the prerogative of actresses, harlots and other ill-bred women), she was slim and boyish to the point of androgyny. She dressed in shocking clothes – unprecedentedly short skirts, no corsets or stays – and kept her hair cut short in the all-but-ubiquitous style of the ‘bob’.

Jackson goes on to describe the specific fashions and dances the Flapper generation loved (a generation which sounds awesome, by the way), but really takes his history to a new level when he includes a list of the slang of the day. With entries like Whiskbroom (man who cultivates whiskers), Let’s blouse (let’s go), and Tomato (good looking girl with no brains) the list provides a better glimpse into the actual lived mindset of the generation than much of the oftentimes dense literature of the day.

Right after this list, Jackson plunges back into the gritty details of the time. “France’s most notorious serial killer, Henri Desire Landru, was executed by guillotine,” an event that fascinated Charlie Chaplin, amongst other artists. Consequently, what first reads like a random (but always interesting) conglomeration of details, anecdotes, and facts turns into a piece of Modernist mosaic that uses randomness to highlight the extensive and often cryptic reach of Modernism’s roots. In that sense, the book itself tells the story of Modernism, through Modernist techniques. Yet, because of this, there is something naive and perhaps overreaching in Jackson’s effort. Without explicitly saying so, his jumps from country to country, his connections between events big and small, read more as a constructed and aspirational attempt to create something holistic from a mad jumble of events. At points, Jackson writes less like a historian and more as an artist, which mitigates the strength of his historical claims.

However, there is also something of a basic historian in Jackson’s effort. Tony Judt, in his classes and his books, loved to highlight that Marx and Lincoln lived, wrote, and led during overlapping times, which is to say that we too often compartmentalize history so that, for some reason we think of Marx as old, coming from a different earlier time, but Lincoln as almost contemporary, truly modern. Jackson, in juxtaposing figures we might not associate together, counters this bias.

But while Jackson does an impressive job of plunging the reader into the mind and times of modernism, we need to ask perhaps a philistine question: does the world actually need another book about Modernism, about the genius of Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, among other great artists? Yes and no. As someone who adores Modernist artists and Modernism, I still felt the book tried too hard to prove Pound’s assumption about a new Era. Some of the details, felt too chosen, as if everything could possibly be laden with meaning and import, which made me think less of what Jackson chose to include, than what Jackson chose to exclude.

Yet Jackson’s effort works less to illuminate the genius of Eliot and Joyce, a genius we don’t really need any more reminders of, and works much more with letting us actually see what an artistic movement looks like in all of its sad petty squabbles, often pathetic characters, and as often glory of uncontrollable creativity. When we think of an artistic movement, when we use a category like Modernism, we tend to forget how a concrete category limits our understanding of a topic. When we think of Modernism, we now know what to think about. We know its heroes, and villains, we know its narrative arc, but Jackson shows us the messiness of categories so that the rise of big Hollywood studio movies bleeds into the classic narrative of Modernism along with the often belligerency of Pound. Jackson makes the borders of our categories once again porous which not only shows the general fluidity of categories, but opens up our ability to enter into and think anew about modernism. Ultimately, Jackson’s success in his goal, seemingly purposefully so, undermines his effort because we are left not with the inevitability of genius, but with the persistent mystery and divide between genius and the lives that create genius, between the artist and the era.

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