In Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, Adam Verver, the novel’s abstracted but immensely powerful representative of American wealth in London, pauses to reflect on what he has achieved. Over a decade earlier, during his first trip to Europe when his daughter Maggie was ten years old, the financier had read Keats’s sonnet about ‘stout Cortés in the presence of the Pacific’ and realised with a shock that he was one of the few persons who ‘fitted the poet’s grand image to a fact of experience.’ Verver’s then epiphany had involved him in a ‘sudden hour that had transformed his life, the hour of his perceiving with a mute inward gasp akin to the low moan of apprehensive passion, that a world was left him to conquer and that he might conquer it if he tried . . . To rifle the Golden Isles had, on the spot, become the business of his future.’
Now, Verver reflects, that world had been conquered, the Golden Isles rifled, the realm of art and its connoisseurship had become as fully his as he had wanted and needed them to be. Propelled by the pleasure generated by the affinity of taste and of genius with that something ‘in himself’ which had licensed the journey to conquest, Verver had translated us dollars into objects of beauty from a decaying Europe. In doing so, he had given American capital a staging post in London, had acted as a centripetal force to accumulate in that city whatever there was left of Europe to accumulate. Now he had achieved the serene neutrality of ‘the place’, a site whose specificity—monetary, rather than geographic—can be cancelled out neither by serenity nor by neutrality. The vicious turbulence of reaching ‘the place’ is forgotten in the occupation of it, the high point from which the mobile civilization of art will stand visible:
He had wrought by devious ways but he had reached the place, and what would ever have been straighter in any man’s life than his way henceforth of occupying it? It hadn’t merely, his plan, all the sanctions of civilization; it was positively civilization condensed, concrete, consummate, set down by his hands as a house on a rock—a house from whose open doors and windows, open to grateful, to thirsty millions, the higher, the highest knowledge would shine out to bless the land. In this house, designed as a gift primarily to the people of his adoptive city and native State, the urgency of whose release from the bondage of ugliness he was in a position to measure—in this museum of museums, a palace of art which was to show for compact as a Greek temple was compact, a receptacle of treasures sifted to positive sanctity, his spirit to-day almost altogether lived, making up as he would have said, for lost time and haunting the portico in anticipation of the final rites.
By the novel’s end, Verver and his newly acquired wife, Charlotte, have set off back across the Atlantic to realise that plan in bricks and mortar.
The Golden Bowl was published in 1904. Half a century later, the United States would not only have a glut of its own museums and art galleries, but would have, too, various plans for the civilizing of its own population and, by extension, ‘the Free World’, through university curricula on ‘Western Civilization’ or ‘World Literature,’ or commercial undertakings such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s partnership with the University of Chicago to produce a 54-volume Great Books of the Western World, an enterprise launched in 1952. As Joe Cleary points out in Modernism, Empire, World Literature, the ‘redemptive idea of art’ tangible amidst James’s ‘sub-clausal scrupulosity and tonal sarcasms’ begins to look ‘very like what will later come to be known as “modernism” and remarkably like the religion of Americanism that emerged more or less concurrently.’ Long positioned as the ‘country cousin’ of English letters, by the early twentieth century the US had shown its own imperial spurs in the Spanish-American War and had demonstrated a will to economic and cultural ascendancy to match its military ventures. By 1941, the American poet John Peale Bishop could open an address at Kenyon College by remarking, not polemically, that the ‘future of the arts is in America.’ In Europe, between the devastation of 1919 and 1939, which saw the beginning of another war,
It was impossible to escape the conviction that centuries were hastening to their end. The whole order which had come into existence with the Renaissance was falling apart, and not merely the economic order that had sustained it . . . Paris is now silent and, as it were, in exile. The actual centre of Western culture is no longer in Europe. It is here.
Modernism, Empire, World Literature traces the arc of literature across the half century from the 1890s to the 1940s: literature as goal, or sanction, of ‘civilization’ and literature as a means of reaching that goal. The literature Cleary explores is the high modernism of the Anglosphere: the work of Pound, James, Eliot, Joyce, Fitzgerald and, less typically, Eugene O’Neill. There are no women here, and the only writer not of this familiar galaxy is Derek Walcott, the poet and playwright born in St. Lucia. The world-literary system in which they figure is caught at the moment when its centre—transfigured in a series of convulsions—shifted from Europe to America. But this is only one of a series of overlapping transformations tracked by Cleary; during the same period, Modernism stages its insurgency against nineteenth-century aesthetics, while the uk is decentred within the Anglosphere just as English replaces French as the global lingua franca, while us hegemony collides with anti-colonial revolt.