Counter-revolution of the Word

counter revolution

Counter-revolution of the Word:
The conservative attack on modern poetry, 1945-1960.
Alan Filreis. U of NC Press, 2008. 422 p.

Those who lived through the Red Scare of the 1950s bitterly recall how careers were ruined because someone was branded a ‘communist.’ The subject is now taught in schools as an example of political hysteria enabled by false accusations and abuse of language. What’s less well known is that many writers and poets who adopted experimental styles were tagged by literary conservatives as dangerous: probably in league with communists, and certainly conspiring to rot American civilization.

Counter-revolution of the Word explores in great depth the antimodernist literary movement of the mid 20th century. Alan Filreis, author of Modernism from Right to Left: Wallace Stevens, the Thirties, & Literary Radicalism, here investigates the question: Why did American conservatives react so strongly against modernism?

In preparing for this book Filreis dug deeply into archives across the country, sifting through original documents and correspondence, to examine how the anticommunist witch hunt of the mid 20th century combined with, and helped fuel, antimodernist attacks on new poetry and experimental writing.

To conservatives, the language of modernism was a “linguistically heretical” mode that sought to “destroy the designed order.” Conservative poet Robert Hillyer and others considered linguistic “difficulty” part of a grand design to reduce Americans to a state of helpless confusion.

Conservative antimodernists pointed to writers ranging from Gertrude Stein to Ezra Pound to e. e. cummings, calling their zigzagging disarrangement of words a “vice” and a “camouflage” for aiding the communist movement. The Southern regional writer Ben Lucien Burman likened Gertrude Stein’s influence to “the lurking germs of a yellow fever” which “must be constantly fought and sprayed with violent chemicals lest the microbes develop again and start a new infection.”

Colonel Cullen Jones claimed that Hart Crane had been driven to homosexuality and “insanity” after being infected by the “ratty-minded sophistication and psychosis” of modernism. And believe it or not, there was a League for Sanity in Poetry. Its adherents sent letters of protest to editorial offices demanding they stop printing “insane poetry.”

Anticommunism provided the rhetoric and the political agency, Filreis says, that could be used effectively against ‘antipoetic’ language. Antimodernists claimed to tell a writer’s Redness by their ‘mutant wording.’

All this seems surreal, almost unbelievable. Yet look around and see how some people even today brand others as “unAmerican” simply because they prefer to think for themselves and draw their conclusions independently of what the power structure would have them believe. The term “liberal” has been stripped of all positive connotations. The abuse of language continues, but not by writers and poets. The abuse continues by those in power who wish to deceive.

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