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Lisi Schoenbach's Pragmatic Modernism

Lisi Schoenbach‘s Pragmatic Modernism was published by Oxford University Press in 2012 as part of their Modern Literature and Culture Series.

Modernism has long been understood as a radical repudiation of the past. Reading against the narrative of modernism-as-break, Pragmatic Modernism traces an alternative strain of modernist thought that grows out of pragmatist philosophy and is characterized by its commitment to gradualism, continuity, and recontextualization. It rediscovers a distinctive response to the social, intellectual, and artistic transformations of modernity in the work of Henry James, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and William James. These thinkers share an institutionally-grounded approach to change which emphasizes habits, continuities, and daily life over spectacular events, heroic opposition, and radical rupture. They developed an active, dialectical attitude that was critical of complacency while refusing to romanticize moments of shock or conflict.

Through its analysis of pragmatist keywords, including “habit,” “institution,” “prediction,” and “bigness,” Pragmatic Modernism offers new readings of works by James, Proust, Stein, and Andre Breton, among others. It shows, for instance, how Stein’s characteristic literary innovation–her repetitions–aesthetically materialize the problem of habit; and how institutions–businesses, museums, newspapers, the law, and even the state itself–help to construct the subtlest of personal observations and private gestures in James’s novels.

This study reconstructs an overlooked strain of modernism. In so doing, it helps to re-imagine the stark choice between political quietism and total revolution that has been handed down as modernism’s legacy.

Pragmatic Modernism is an impressive work of intellectual and literary history. It’s clearly the product of deep reading and understanding and a real devotion to the ideas and thinkers it painstakingly explains and uses. It will strongly appeal to Americanists, modernists, and intellectual historians.” –Ross Posnock, Columbia University
“Establishing continuities between philosophical pragmatism and the work of modernist writers, Lisi Schoenbach’s sustained analysis of the idea of habit provides a hugely impressive rethinking of the intellectual genealogy of modernism. Pragmatism’s attention to everyday minutiae and social complexity informs Schoenbach’s incisive re-readings. A wonderfully gripping and thought-provoking work of scholarship.” –Michael Sheringham, University of Oxford
“Clearly written and forcefully argued, Lisi Schoenbach’s book contrasts the avant-garde’s reliance on ‘shock’ with the pragmatists’ attention to ‘habit.’ The result is a compelling revisionist account of modernism by way of splendid readings of Gertrude Stein and Henry James in company with the pragmatist trio of William James, John Dewey, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.” –John McGowan, University of North Carolina
“One of the most refreshing treatments of transatlantic modernism I’ve read in a long time, Lisi Schoenbach’s Pragmatic Modernism highlights a crucial yet neglected strain of modernist thought and practice that stresses the dialectic between habit and rupture, the importance of institutionalization, and the value of recontextualization in contrast to immediate and total transformation.” –George B. Hutchinson, Indiana University

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