The Modernist Studies Association took shape in 1998 as part of an effort to provide a venue, interdisciplinary and international, in which scholars of Modernism could contribute to ongoing reshapings of the field. Founding members of MSA felt the profession needed a forum for the exchange of recent research: a forum open to the increasingly interdisciplinary dynamics of contemporary scholarship. Since that time, the annual conference has aimed to provide such a forum, as has the official journal of the MSA, Modernism/modernity, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

In the late 1990s, Modernist studies had to contend with the building and sometimes scathing reappraisals of what was still called "High Modernism." As the profession absorbed the lessons of post-structuralist theory, Modernist writers and especially poets came increasingly to stand for various cultural and moral failures. At that time, "Modernism," especially as represented in the popular press, seemed little more than the straw man for all that the promoters of "postmodernism" disliked.

At the same time, while the tenor of Modernist scholarship had changed dramatically, its structures had changed hardly at all. Single-author societies still dominated the professional field, and there was little opportunity to respond to the impulses of what we might loosely call cultural studies.

The early MSA refused to be merely a gathering place wherein individual societies could pursue their several projects. It aimed rather to represent the dynamic relations among fields too often reified as separate and unrelated and to facilitate the development of more supple-and ultimately more complete-historical models. From its first two conferences, both of which thematized "New Modernisms," the MSA worked both to expand the Modernist canon and to investigate the criteria invoked whenever things are called "Modernist."

Since those early conversations in the 1990s, the Modernist Studies Association has continued to break down reified categories and disciplinary silos in the academy. As an organization, and a publishing venue with Modernism/modernity, MSA has always invited and continues to invite scholars to look past the walls of their departments and individual disciplines, and to address the relations between not merely individual authors or artists, but among various aspects of culture.