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MSA Research Travel Grant

2017 Research Reports

Jess Waggoner

Disability and Modernism in the Archive

In May of 2017 I conducted archival research at San Francisco State University with the generous aid of the Modernist Studies Association Research Grant. My current book project, Crip Modernisms: The Roots of Disability Consciousness in American Literature and Culture, examines the relationship between modernist literature and early disability culture in the US 1930s and 40s. The dominant narrative of disabled life during this time tends to emphasize veteran experience, often to the exclusion of disabled civilians. I'm specifically looking at the ways in which modernist literature and culture both reflected and facilitated a growing civilian disability consciousness. For this facet of the project, I wanted to learn more about disability protest in the 1930s. How does it align with or trouble the muscular collectivity we often associate with Depression-era protest? And how does this relate to the way modernist writers and filmmakers such as Nathanael West, Wallace Stegner, Tod Browning, and Phil Rosen represent disabled collectivity and resistance?

The San Francisco Bay Area has particularly deep roots in disability history and activism. The late Paul K. Longmore, a professor of history and disability studies, left a major imprint on the scholarly and activist life of San Francisco State University, where I conducted the majority of my research. I began in the Longmore collections at SFSU's J. Paul Leonard Library, where I encountered a rich archive of early disabled self-determination. I found valuable cultural background on the lives of women with disabilities, which I explore in a chapter on how memoirs by disabled women used experimentalism to resist pathological renderings of them in the 1930s and 40s. The collections also contain rich materials on the life and writings of disabled American modernist essayist and social critic Randolph Bourne. Most significantly, however, these collections include materials on a little-known labor organization called the League of the Physically Handicapped (LPH), which protested the Works Progress Administration’s failure to create jobs for the disabled. Longmore’s collection contains oral histories from members of the League, but also physical copies of news coverage of the League’s 1932 strike in front of New York City’s WPA office. Of particular interest was a manifesto authored by the League, which articulates the tensions between the civilian and veteran disabled in terms of governmental assistance. For instance, they write in this manifesto, “How can deterring and hindering those who are otherwise disabled be reconciled with special consideration for those who have the same problem, but are different only because they have sustained limitations because of war?” (2).

As I moved from the J. Paul Leonard Library to the small yet rich library housed inside the Paul K. Longmore Institute, I encountered surprising examples of modernist technique in early instances of disability memoir. Karsten Ohnstad’s 1942 memoir, The World at My Finger Tips, a landmark text for raising blind awareness in the 1940s, implements modernist defamiliarization to convey the experience of low vision and vision loss to his audience: “The blacks and grays of the photograph were not as easy to distinguish as the contrast of the black and orange. I held the picture close, looking at small parts of it at a time, then formulating the entire portrait in my mind. Her eyes—town oval shadows. A curl of hair darkening here forehead. A curving shadow—was she smiling?”

Modernism’s interest in disability is often described in terms of its difficult eugenic histories, or in use of non-normative bodies and minds to generate formal experimentation. In addition to these perspectives, however, I highlight modernism’s interaction with social change. By juxtaposing instances of disabled agency, such as the actions of the League of the Physically Handicapped or Randolph Bourne’s essay “The Handicapped” with modernist representations of disabled collectivity, such as Tod Browning’s sideshow revolt or the “crowds of people” with “broken hands and torn mouths” of Nathanael West’s 1932 novella Miss Lonelyhearts, we can nuance our sense of how modernism encountered disability beyond the constraints of eugenics, pity, or cultural degeneration.

Jess Waggoner
Postdoctoral Fellow
Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies
University of Houston


Gregor Langfeld

Travel grant for visiting Houghton Library (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

Research: The correspondence between George Grosz and Herbert Fiedler, 1915-1960:
The goal of the research is to edit and contextualize the correspondence between two German visual artists: George Grosz, one of the leading figures of New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), and his best friend Herbert Fiedler. The correspondence gives insight into their artistic and political attitudes in a turbulent time frame that was characterized by big shifts. Both artists emigrated during National Socialism from Germany for political reasons: Grosz to the USA and Fiedler to the Netherlands.

These letters reveal an exciting image of the artistic developments in the Weimar Republic, the Netherlands and New York. Grosz and Fiedler wrote open-heartedly about their understanding of art and their sources of inspiration. They reveal surprising insights about the art world at the time, e.g. that already in the 1930s European artists considered New York to be a leading center of modern art, and that they perceived abstract Expressionism as an important movement much earlier than European museums and art critics did.

Most of the letters were written during National Socialism. The period between 1933 and 1937 is of special interest because the Nazis did not yet have an unambiguous position in relation to the visual arts. The observations of both artists nuance the black-and-white perception of that period, revealing contradictions as well. Although the artists were opposed against Nazi Germany, they still felt attached to Germany and did not succeed to integrate completely in the Netherlands or the USA.

These letters demonstrate how artists react under extreme and changing circumstances, showing the effect this can have on the artistic production. It is important that these letters should be annotated, and provided with an introduction placing them in the right context. The Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD, The Hague) will publish the correspondence in its RKD-Bronnenreeks (‘source series’).

The approximately 150 letters that will be edited are in the possession of the Netherlands Institute for Art History, but many of these letters are photocopies of the originals. About half of the original letters are in the collection of the Houghton Library (Cambridge, MA). The research trip to the Houghton Library was necessary in order to check whether the correspondence was complete, to determine which archives possess the original letters, and if there are any other documents relevant to the edition. During my research I found 12 new letters, so that now I can consider the correspondence as complete. I was able to determine which archives possess the originals, or in other cases duplicates (sometimes the authors kept duplicates of typed letters, but without the handwritten additions they sent to the addressees). Furthermore, I was able to photograph letters from and to other authors, and publications that will enable me to understand and contextualize the correspondence of the two artists. All in all it was a necessary and very valuable research trip.


Jonathan Ullyot

The Modernist Studies Association travel grant allowed me to visit the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and work closely in the Ezra Pound archives. My book project, Ezra Pound and the Matter of Troy, situates Pound’s modernism within 19th century medieval philology and comparative anthropology. I argue that The Cantos is a modernist take on “the Matter of Troy,” a term used by medieval authors to designate the cycle of texts based on the Trojan war and its aftereffects. My project requires extensive genetic analysis of fifteen cantos, as well as analysis of Pound’s notebooks and drafts of his essays on medieval and classical topics. Pound redacted many Homeric allusions as he revised The Cantos, partly fearing that his long poem would be compared unfavorably to Joyce’s Ulysses. Understanding Pound’s Homeric architectonics offers new insight into the epic ambitions of The Cantos.

I had the pleasure of working closely with Nancy Kuhl. John Monahan, Dianne Ducharme, and Moira Fitzgerald at the Beinecke Library, who helped me decipher Pound’s handwriting, navigate the archive, and offered me guidance and suggestions. They also helped me find important documents that were in less obvious places, such as the Sherri Martinelli papers, the H. D. Papers, and the uncatalogued collections.

Some of the most important documents I consulted included Pound’s typescript for the ABC of Reading; “Lie bel Chasteus”; “Agamemnon”; “Notes on Aristotle”; “The Music of Beowulf”; “The Difficulties of Translation”; “Dust Upon Hellas”; “Early Translations of Homer”; “Leo Frobenius” and “Significato di Leo Frobenius”; the proofs of The Spirit of Romance and Pound’s notes on the reviews; “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris”; “Living Paideuma”; “Medieval Music”; Pound’s copy of Pervigilium Veneris; “Religion”; “The Seafarer”; “Surrealism”; “Three Roman Poets”; “Tristan (Play)”; “Troubadours, their sorts and Conditions”; Pound’s other Greek translations; “Ulysses”; “Francois Villon”; and Pound’s notes transcripts of Women of Trachis. I inspected the Pound/Rouse correspondence and the “Tristan of Bedier” folder. I also inspected the uncatalogued and unpublished collections recently acquired by the Beinecke, including Pound’s letters to Rene Taupin, Jackson Mac Low, and Allan Seaton, as well as the Robert Furniss collection of Pound papers (1946-59). These papers, which cover Pound’s prolific period at St. Elisabeth’s Hospital, are especially pertinent to my forth chapter, which analyzes Pound’s scattered translations of the Leucothea episode in the late Cantos.

The most fruitful of my findings included the unpublished and uncatalogued Paradiso notebooks; the Sherri Martinelli papers which contain a draft of Cantos 90-95; Pound’s own “Notes to the Cantos” which highlight his structural architectonics; and the notebooks for the “Thrones” cantos rife with Homeric references and Greek notes. I was able to photograph many of the most pertinent documents for future use.