REBECCA L. WALKOWITZ

by Marianne DeKoven

Rebecca L. Walkowitz

We are very fortunate that Professor Rebecca L. Walkowitz has joined our faculty. She received her PhD in English and American literature from Harvard University in 2000, and was tenured and promoted to associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2006. She has received a number of prestigious fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The recipient of several teaching awards at the University of Wisconsin, Professor Walkowitz was recognized by the university as the most distinguished faculty member to receive tenure in 2006. She has edited Immigrant Fictions: Contemporary Literature in an Age of Globalization, and co-edited, with Douglas Mao, the influential collection, Bad Modernisms. Her other publications have appeared in collections and journals such as ELH: English Literary History, Contemporary Literature, MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, and Modern Drama.

Professor Walkowitz’s book, Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism beyond the Nation, is a signal contribution to the new work on modernist cosmopolitanism and transnational modernism. There have been important recent studies on this topic, including Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England and “Making the Heart of the World: Internationalism and Anglo-American Modernism, 1919-1941,” the dissertation written by our own Alex Bain (PhD 2004). But the modernism that Professor Walkowitz writes about is very much her own. She is engaged in deep conversation with a wide range of contemporary theorists of cosmopolitanism, most of whom propose a reconfigured, redefined cosmopolitanism as an alternative to virulent contemporary localisms and globalisms. Walkowitz is in their camp, but she uses modernist style both to unsettle and to remake cosmopolitanism, and uses cosmopolitanism to reclaim modernism from the denigration of many contemporary politically oriented literary theorists and critics.

Building on the legacy of Oscar Wilde, Walkowitz designates a “perverse cosmopolitanism,” which is congruent with, but not identical to, critical cosmopolitanism. In treating cosmopolitanism “not simply as a model of community but as a model of perversity, in the sense of obstinacy, indirection, immorality, and attitude,” she seeks to “consider the relationship between gestures of idiosyncratic contact or distance and those of sympathetic association.” This critical cosmopolitanism encompasses both unlikely gestures of extra- or transnational affiliation and disturbing gestures of intranational redefinition or reconstitution.

The first half of the book, “Cosmopolitan Modernism,” analyzes three canonical figures of British modernism: Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Each of these writers developed a unique, characteristic tactic within and through modernist formal practice. For Conrad, the tactic is what Walkowitz calls “naturalness.” Through the paradox of the Polish Conrad, for whom English was a fifth language, she develops the idea of Conrad’s naturalness as a deep challenge to notions of British racial sameness and centrality. For Joyce, the tactic, “triviality,” deploys the ordinary, banal, and everyday in the service of a decentering project. For Woolf, Walkowitz develops the tactic of “evasion”—a brilliant insight which clarifies a great deal of what had heretofore seemed elusive and insufficiently motivated in Woolf ’s work.

In the second half of the book, “Modernist Cosmopolitanism,” the argument for critical cosmopolitanism is easier to make, because the intention to produce some kind of original, inventive relation to cosmopolitanism is apparent in the authors and texts Walkowitz discusses: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo. Walkowitz argues that the late twentieth century has produced a reemergence of modernism in these three writers who, through their use of formal techniques associated with modernism, displace and destabilize fixed understandings of the local and the global in order to forge a critical cosmopolitanism.

Professor Walkowitz’s new project, entitled After the National Paradigm: Translation, Comparison, and the New World Literature, considers the effects of globalization on national paradigms of literary culture and argues for the emergence of new forms of “comparative writing” in contemporary transnational literature. This book promises to extend the work of Cosmopolitan Style in ways that will speak directly to the contemporary interest in cultures of circulation, while remaining faithful to Professor Walkowitz’s overriding interest in the forms of literary texts.