‘Constellation Of Genius: 1922,’ by Kevin Jackson, reviewed by Michael Dirda

October 2, 2013

When I was a junior in college, the writer Robert Phelps — the first professional man of letters I ever knew — sent me a present. It was a fresh, hot-off-the-presses copy of his book “The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950.” Coauthored with Peter Deane, this oversized album had a simple aim: to list for each year covered the principal publications in prose and poetry, then supplement that data with author photographs and very brief accounts of the year’s literary awards, scandals and related achievements in painting, music and the other arts.

Since then, I’ve read this information-rich and gossip-packed book over and over and still keep it by my bedside. Fairly early on, I came to realize that 1922 — the annus mirabilis of modernism — might make for a terrific literature course just on its own. After all, this was the year of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” It was the year Proust died while at work on the final volume of “In Search of Lost Time.” E.E. Cummings brought out his World War I memoir “The Enormous Room,” and Sinclair Lewis published “Babbitt,” and F. Scott Fitzgerald presented “Tales of the Jazz Age.” There were important books from Willa Cather, Hermann Hesse, Gertrude Stein, Paul Valery, D.H. Lawrence and many others. It was also the year that Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley lost the suitcase containing her husband’s manuscripts. In short, the Modern Movement was in full swing. As Pound once said, it was “a grrrreat litttttterary period.”

In “Constellation of Genius” — a kind of annotated diary or calendar for 1922 — Kevin Jackson re-creates all this artistic ferment month by month, almost day by day. If, for example, we turn to today’s date, Oct. 3, we learn that in the District, “the first facsimile picture was sent across telephone wires.” On the same day, in London, novelist Virginia Woolf was writing to the art critic Roger Fry about the books she was reading:

“My great adventure is really Proust. Well — what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped — and made it too into this beautiful and PERFECTLY enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical — like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

That’s quite an endorsement. But Woolf’s letter goes on. After that evocation of the physical pleasure she receives from Proust, she adds: “Far otherwise is it with Ulysses, to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished — my Martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.”

If you read “Constellation of Genius” from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, you’ll gain a real sense of how 1922 unfolded around the world. On Feb. 2, Joyce’s 40th birthday, “Ulysses” was published, while on the same day in Switzerland the poet Rainer Maria Rilke finally broke his long-standing writer’s block by composing some sonnets. During the next 21 days, Jackson tells us, Rilke completed “two of the most important, influential and enduring poem sequences of the twentieth century”: the “Duino Elegies” and the “Sonnets to Orpheus.”

Shortly thereafter, on March 4, F.W. Murnau’s classic vampire film, “Nosferatu,” opened in Berlin, followed five days later in New York by the opening night of Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Hairy Ape,” and on March 15 by Franz Kafka reading aloud the first chapter of “The Castle” to his friend Max Brod. On May 18, Violet and Sydney Schiff hosted the most legendary party of the century: Their 40 guests that night included Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Proust and Joyce. Three days later, on May 21, the French prime minister read an article about the dilution of his native tongue by English phrases. The author of this attack on “Franglais” was, surprisingly, one Nguyen Ai Quoc, the pen name used by none other than Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.

A few weeks later, on July 1 in Tokyo, Frank Lloyd Wright officially opened his Imperial Hotel, one of the few buildings in the area to remain undamaged by the great earthquake of 1923. On Aug. 12, in Washington, Frederick Douglass’s former house was declared a national shrine. On August 28, Rudyard Kipling underwent a rectal probe, then quipped: ‘If this is what Oscar Wilde went to prison for, he ought to have got the Victoria Cross.” That September Salvador Dalí entered Madrid’s Special School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving, where his closest friends would be the poet Frederico García Lorca and the future filmmaker Luis Buñuel. On Oct. 25, H.L. Mencken’s magazine The Smart Set featured “The Parthian Shot,” Dashiell Hammett’s first published story. Two days later Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, arrived in Burma, where he would spend the next five years as a policeman. On Nov. 15, Ludwig Wittgenstein, then teaching in a primary school in a small village in the Schneeberg mountains, received his finished copies of “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.” At the end of the month, on Nov. 25 in Luxor, Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon entered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Let me stress that Jackson doesn’t just list these various events; he describes them in considerable detail, quoting letters and documents, often supplementing the main entries with lengthy and illuminating footnotes. On Dec. 19, for instance, The Dial magazine published T.S. Eliot’s appreciation of the music hall legend Marie Lloyd, in which the great poet emphasized that her art depended on give-and-take with the audience. Eliot then concluded, in Jackson’s summary, “by waxing prophetic, imagining a future society of nightmarish imaginative parasitism, in which advanced technology supplies all possible comforts and diversions, all experience comes at one remove, and children even listen to their bedtime stories by means of earphones. . . . He ended on a note of defeat, as if the grimness of his speculations had reduced him to silence.”

While “Constellation of Genius” can be read straight through with much pleasure, it may function just as well as a casual bedside book. You can simply open to any page at random or look up an important date in your own life and discover something fascinating about it. For instance, on April 2, the birthday of my middle son, Charlie Chaplin released his last two-reeler, “Pay Day.” By that time, Jackson tells us, Chaplin had made 71 films and was all of 33 years old. He was also quite probably the most famous man in the world.

Long ago, “The Literary Life” was the ideal present for a daydreamy college kid. But it’s now out of print, alas. Today, if I needed a gift for an English major or for anyone who loves literary gossip, “Constellation of Genius” is the book I would be wrapping up.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

CONSTELLATION OF GENIUS

1922: Modernism Year One

By Kevin Jackson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 430 pp. $30

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