Sunday, January 13, 2008


In his review of Peter Gay's new book, "Modernism: The Lure of Heresy" (Book World, Dec. 23), Michael Dirda implies that Modernist art and letters exhibit a "sort of sexual and racial chauvinism," evident in the fact that, "Apart from Virginia Woolf and Martha Graham, no women artists appear in Modernism; other than the dancer Arthur Mitchell, no black ones do, either."

While I join Dirda in his appreciation of our 21st-century attitudes, such a characterization of the modernist era is, quite simply, inaccurate. Without women like Gertrude Stein, Bryher, Sylvia Beach, Harriet Monroe and Nancy Cunard, many of the artists mentioned in Gay's book would never have been published or exhibited; without artists and writers like Marianne Moore, HD, Langston Hughes, Djuna Barnes, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Berenice Abbott, Natalie Barney, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown and many, many others, modernism simply would not have achieved the prominence and importance we ascribe to it today. If such names are missing from Gay's book, that indicates not a chauvinism endemic to the era, but a failure on the part of the author.

-- EMILY WOJCIK Leeds, Mass.

Michael Dirda replies:

Emily Wojcik's points are well taken and I wholly agree with her, which is why I pointed out these omissions in Modernism. But, to be fair, Peter Gay is covering a huge canvas and he couldn't possibly mention everyone who contributed to modernist art and literature. I do refer to three other books -- Kenner's The Pound Era, Conrad's Modern Times , Modern Places and Everdell's The First Moderns-- as necessary complements to Gay's history.

I beg to differ with the estimable Michael Dirda, whose book reviews I may shun until my pique subsides, but girls did indeed "get" Mad, in both senses of the word (Book World, Dec. 9). As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I rode my bike to the newsstand as soon as each issue arrived, then cracked it open out on the sidewalk before riding home. As college students in the 1970s, my friends and I had to go off-campus to buy each new issue, often stumbling back, reading as we walked because we couldn't wait the 15 minutes it took to get back to the dorm. The "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" parody, combined with the cobblestone sidewalks and weekend traffic of that old college town, nearly did us in one time, as I recall.

I wish I'd had the foresight to give those old issues the "National Geographic" Xerox-box archival treatment, but I do have Completely Mad, the 1991 history by Maria Reidelbach (who, based on her picture, is almost certainly a girl), which includes reprints of many of the old features and is almost as satisfying to pore over. For its sheer cleverness, spot-on satire and plain old tomfoolery, Mad was unmatched. But what the heck do I know? I'm a girl.

-- CATHY CHIRIACO Gaithersburg, Md

Michael Dirda replies:

All right, let me kneel here in the snow -- if this winter ever brings any snow -- and bow my head and say "mea culpa." Cathy Chiriaco is only one of many, many women who have written to assure me that girls did in fact revere Mad magazine as much as their brothers did. In my defense, let me blame my sisters -- as usual, they would say -- by pointing out that they never liked Mad and so I simply assumed that no girls did. I guess three just isn't a big enough sampling to generalize about an entire sex's taste in highbrow reading matter.

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