Modernism's Crimes: Violence, Degeneracy, and Detection

Levay, Matthew Taylor. Modernism's Crimes: Violence, Degeneracy, and Detection. 2009. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

"Modernism's Crimes" provides an extensive critical genealogy of the representation of crime and criminality in Anglo-American modernism, and demonstrates how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British and American authors brought a keen anxiety concerning criminal behavior to bear on their experiments with form, genre, and psychological representation. As they tested the limits of the period's most prominent theories of criminality, authors on both sides of the Atlantic also advanced their own conceptions of crime as an unpredictable phenomenon crucial to understanding the vicissitudes of modern experience. I argue that modernist authors came to view the criminal as an identity formation capable of embodying those aspects of psychological ambiguity characteristic of modernity as a whole, and, as a result, turned to the popular genre of crime fiction in order to imagine new ways of conceptualizing the criminal mind – and thus, paradoxically, the exemplary modern individual.

"Modernism's Crimes" expands the conventional chronology of the period by highlighting moments of commerce among a diverse group of writers working from the 1880s to the 1950s. Opening with a chapter on the influence of nineteenth-century detective fiction on Dorothy L. Sayers's experiments with the genre in the 1920s, I proceed to consider a variety of fictions by multiple modernists, each of which deploys the figure of the criminal in startling and provocative ways. From the debate over anarchist violence staged in the novels of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and G.K. Chesterton, to Wyndham Lewis and Gertrude Stein's peculiar fusions of modernist experiment and the detective genre, each chapter investigates the literary preoccupation with criminality as a uniquely modern form of identity. I also demonstrate how that preoccupation was rearticulated as the century progressed, and show how late modernists like Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith characterized crime as a grisly vehicle for self-creation. Throughout, "Modernism's Crimes" argues for a reassessment of modernist fiction that stresses its vexed engagements with popular genres, urban violence, and criminological thought, and in so doing explains how modernism came to see in the criminal a distinct model of modern subjectivity.

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