What a difference a year makes—or so suggests British critic Kevin Jackson in Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One. That was the year both James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land were published; after that, Jackson says, art and literature were never quite the same. But those tent poles of the modernist movement were not the only avant-garde artistic rumblings in 1922—indeed, as this cleverly compiled book shows, the established cultural landscape was subject to a remarkable number of seismic shifts during this single 12-month period.
As he readily acknowledges, Jackson is not the first to identify 1922 as Year One of a new era. That distinction goes to Ezra Pound, the American poet and provocateur who, not coincidentally, played an important role in both the publication of The Waste Land (Eliot dedicated the book to him) and, to a lesser extent, the promotion of Joyce’s iconoclastic writing. The interconnections between these three men, as well as a panoply of others, form the story that Jackson tells with a year-long date book that details what was going on among the men and women who came to be viewed as modernists.
There are the usual suspects: Virginia Woolf stews over the greater popularity of Katherine Mansfield. D.H. Lawrence embarks on the trip that will take him to Australia, Mexico and the United States and greatly shape his late work. Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned is published, and Hemingway hangs out with Gertrude Stein. André Breton begins to formulate the artistic precepts that would come to be called Surrealism. And the creativity extends beyond the world of literature—composers such as Stravinsky, Hindemith and Falla figure into the story, as do theater prophets such as Cocteau, Brecht and O’Neill, and artists such as Duchamp, Matisse and Man Ray.
Particularly interesting are episodes where Jackson extends his purview beyond the ambitions and achievements of those who no doubt saw themselves as “high” artists, and reports instead on those visionaries of popular culture who had lasting influence. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made their first feature-length movies in 1922, and Walt Disney incorporated his first production company. Reader’s Digest and the BBC were founded that year, and Babe Ruth signed a three-year contract with the Yankees for $52,000 a year. The political balance was shifting, too. Ireland was awash with blood as it wrested independence from the British, and Egypt gained formal independence from Britain, as well. Mussolini rose to power; Hirohito was appointed Prince Regent of Japan; and an unknown named Hitler made some noise for the first time. Gandhi was imprisoned, and Lenin grew increasing ill. For good measure, we learn that Marcel Proust, Alexander Graham Bell and Ernest Shackleton would all die before the year was out.
Undeniably, Jackson has pulled together a vast amount of research and analysis in assembling this remarkable chronicle of a remarkable year—in fact, so much research that the footnotes claim almost as much space as the main text. Reading all these addenda slows the reader down; they often do little more than preserve the peripheral research that Jackson could not bring himself to discard, and can be skimmed or skipped with impunity.
With Constellation of Genius, Jackson underscores the singular extent to which 1922 signaled the passing of the old and the arrival of the new. Bookended by the publication of what he calls “the sun and moon of modernist writing,” it certainly was an annus mirabilis, a year of wonders whose influence still resonates almost 100 years on.