MODERNISM AND THE ORDINARY (Oxford University Press, 2009)


Literary modernism has traditionally been seen as a movement marked by transcendent epiphanies, episodes of estrangement, and a privileging of the extraordinary.  Yet modernist writings often take great pains to describe the material, seemingly insignificant details of daily life.  Modernism and the Ordinary upends our perceived notions of the period’s literature as it recognizes just how pivotal commonplace activities are to modernist aesthetics.

Through pointed readings of prose and poetry from both the U. S. and abroad, Liesl Olson highlights the variety of ways modernist writers represented the quotidian details of modern life, even during times of political crisis and war.  Run of the mill experiences like walking to work, eating a sandwich, or mending a dress were often resistant to shock, and these daily actions presented a counter-force to the aesthetic of heightened affect with which modernism is often associated.  In a series of persuasively argued chapters, we see how the ordinary operates in its many modernist manifestations: the minutiae of list-making and the decidedly unheroic qualities of Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses; Virginia Woolf’s rendering of the ordinary as an affective experience in Mrs. Dalloway; the retreat into daily routine as a refuge from the tumult of World War II in Gertrude Stein’s Mrs. Reynolds; Wallace Steven’s conception of the commonplace as rooted in pragmatist philosophy; and how Beckett and Proust are simultaneously compelled and repelled by the banalities of modern life.  These works are read alongside the ideas of philosophers such as William James, Henri Bergson, and Henri Lefebvre to illustrate how these artists responded to the difficulty of representing the mundane without making it transcendent.

A trenchant, richly textured monograph, Modernism and the Ordinary reveals how the non-transformative power of everyday experiences—what Virginia Woolf called the “cotton wool of daily life”—exerts a profound influence on the epoch-defining art of some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated writers.


PRAISE for Modernism and the Ordinary:

“In this masterful study, Liesl Olson shows that modernist writers’ attention to the everyday entailed a complex struggle to retain the ordinariness of the ordinary—to resist literary representation’s drift toward the epiphanic, the momentous, the teleological. Olson’s clear-eyed, elegant readings recast in wonderfully unexpected ways twentieth-century art’s relation to the mundane life that furnished its most vital, yet most exacting, material.”

—Douglas Mao, Johns Hopkins University


Modernism and the Ordinary is exceptionally well-written, elegantly organized, and compelling in its argument that critical accounts of literary modernism have failed to recognize in the major works of that period the centrality of ordinary experience and everyday life.”

—Rebecca Walkowitz, Rutgers University


“The history of modernism has seemed anything but ordinary.  Daily life, the mundane—these have not been at the center of interpretation of the great modernist writers.  Liesl Olson has begun a major revision of our understanding of European and modernist writing, in verse and prose.  The scope of this book is large indeed.”

—Robert von Hallberg, Claremont McKenna College

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