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Groups, Coteries, Circles and Guilds

Modernist Aesthetics and the Utopian Lure of Community

Edited By Laura Scuriatti

In the first half of the twentieth century, artists, intellectuals, writers, thinkers and patrons in Europe and the United States created a large number of artistic communities, circles, groups and movements with the aim of providing alternatives to the increasingly conflictual political and intellectual climate; the works and artistic practices of many of these groups were marked by an ethos of collaboration, based on a collective understanding of artistic production, and on the nurturing and exercise of sociability and conviviality. Collaboration, sociability, friendship and collective artistic efforts represented the utopian aspects of the radical experiments carried out by avant-garde and modernist artists; they were also the counterparts of the period’s obsession with the notion of genius and the cult of the artist. This book offers studies of under-researched (and often consciously provincial) avant-garde and modernist groups and authors. Their progressive aims are here read as particular forms of utopia based on the ethics and aesthetics of community.

The essays in this volume analyse the significance (and failures) of literary coteries as spaces of aesthetic and political freedom. They explore the internationalist and interdisciplinary practices of the Porza Group, the abstrakten hannover and the anthroposophical group Aenigma; the utopian efforts of the artists’ communities at Dornach (Switzerland) and Farley Farm, in England; the political and aesthetic implications of collaborative practices of cultural mediation, criticism and translation within the Bloomsbury group, the «Young American Critics», and of single individuals in relation to networks and avant-garde coteries, such as Mina Loy, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Djuna Barnes. The volume offers an evaluation of the roots and ethos of sociability in the Enlightenment, as the basis of modernist utopias of community; it also reflects on the problematic notion of individual authorship within artistic groups, as in the case of the early-modernist Finnish author Algot Untola, who created around forty fictitious author-names.

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5 Progressive Intelligentsia: The Young American Critics, Utopianism and the Spirit of Dissent (Esther Sánchez-Pardo)


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5 Progressive Intelligentsia: The Young American Critics, Utopianism and the Spirit of Dissent


In this chapter I examine the critique of industrial American culture made by the so-called ‘Young American Critics’ – Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford – during the first four decades of the twentieth century. Their work has been read as the response of these intellectuals in the transition from Victorian to modernist culture, covering areas as diverse as cultural and art criticism, politics, fiction, autobiography and transnational relations. In an attempt to understand and re-historicize the Young American Critics’ contribution to the utopian political project of a democratic America that goes well beyond politics and includes artistic, psychological, anthropological, religious, and other aspects, I aim at both opening up debate on all those issues inspired by their thinking, and at reinvigorating current engagement with their legacy.

The Young American Critics – Randolph Bourne (1886–1918), Van Wyck Brooks (1886–1963), Waldo Frank (1889–1967) and Lewis Mumford (1885–1990) – are known today as key figures in the 1910s Renaissance in New York’s Greenwich Village and in the fundamental debates about American culture and politics that took place after the First World War. Thanks to a group of rebels including Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger and Eugene O’Neill, the Village’s ‘golden age’ was probably the 1910s.1 As Christine Stansell has argued, the ‘conversational communities’ of bohemian New York were the intellectual and...

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