Constellation of Genius: 1922 by Kevin Jackson

1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.

Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.

Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 — a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein — is the subject of Kevin Jackson’s ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.

The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.

It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot’s poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.

When I first heard that a book of literary history had been written about the year of 1922, I expected a series of thematic chapters. I’m glad that Kevin Jackson arranged the book chronologically instead. It introduces an element of natural rhythm (the slow-marching rhythm of time and history itself) that feels more meaningful than any superimposed thematic scheme could have been. Constellation of Genius is a book about modernism, and its own structure is modernist. (A similarly chronological/anecdotal structure also produced great results in Nicholson Baker’s most important book, Human Smoke.)

Kevin Jackson is a modernist, but not a cold one. His tastes are catholic, but he has a cantankerous and opinionated voice that carries well in these short chapters. When he dislikes a critically acclaimed novel, like Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which was published in 1922, he seems to rather enjoy the chance to say so.

My only problem with this book is the constant footnotes, which appear on nearly every page, and provide additional anecdotes that seem no more or less essential to the book’s main thrust than the parts of the text that are not footnotes. Perhaps Kevin Jackson wanted to give readers the chance to decide which footnoted anecdotes were worth reading, but we can’t really tell if they’re worth reading except by reading them, so he may as well have placed them into the main text. Perhaps he was trying to nod to the footnotes in The Waste Land but those footnotes were better.

Still, I’m happy to learn all about the world of literature and arts in 1922, and I wonder if it would be possible to write books like this about several other years — say, 1939, when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind were filmed, or 1957, when On The Road and Atlas Shrugged were published, or 1986, when the Mets won the World Series.

We are still living in the modernist age, after all, and still acting out our primal dramas from the heroic age. Also, every year must contain its hidden masterpieces. I bet several more good books like Constellation of Genius could be written, and if they are I’ll probably end up reading them all.

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