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A Robin’s Egg Renaissance: Chicago Modernism & the Great War - Robert Alexander

$25.00 - ISBN 978-1-945680-67-0

More than forty years ago I was intrigued when I first came upon a series of memoirs that discussed the literary moment in Chicago in the years before the United States became involved in the First World War. Over time I realized how important it would be to place this literary movement in its broader historical context, which is to say progressivism, women’s suffrage, and, above all—swallowing so much positive human endeavor in its appetite for death—the Great War. 

Modernism, in both politics and art, had in its early years an optimistic tone about it—but when the horrors of war began to overwhelm the world, first in Europe and only later in America, this optimism gave way to the disillusionment and dislocation we’ve come to associate with twentieth-century literature. The technique I employ uses a variety of original sources: letters, memoirs, speeches, newspapers. My purpose is to let the participants tell their own story: as the Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich explains, “I tried this and that and finally I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves.”

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“Anglo-American Modernism has lost none of its fascination over time. We still study the dramatic innovations that seized the early 20th-century, for good reason: we can be surprised anew at the artistic vigor, the trenchant squabbles among big personalities, the dramatic innovations in arts that echoed throughout the culture. Focused on the period 1912 to 1917, this collection of documents includes familiar choices—the Imagist manifesto, statements about and from Poetryand The Little Review—and excerpts from opinion pieces, memoirs, speeches, and other historical texts. Readers can retrace what prompted literary Modernism to arise in Chicago and link with energies elsewhere. We share the profound shock of the Great War, via firsthand testimonies of home-front tribulations and the grotesqueries of combat. We are reminded how deeply the arts and the war changed our world. Throughout, these selections testify to the power of creative thinking amid tumultuous times.”


—Jayne Marek, author of Women Editing Modernism: “Little” Magazines and Literary History


“In this informative, useful, and highly readable collection, Robert Alexander has expertly gathered the most relevant first-hand accounts from not only the principal figures responsible for making Chicago a major cultural center in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but he has also featured always relevant and often revelatory pieces about World War I from participants on all sides of the conflict––as well as from the writers and journalists deeply affected by it. Importantly, these are not second-hand accounts but rather from those "in the rooms where it happened.””

— Jackson R. Bryer, editor of Why I Like This Story 


“Robert Alexander has assembled a chorus of voices from the early 20th century literary movement that shaped modernist aesthetics but rarely gets its due. London, Paris, and New York all have their chroniclers, and now Chicago has hers. Alexander introduces modernism within a succinct historical context and sets the selections within a solid structure that moves from pre-war enthusiasm to eruption of war in Europe, to American entry into the war, to conclusion in outrage and resistance.


The pre-war exuberance of the Chicago scene is at once bold, determined, and wildly optimistic. The reader sees the genesis of modern poetic aesthetics and progressive politics unfolding simultaneously through an array of perspectives—Ford Madox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, W.E.B. DuBois, Ezra Pound, Ben Hecht, H.L. Mencken, John Reed, Edgar Lee Masters, William Allen White, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Aldington, Scott Nearing, Eunice Tietjens. Importantly the book gives a place of honor to the “little magazines” that shaped the American modernist movement—Harriet Monroe’s Poetry and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review.


The primary sources are memoirs, speeches, correspondence, and newspapers, a generously curated compendium that presents not only the variety of personalities but of perspectives over time—fresh insights erupting in the moment, mournful glances back, memories, revisions of memories. This deeply moving approach lends the anthology poignancy, not only of a fond glance back but also of prescience, of caution, of sorrow for a world at war again and again.”


—Holly Iglesias, March 28, 2022


“A patchwork masterpiece, this book restores the full gamut of modernist voices, and the postwar poetry of disillusionment becomes even more poignant once you grasp the hopefulness of the initial, prewar upsurge of literary progressivism.” 


—Aaron Sachs 

Robert Alexander (1949 - 2023) received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, and worked for many years as a freelance editor. From 1993 to 2001, he was a contributing editor at New Rivers Press, serving for the final two years as New Rivers’ creative director. Alexander is the founding editor of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series at White Pine Press. He authored several collections of prose poetry and two historical books. 

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