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Transatlantic Modernism

Moral Dilemmas in Modernist Fiction

Martin Halliwell


Transatlantic Modernism traces the intersection of artistic and moral ideas in European and American literary modernism. Rather than reading modernism as a complete rejection of social morality, this perceptive study shows how early twentieth-century writers such as Conrad, Faulkner, Gide, Kafka, Mann and Stein devised new aesthetic techniques to address ethical problems. By focusing on a range of decadent, naturalist, avant-garde and expatriate writers between the 1890s and 1940s, this book reassesses the moral trajectory of fiction on both sides of the Atlantic.

The book is divided into four parts - Part I deals with Decadence and Naturalism, Part II with Symbolic Centres of Modernism, Part III with Sexual and Cultural Difference, and Part IV with Modernist Trickery - to discuss how modernist writers forged creative, but sometimes dangerous, links between personal and social morality. The chapters alternate between considering broad literary trends, such as the European avant-garde, American writers in Paris and the modernist picaresque, and the close study of influential texts, includingThe Immoralist, Death in Venice, The Secret Agent, The Sound and the Fury, Amerika and Mephisto. In response to the recent emergence of ethical theory in the humanities and the shifting parameters of national morality in the early twentieth-first century, Halliwell's book provides a fresh and timely analysis of the ways in which transatlantic modernists used fiction as a testing-ground for moral possibility. This new paperback edition contains an updated conclusion which explores modernist continuities in the early twenty-first century, literary responses to September 11 and the shifting parameters of national morality.

Key Features

  • Offers a fresh look at American and European Modernism
  • Discusses a wide range of important Modernist writers and texts including Wilde, Wharton, Conrad, Faulkner, Stein, Hemmingway, Kafka, Roth and Mann
  • Explores the role of ethics in literature in new and innovative ways
  • Introduces the historical and theoretical issues involved in ethical criticism using a broad range of examples


Introduction: Modernity and the Crisis of Morals
Part I: Naturalism and Decadence
1. Decadence, Naturalism and the Morality of Writing (Huysmans, Wilde, Norris, Wharton)
2. Books and Ruins: Abject Decadence in Gide and Mann
Part II: Symbolic Centres of Modernism
3. Extremist Modernism: The Avant-Garde and the Limits of Art (Tzara, Huelsenback, Breton, Aragon)
4. Moral Regeneration and Moral Bankruptcy: Conrad, Faulkner and Idiocy
Part III: Sexual and Cultural Difference
5. American Expatriate Fictions and the Ethics of Sexual Difference (Stein, Hemmingway, Miller, Nin)
6. The Blind Impress of Modernity: Lorca, Kafka and New York
Part IV: Modernist Trajectory
7. The Modernist Picaresque: Moralists without Qualities (Musil, Hesse, Hurston, Roth)
8. Myths of the Magician: Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann and Germany
Conclusion: Liberating the Fear of Modernity.

About the Author

Martin Halliwell is Professor of American Studies and Head of the School of Arts at the University of Leicester. His authored books include Voices of Mental Health: Medicine, Politics, and American Culture, 1970–2000 (Rutgers University Press, 2017), Therapeutic Revolutions: Medicine, Psychiatry, and American Culture, 1945–1970 (Rutgers University Press, 2013), American Culture in the 1950s (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) and Transatlantic Modernism (Edinburgh University Press, 2005).


Halliwell has bravely cultivated worn-over ground and harvested a fruitful abundance of fresh reflections which reverberate in the mind of the reader long after the book has been put down. This breathless ride… is an intellectual free-wheeling sojourn through twentieth-century European and American literature.
- Professor Patrick J. M. Quinn, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
‘This lucid and always intelligent book offers what scarcely seems possible at this date: a fresh look at modernism. Modernism in Halliwell’s view is a genuinely international and multifarious occasion; an intricate reaction to a long crisis in morality. Old ethical systems collapsed, as we have often been told, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. What Halliwell shows us in subtle detail is that certain crucial ethical issues, old and new, “just will not go away”. This is a study of what remains of ethics in modern literature, and of how it remains.
- Professor Michael Wood, Princeton University
Halliwell builds a detailed and convincing argument for rethinking popular notions of modernism. Of special significance is his treatment of modernism as an international reassessment of morality, a Euro-American reaction to a long-developing crisis in thinking about how humans should behave.
- P. J. Ferlazzo, Northern Arizona University, in Choice
It offers an excellent introduction to the historical and theoretical issues and critical modes involved in ethical criticism, grounded in a generous range of examples.
- Professor Tim Armstrong, Royal Holloway, University of London