Proverbial Modernism: Difficult Literature and the Self-Help Hermeneutic


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships


English Literature


Described as difficult, elitist, and inaccessible, modernism is not generally known for its practical insights. Yet this dissertation uncovers modernism’s historical rivalry with the industry of advice. Self-help and modernism emerged contemporaneously during the late-nineteenth century, and vied for space on the same bestseller list until 1918. This project shows how formal qualities now associated with modernism, such as fragmentation, parallax, and interiority, developed as correctives to self-help’s formulaic advice. From Gustave Flaubert’s deconstruction of cliché to Nathanael West’s acerbic irony, the project argues that attending to the industry of self-help can clarify the nature and stakes of modernist difficulty, which emerged in response to the commodification of counsel in the popular sphere.