The term "culture" has become ubiquitous in both academic and popular conversations, but its usefulness is a point of dispute. Taking the current shift from cultural studies to aesthetics as the latest form of this discussion, Eric Aronoff contends that in American modernism, the concepts of culture and of aesthetics have always been inseparable. The modernist concept of culture, he argues, arose out of an interdisciplinary dialogue about value, meaning, and form among social critics, artists, anthropologists, and literary critics, including figures as diverse as Van Wyck Brooks, Edward Sapir, Willa Cather, Lewis Mumford, John Crowe Ransom, Raymond Weaver, and Allen Tate. These figures proposed new ways to conceive of culture that intertwined theories of aesthetic and literary value with theories of national, racial, and regional identity. Through close readings, Aronoff shows that disciplines and approaches that are often thought of as opposed—cultural anthropology and aesthetics, American literary history and literary criticism, and multiculturalism and regionalism—are in fact engaged in common debate and proceed from shared arguments about culture and form.
Composing Cultures achieves a significant and persuasive reinterpretation of a crucial moment in the history of American modernist culture. Aronoff’s lucid and compelling analysis gives voice to a vivid critique of the condition of a commercialized and meaning-depleted American civilization.
"Aronoff’s Composing Cultures is an exciting and important new work on American literary modernism. This thoroughly interdisciplinary book demonstrates that culture as concept formed a ‘central problematic’ that galvanized, and organized, not only American literary modernism but also anthropology, literary criticism, and American literary history. Focusing on figures as various as Van Wyck Brooks, Edward Sapir, Willa Cather, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, Aronoff compellingly argues that these and other authors vitally participated in the formation and complication of the modern culture concept."
"This is a complex exploration of anthropology and literature as they coincide with each other and broader cultural concerns and aspects of literary studies, An enlightening but challenging study, pertinent to many fields. Summing Up: Recommended."
Eric Aronoff is Assistant Professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.