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The Great American Songbooksshows how popular music shapes and permeates a host of modernism's hallmark texts. Austin Graham begins his study of 20th-century texts with a discussion of American popular music and literature in the 19th century. He posits Walt Whitman as a proto-modernist who drew on his love of opera to create the epic free-verse poetry that would heavily influence his bardic successors. One can witness this in T. S. Eliot, whose poem The Waste Land relies on Whitman's verse style to emphasize how 19th-century structures of feeling regarding music persist into the 20th century. From opera and standards of the Victorian musical hall, Graham moves to the blues to reveal the multifaceted ways it shaped works in the Harlem Renaissance, most notably in the verse of Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer's stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, Cane. The second half of Songbooks advances an argument for a musical eclecticism that arose alongside rapid industrialization. Writers like Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos, Graham argues, developed a notion of musical eclecticism to help them process--or cope--with the unprecedented invasiveness of popular music, particularly in major cities. This eclecticism runs counter to critics like Adorno who equate popular music with mass produced mechanisms such as the phonograph and radio, and thus with degraded, cultural forms. In conclusion, Graham suggests how modernist writers experienced, and sometimes theorized, a more nuanced, sophisticated, and fluid mode of interaction with popular music.
T. Austin Graham is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.