Hannah Freed-Thall, Modernism at the Beach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023) 288 pp. $140 Hb. $35 Pb. ISBN: 9780231197083
‘What is the modernist beach?’ (1). Thus begins Hannah Freed-Thall’s new book, a study of the queer and more-than-human forces that cluster and converge enticingly on the coastal commons. ‘In the most basic, geological sense’, she writes, ‘a beach is nothing more than sediments accumulated on a coast—available to be moved and sorted by the uprush and backwash of the waves’ (2). Yet, in the following five expertly paced chapters, Freed-Thall crafts a perceptive, playful, and thought-provoking study of what else the beach can be for twentieth-century literature, art, and culture. Weaving queer and ecocritical theory together with sensitive and insightful close readings, this book satisfies, in her own words, the ‘rallying cry’ of modernism: it makes it new to us again (157).
Freed-Thall establishes a compelling theoretical framework from the outset. In her introduction, ‘The Beach Effect’, she proposes that ‘the beach is to modernism what mountains were to a certain strain of European Romanticism: a space not merely of anthropogenic conquest but of vital connection to the more-than-human world; a grounds on which to experiment with performances of embodiment and to devise a new grammar of sensation’ (3). In this conception of the modernist beach, she factors in simultaneously the mutability of the seashore, the fragility of its life forms, the colonial legacies of the beach, and the queer delights of the seaside. As she summarises: ‘one of the particularities of this book, therefore, is the variegated and shifting quality of its central concept. The beach is not one thing here’ (4).
Crucial to this methodology is her assertion that queer ecology ‘offers a set of resources for the development of a nonessentialist, nonhomophobic relation to living beings and the spaces that hold them’ (5). Modernism at the Beach is carefully and committedly ‘sensitive to the passing and the peripheral, to shades and gradations of difference [...] as a practice of slow, patient attentiveness to the look and feel of things and to their subtle interplay of forms’ (5). This attentiveness to the ‘nonhomophobic’ proves to be essential to Freed-Thall’s demonstration of how and why queer artists are drawn relentlessly to the beach. In this endeavour, this book successfully follows in the footsteps of Freed-Thall’s guiding scholars, who have already ‘shown that the binary, late twentieth-century, in-or-out Western model of sexuality simply cannot account for the rich and subtle topographies of human (and more-than-human) orientation, affection, and attachment’ (18).
Freed-Thall’s first chapter is on Proust. She opens with a claim that subsequent chapters will return to again and again: that despite the fact that the city has ‘long been recognised as modernism’s preferred narrative setting’, even ‘quintessential city novels are unable to resist the lure of the seaside’ (33). This is certainly true of In Search of Lost Time, in which ‘the seashore breaks into the novel’s city-village counterpoint like an improvisation’ (33). For Freed-Thall, ‘Proust’s beach is queer in José Esteban Muñoz’s utopian sense of the term’ (34), destabilising social hierarchies and embracing new corporeal mobilities and aesthetic experimentation. This chapter sifts through a vast range of material, incorporating dance studies and seaside kinesthetics in her analysis of ‘seaside embodiment’.
These themes really crystallise in Freed-Thall’s masterful second chapter, ‘Intertidal Woolf’. This section examines ‘the queerness of Woolf’s beach imaginary’, wherein ‘queer’ is defined ‘not in identitarian terms but as an orientation toward offbeat intimacies and “improper affiliations”’ (65). In To the Lighthouse especially, Freed-Thall identifies the beach as ‘terrain that unsettles a Victorian epistemological and domestic inheritance’, populated by ‘unmarriageable figures’ that evade heteroreproductive narrative paths (66). It’s worth noting, here, that one of the great strengths (and joys) of this book is Freed-Thall’s own prose, which is alive with swift, sharp sentences:
‘For Mrs. Ramsay, a woman’s calling is to “arrange the flowers” in a man’s house’ (81).
‘Like Mrs. Dalloway—which makes clock-time its bass line, measuring the day’s passage by the hourly chimes of Big Ben—To the Lighthouse is a text set to a beat’ (76).
On this latter subject of a beat, Freed-Thall reminds us that tidal cycles are ‘never entirely calculable or predictable’, and indeed that ‘the seashore is not a “setting” in any conventional, static sense, but a spatiotemporal chronotope characterised by persistent weathering, ceaseless change’ (77). Modernist criticism can be, I think, complacent or evasive about what it means by ‘rhythm’, but Freed-Thall’s vision of its ‘aesthetic and sociobiological force’ (77) is crystal clear, as she draws fascinating parallels between the metre of the lighthouse and ‘unconscious choreographies of gendered being’ (79).
Freed-Thall’s third chapter turns next to Carson’s queer ecological imagination. For Freed-Thall, Carson’s work offers ‘a subtle corrective to the attitude toward the oceans prevalent in postwar America—the assumption, that is, “that the sea was a virtually unlimited resource, as well as a readily available dumping ground, for the growth of American Industries”’ (99). The Edge of the Sea especially is attentive to the miniature and the precarious, written for ‘the passionate amateur’ seeking a ‘queer way of knowing’ (106). Freed-Thall’s analysis is informed by tender and sensitive readings of Carson’s epistolary romance with Dorothy Freeman, exploring the pleasures of ‘the on-again, off-again rhythm of their closeness, with its anticipations, its high and low seasons, its various mediations (the post, the telephone, the automobile, the train, the airplane)’ (107). This chapter successfully demonstrates how Carson’s ‘vision of the tidelands, like her bond with Freeman, was marked by a nonpossessive ethos of intermittency and variation’ (111). ‘Carson’s emphasis on the fragility and unfixedness of the seaside environment’, Freed-Thall writes, ‘prevents us from caressing too insistently or holding on too tightly’ (121). It is thus that we can read The Edge of the Sea as a love letter, both to Dorothy Freeman and the beach itself.
Chapter Four, ‘McKay’s Dream Port’, offers alternative queer shores. For McKay, Freed-Thall writes, the ‘beach is not a specific locale but a collective practice’ (123). This chapter reads McKay through Rancière’s ‘emancipatory theory of aesthesis’, returning to this idea that the beach ‘recalibrates the given hierarchy of bodies and ideas’ (123). In Banjo specifically, ‘beach’ is a verb: ‘“to beach” in this experimental text is to dare to bask in the sun, creating space and time for the care of the self in the interstices of Marseille’s urban waterfront’ as a ‘practice of flagrant disregard for a hostile and racist world that codifies seaside relaxation as an exclusive practice and reduces Black bodies to the work they can do’ (27). In a novel that is haunted by the spectre of enslavement and police surveillance, Freed-Thall argues, ‘making art is sometimes akin to going on strike, and taking it easy can be a radical act’ (126). These ideas also apply to the artists who, ‘like McKay’s vagabonds’, flocked to New York’s deserted Chelsea piers in the mid-late twentieth century (138). This chapter concludes with analysis of how artists including Alvin Baltrop, Shelley Seccombe, and Gordon Matta-Clark ‘documented illicit practices of commoning that transformed a ruined port into a lively aesthetic and erotic contact zone’ (137).
Freed-Thall’s final chapter, ‘Tidewrack, Beckett to Sunde’, is an exploration of waste, fatigue, and the ‘“decompositional lingering” that characterises Great Acceleration aesthetics’ (173) in late modernist and contemporary visual and performance art. In this chapter, Freed-Thall suggests that works such as Severo Sarduy’s radio play The Beach, Stuart Haygarth’s sea-trash sculpture Strand, and Mandy Barker’s photographic series SOUP ‘index historical and ecological violence on multiple levels’ (155). Objects such as Haygarth’s rubber shoes, ‘eaten away by saltwater’ (153), ‘represent not the waning of historicity but a conception of historical process that includes a vast array of human and more-than-human actors’ (155). It is in the ‘tender arrangements of such debris’, for Freed-Thall, that we ‘glimpse the cracks in a containerised world’ (158), experiencing ‘a mixture of aesthetic delight, bewilderment, and grief’ (157).
‘If the modernist/avant-garde rallying cry “make it new” unwittingly anticipated the rapid-fire, “just-in-time” logic of Great Acceleration commodity production and consumption’, she continues, ‘the residual quality of tidewrack art opens onto a different temporal ethos: a strange layering of evanescence and endurance’ (157-158). This chapter is perhaps at its strongest when Freed-Thall reads Winnie’s objects in Happy Days as a form of tidewrack, forging fascinating links between sun exposure and ‘doing femininity’ (169). I wonder if the chapter as a whole might feel more cohesive had Freed-Thall structured it around Beckett’s play. Nonetheless, the chapter sustains its sense of the ‘psychic, corporeal, and ecological wastedness that characterises late capitalism—the mood of an era in which we deplete our own bodies along with the planet’s other raw materials’ (162).
Modernism at the Beach is an exceptional book. Freed-Thall covers expansive ground - and coast - yet chooses her critical texts carefully and concisely, weaving a range of literature, art, culture, and critical theory together deftly. Timely and original, creative and profound, Modernism at the Beach is essential reading for modernists and ecocritics alike.
Annie Williams, Trinity College, Dublin