Genealogical Modernism: Family Structures, Identity, History, and Narrative in the 20th-Century “Long” Novel
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“Genealogy” is a term which, in literary studies, is frequently associated with its philosophical context—a concept articulated by Nietzsche and Foucault—rather than with its more common usage, to describe the pursuit of particular family lines. However, I argue that the modernist authors I examine employ a “genealogical” method which combines an interest in the familial with a method that is theoretical. I examine six of the “long” novels of modernism—whose length typically precludes them from comparative study—and discuss the implications of their resistance to “official” histories, narratives, or concepts of identity. My first chapter considers Virginia Woolf’s The Years alongside Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and finds that they resist the “genealogical imperative” of a normative, apocalyptic family narrative by structuring their novels around gaps, discontinuities, and non-hierarchical relations. The consequence of these aesthetic choices is an open, generative form; the novels undermine authoritative accounts of “History,” and focus instead on domestic, relational histories. The second chapter considers Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans and Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, two novels which quite literally resist completion; I argue that both authors insist on a radical contingency in their works—created through anti-teleological, democratic, and inclusive reading practices—in order to problematize the abstractions necessary for any “systematic,” and therefore normative, account of identity. I then consider William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County novels, which do not to build one continuous narrative; I argue that his choice to fragment is one mode of genealogy, as he manages to interrogate both familial histories (through the Compsons or Sutpens) and social histories (of Jefferson), using a wide array of narrators to problematize the idea of a single, coherent moral standpoint. Finally, I turn to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu to explore another mode of genealogy: stitching together disparate fragments into a composite narrative which does not do violence to their particularity. Proust’s method, I argue, generates endless possibilities for transformative readings; his comparisons, across time, space, and aesthetic mediums, emphasize the ability that any careful reader has to provide compelling, alternative genealogies of any familial or social context.