Worth Knowing Now:

The Modernist Legacy of Subjective Epistemes in Early Works of Moore, Stein, and Barnes

Even 100 years after the literary period began, there are key American modernists who remain marginalized, irrespective of their contribution to the “radical” nature of experimentation attributed to the era. Especially apparent is how they reflect and address remarkable shifts, both in orientation and articulation, as to what may be accepted as known and knowable. Early writings of Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes show the necessity of considering their work as singular examples of shifting phenomenal and epistemic attitudes—attitudes that carry forward into many contemporary intellectual traditions and debate. The legacy of their experimentations have been largely unexplored in this context, even though they challenge fundamental assumptions about linguistic assumptions and knowledge itself. The nature of these writers’ work suggest that, even when formalized, subjectivity remains disruptive; and increasingly complex ways of challenging and articulating the world are necessary to understand its ineffably complex nature. The fact that these women have been sidelined as central actors in American modernism in-itself shows the power of the marginalized subject: though arguably widely under-read in their time, each maintained critical success amongst their male peers, and their influence on period is indisputable. Examining selections of their early work demonstrates that they are key components of modern intellectual history, essential when considering the modernist shift in epistemic and phenomenal attitudes from the early 1900s on. That these women’s accomplishments have historically been considered peripheral, even in a movement well established as heterogeneous. This emphasizes the absurdity of this cultural status quo. Despite any reflexive first impressions of their writings’ opacity and, by extension, orthodox conventions of “making sense”, my intention is to demonstrate that through reading specific examples from each author—ObservationsTender Buttons, and Nightwood, respectively—the reader is granted a unique opportunity to better understand the authors’ insights into phenomenal epistemologies. In this way, what may appear as oblique—both in their thinking and writing—are invaluable interrogations and perspectives of significant consequence, and vital when considering the place of human subject within the real.