Gifford, James. Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes. Edmonton, AB: U of Alberta P, 2014. xx + 294 pp.

Sheena Jary


James Gifford’s Personal Modernisms is the first in-depth account of the personalist English literary network in the pre- and post-World War II “gap” (xvii). Gifford illuminates this gap—a seemingly quiet or subdued period leading up to and following the war—suggesting that the prolific literary artists from the era, such as Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, David Gascoyne, Elizabeth Smart, and Alfred Perlès, merit significantly more scholarly attention and readership than they currently receive. Emphasizing the relevance of English literature outside the British Isles, Gifford examines a network he calls the “personalists” (xi), underscoring the impact of this less renowned, yet incredibly influential group of writers, which had a profound effect on the generations of artists that followed them. Gifford not only diminishes the anonymity of many personalist writers, but also links the artistic production of this trans-continental literary network with a common thread: an antiauthoritarian outlook on life and art. The integral argument of Personal Modernisms is that current late-Modernist criticism has “distracted” the later twentieth-century from understanding the “political and aesthetic visions” (xvi) of 30s and 40s English literature, an archive that has been vastly underrepresented in recent scholarship.


From the extensive breadth of Modernist literature and its writers, Gifford  reveals a network of personalist authors, whose efforts to forge an antiauthoritarian identity should be seen as distinct from the projects of the French Surrealists, the Auden group, and the High and Late Modernists. Gifford explains that in spite of their globally expansive publications, personalist writers are consistently under-recognized for their role in shaping and impacting the writers of the 1950s and 60s, many of whom embraced the antiauthoritarian principles of the earlier personalist style. Gifford uses the term “antiauthoritarian” as a “broad premise,” rather than as an opposition to “strict . . . political opposition to government rule” (xiii). The focus of Gifford’s monograph is the anarchist politics that permeate 1930s and 40s literature. These politics are multifaceted, sharing substance with varying paradigms of Marxism, in addition to right-wing politics. Gifford emphasizes that the personalists believed in pure anarchism with a special focus on self-governance and self-possession. With due care, Gifford traces personalism’s historical genealogy, introducing the central figures of the movement, as well as their predecessors and successors, and then giving an account of the genesis of the personalist network. Following these detailed synopses, Gifford moves into his two most critical points of discussion: the importance of an anarchist or antiauthoritarian orientation, and the personalist endeavour to own one’s self in the spirit of individualism.


Moving from the English revisions of French Surrealism to the Spanish Civil War and Herbert Read’s famous “politics of the unpolitical,” (30) Gifford’s second chapter, “Narrative Itinerary,” provides a general history of the socio-political issues that fuelled late Modernist literary movements. By touching upon more recognized movements like the Auden group and the Angry Young Men, Gifford highlights the uniqueness of personalist writers by underscoring their differences from the more renowned literary circles. Gifford’s chronological social history effectively captures the mentalities responsible for the formation of a trans-continental personalist network. Gifford argues that Villa Seurat’s literary network, the unpretentious attitudes of which contrasted sharply with the elitist attitudes of the Marxist-oriented Auden group, served as the foundation for the personalists. Through this network, English post-surrealist writers like Durrell, Miller, and Anaïs Nin—all of whom wished to break the mold of the artist yoked to and held responsible for social opinions concerning political conflicts and orientations—formed inseparable bonds with one another. In the same manner as Durrell, Miller, and Nin, authors like George Woodcock, Alex Comfort, *Robert Duncan, James Cooney*, Robert Liddell,  and many more, established connections that emerged out of a shared desire to attain or maintain personal and artistic autonomy, a self-possessed individuality free from state authority. The Villa Seurat was the central commonality between many of these writers, and though they may not always have occupied the physical Parisian space at the same time, they consistently incorporated the antiauthoritarian outlook rooted in the Villa Seurat into their writing’s content and style. Critical to Gifford’s argument is his account of “antiauthoritarianism,” or anarchism, which he defines less as an “opposition” (xiii) to government rule, and more as a focus on owning one’s self, or self-possession of the Ego. While personalists were critiqued from the outside by writers such as George Orwell, who labelled Miller a “quietist,” the true cause of the personalist author’s disengagement from the political sphere was their conviction that “revolutionary potential [is] terribly limited” (34).


One of the most pressing tasks that Gifford elucidates is the need for scholars of modernism to attend to the existence of distinct brands of anarchism. In his Preface to Durrell’s Panic Spring, Gifford states that the personalists ultimately approach their lives and their art with the attitude of a “non-hierarchic form of mutualist individualism” (x), which manifests in their work as the absence of an authoritarian voice. Gifford illuminates the need for an “antithetical” (xi) approach to literature where the author, reader, and the monoglossic voice of social order remain partitioned. The personalists exemplify this concept in their reconstructed literary texts, where the authorial voice that aims to lead readers to the author’s “meaning” is missing. Gifford aims to illuminate the personalist sense of individuality. Through his extensive archival research and exhaustive close readings of primary text, he shows the inherent connection between the personalists’ antiauthoritarian mentality, their denial of authority, and their rigorous efforts to take personal ownership of the Ego. Gifford conducts a brief psychoanalytic breakdown of the Ego and the process of individualization, and artfully connects this individuated process with the larger theme of antiauthoritarianism, or more specifically, personal freedom.


Where the first three chapters equip the reader with the knowledge of artists, literary movements, and politics that is necessary to understood the innovation of the personalist network, the final chapter, “Reading and Recasting,” offers a close analysis of primary texts by Miller, Durrell, Smart, and Duncan. Gifford suggests elaborate new approaches to these texts, offering potential frameworks for reading and rereading texts in ways that will aid personal research, as well as deepen and stimulate classroom discussion. With a plethora of detail and an extensive history that contextualizes the personalist network, Gifford’s Personal Modernisms offers something of value to a wide range of readers, from those hoping to discover more about this rather forgotten period of literature, to others interested in pursuing more specialized research on late Modernism or the pre- and post-war literary milieu.


A particular strength in Gifford’s book is his elucidation of anarchism. He removes anarchism from the realm of masked rioters and politically inept or ignorant citizens, so as to show its potential as a peaceful and cooperative mode of living. At the same time, Gifford’s account of anarchism is often guilty of a wilful ignorance of the legitimate arguments of socialist or Marxist systems of thought. For example, although Henry Miller and Herbert Read corresponded for twenty-three years—an epistolary relationship compiled and prefaced by Gifford—Read’s belief that “Freedom is not a state of rest, of least resistance” (162) does not correspond well with Miller’s pacifism (Gifford 45). Where Miller wishes to live “Inside the Whale”—the name of Gifford’s first chapter, with the obvious reference to Orwell’s essay—Read believes that freedom is a “friendly cooperation in the common interest” (Read 170). As a result of Gifford’s heavy focus on Miller, he does not do justice to Read, whose provocative theory of socially responsible anarchism, or “politics of the unpolitical,” is all too quickly forgotten.


Gifford’s awareness of the “in-between” status of personalist writers requires keen attention to detail, which leads, as a consequence, to an original study of the under-acknowledged personalist network. Gifford’s study suggests that the reason for the personalist network’s sparse academic scholarship and general readership is the status of the writers: their outsider position is what fuels their work, but it also removes them from canonical Modernist literature. The antiauthoritarian stance so apparent in the biographical accounts of their lives and in their prolific production of literature is precisely what renders them outsiders, pacifists, and apparent non-contributors. It is in this in-between status of existence and recognition that this anarchist network of writers and friends is able to use to shock the unsuspecting literary world via Gifford’s reintroduction of their poetry and prose to a twenty-first-century audience. Their talent and energetic fervour is presented as something of value, a period upon which one must reflect carefully. Gifford presents a network of writers whose art is rich with content, yet void of the authoritative voice that seeks to inform the reader of a specific truth—a message. In the writings of this forgotten literary network, there is no truth, no message. Consequently, the reader is invited to engage actively with this archive in a way that he or she finds more valuable. This openness to subjectivity is clear evidence in support of Gifford’s claim that the personalists sought the freedom that one derives from the self-possession of the Ego. This freedom is central to Gifford’s study, and it is passed onto current readers and scholars in their engagement with personalist texts. What is most dynamic, most intriguing and effective Gifford’s text, is its commitment to the personalist values of freedom and individualism, insofar as it provides readers with an expansive collection of data, but leaves the choice of where one might take such information in the hands of its readers.

Works Cited

Gifford, James. Preface. Panic Spring: A Romance. Lawrence Durrell. Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2008. vii-xiv. Print.

Read, Herbert. Anarchy and Order: Essays in Politics. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1971. Print.


Sheena Jary is a Master’s student of Comparative Literature at Western University in Canada. Her current research focuses on the aesthetics of time and space, and the experience of the sublime in the works of Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, and Lewis Carroll.


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