. . .
New Deal Postmodernism
From the modernism you want, you get the postmodernism
you deserve.—David Antin, ‘‘Modernism and Postmodernism:
Approaching the Present in American Poetry’’
In The Origins of Postmodernity (1998), a genealogy of postmodern-
ism that serves also as a paean to the writings of Fredric Jameson,
Perry Anderson informs us that Charles Olson is responsible for ‘‘the
origination of the term [postmodern] in North America’’:
Writing to his fellow-poet Robert Creely on return from the Yucatan
in the summer of 1951, [Olson] started to speak of a ‘‘post-modern
world’’ that lay beyond the imperial age of Discoveries and the Indus-
trial Revolution. ‘‘The first half of the twentieth-century,’’ he wrote
soon afterwards, was ‘‘the marshalling yard on which the modern was
turned to what we have, the post-modern, or post-West.’’ On 4 No-
vember 1952, the day Eisenhower was elected President, Olson—
ostensibly supplying information for a biographical dictionary of
Twentieth Century Authors—set down a lapidary manifesto, begin-
ning with the words, ‘‘My shift is that I take it that the present is
prologue, not the past,’’ and ending with a description of that ‘‘going
live present’’ as ‘‘post-modern, post-humanist, post-historic.’’
‘‘The sense of these terms,’’ Anderson adds, ‘‘came from a distinc-
tive poetic project. Olson’s background lay in the New Deal.’’∞
Anderson does not himself evaluate Olson’s relation to literary
postmodernism; before taking up this matter myself—and com-
menting on its implications for the New Deal modernism described
above—I should pause to point out just how firmly Olson was in fact
rooted in the New Deal. After the outbreak of the Second World War,
Olson went to work for Elmer Davis and the Office of War Informa-
tion (owi), where he assisted in the war effort by producing propa-
ganda alongside such cultural notables as Archibald MacLeish, John
Houseman, Bernard DeVoto, Malcolm Cowley, and Arthur Schles-
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