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The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins…

The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought (original 1997; edition 1998)

by William R. Everdell

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Title:The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought
Authors:William R. Everdell
Info:University Of Chicago Press (1998), Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 509 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:intellectual history

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The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought by William R. Everdell (1997)



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Books of intellectual history with this size and scope are always difficult to talk about. I’ve read some that were abysmal failures, while others were highly successful. If I had to place this one along a spectrum, it’s certainly close to the latter for a couple of reasons. First, a point which has nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, but that I admire nonetheless: it was written not by an academic with narrow scholarly interests, but a wonderfully eclectic generalist, William Everdell, who has taught in the Humanities Department at St. Anne’s School (yes, a private high school) in Brooklyn for the last forty years. There’s something about the passionate amateur that I’m perennially attracted to. I don’t think we have enough of them.

“The First Moderns” is good not only for what it covers just as well as other related books of intellectual history, but also because it covers a lot of relatively new territory. We know the usual suspects: Einstein, Rimbaud, Whitman, Russell, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Strindberg, Picasso, and several dozen others. The names of Edwin Porter, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and Valeriano Weyler, however, usually don’t make it into books of this kind. Do people even recognize these names anymore? Everdell also widens the scope of the book by covering not only names, but topics that usually don’t get mentioned. We are used to hearing Modernism defined in terms of music, philosophy, and the visual arts. Very rarely do we see mathematics and science discussed, let alone the invention of the concentration camp.

The theme into which Everdell successfully manages to fit most of his vignettes is that of discreteness, continuity, and discontinuity. One doesn’t ordinarily think of something like mathematics as being potentially Modernist, but the discussion of Georg Cantor, Richard Dedekind, and Gottlob Frege makes wonderful sense in this context. They explored topics like infinity (actually, infinities), set theory, and the theoretical fundamentals of the field, including questions like, “What is an integer?” All of this work blurred the traditional lines of continuity and discontinuity that earlier logic and mathematics had felt so confident with. We also get a wonderful and highly intelligent, though non-technical, account of Ludwig Boltzmann’s work with statistical mechanics and his defense of atomism. If matter is made of atoms – millions of them – how do we discover anything about a concept as abstract as “energy”? Everdell details the ways in which Boltzmann invented new mathematical tools to think about energy and entropy as statistical averages of extremely complex states. The work of Boltzmann and the people after him showed how, when multiplied by trillions and trillions, tiny, individual discrete atoms can have physical properties en masse like temperature, energy, or entropy (which are all, in fact, related to one another). Again, we see how the information about discontinuous atoms can in fact yield useful information about matter when thought of as continuous.

And even when we get lessons from art history, or music, or poetry with which we are perhaps almost familiar, Everdell adds new contexts, new names, and new layers that enable each chapter in the book to potentially morph into a book of its very own. He gives a beautiful account of Seurat’s invention and exploration of pointillism, the “invention” of blank verse with Whitman, Rimbaud, and Jules Laforgue, and a whole chapter on Hugo de Vries’ discovery of the gene and Max Planck’s introduction of quantum theory.

Books like this, in their inexhaustible attempt to explain what a concept (like Modernism) might mean to wide swaths of human experience and creativity inevitably can be as a bit listy. “He was important … and so was this, but don’t forget her…” et cetera, and Everdell hasn’t fully escaped that here. But if that bothered me, I would never read this kind of book – a kind of book which I love very much. I read this sort of stuff to learn about new connections between ideas they already knew of, and I can handle the narrative jumpiness if the information is presented in an intelligent way, and Everdell is certainly the kind of intellectual cicerone who is going to teach you something fascinating. If you’re interested in this time period and intellectual history as a field, I would recommend William M. Johnston’s “The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History, 1848-1938.” To be honest, it’s dry as hay and not nearly as interesting as Everdell’s book, but his sense of curiosity and the amount of sheer information covered is truly impressive. It complements the information in here nicely. ( )
1 vote kant1066 | Jan 13, 2013 |
In this study of the origins of modernist thought, poet and teacher Everdell (The End of Kings, 1983) roams freely across disciplinary lines, commenting on fields as disparate as mathematics and moving pictures, neuroscience and music, and literature and the concentration camps. He argues that the most original thinkers in the modern age (ca. 1870 to 1914) illuminated a shared perception of the world, pointing to a reality seen as fragmented and discontinuous, isolate, "digital" (yes/no, not flowing), and quantized. "Modernists dissect routinely and obsessively.... The intellectual world of Modernism is...a world of precise definition and separability." Some of the thinkers Everdell profiles include mathematician Georg Cantor, physicists Ludwig Bolzmann and Albert Einstein, Freud, Seurat and Picasso, Rimbaud and Whitman, Edwin S. Porter, James Joyce, and Merce Cunningham.
  antimuzak | Mar 23, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226224813, Paperback)

A lively and accessible history of Modernism, The First Moderns is filled with portraits of genius, and intellectual breakthroughs, that richly evoke the fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Paris, Vienna, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg. William Everdell offers readers an invigorating look at the unfolding of an age.

"This exceptionally wide-ranging history is chock-a-block with anecdotes, factoids, odd juxtapositions, and useful insights. Most impressive. . . . For anyone interested in learning about late 19th- and early 20th- century imaginative thought, this engagingly written book is a good place to start."—Washington Post Book World

"The First Moderns brilliantly maps the beginning of a path at whose end loom as many diasporas as there are men."—Frederic Morton, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

"In this truly exciting study of the origins of modernist thought, poet and teacher Everdell roams freely across disciplinary lines. . . . A brilliant book that will prove useful to scholars and generalists for years to come; enthusiastically recommended."—Library Journal, starred review

"Everdell has performed a rare service for his readers. Dispelling much of the current nonsense about 'postmodernism,' this book belongs on the very short list of profound works of cultural analysis."—Booklist

"Innovative and impressive . . . [Everdell] has written a marvelous, erudite, and readable study."-Mark Bevir, Spectator

"A richly eclectic history of the dawn of a new era in painting, music, literature, mathematics, physics, genetics, neuroscience, psychiatry and philosophy."—Margaret Wertheim, New Scientist

"[Everdell] has himself recombined the parts of our era's intellectual history in new and startling ways, shedding light for which the reader of The First Moderns will be eternally grateful."—Hugh Kenner, The New York Times Book Review

"Everdell shows how the idea of "modernity" arose before the First World War by telling the stories of heroes such as T. S. Eliot, Max Planck, and Georges Serault with such a lively eye for detail, irony, and ambiance that you feel as if you're reliving those miraculous years."—Jon Spayde, Utne Reader

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:49 -0400)

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