Where did modernism happen? What were its important places and distinctive geographies? These are not new questions and, until relatively recently, might have been thought settled. A powerful and well-rehearsed narrative about modernism defines it as essentially metropolitan and internationalist in character, recalling that the majority of high-modernist writers and artists were exiles or emigres, and that their texts are conspicuously polyglot, heteronomous, and fashioned from diverse cultural materials. Modernism, according to Malcolm Bradbury, was ‘an art of cities’ and the jolting energies of life in the major European capitals can be read in the fractured, discontinuous forms of modernist art. He claims that even where writers such as James Joyce or Ernest Hemingway retain an imaginative connection to particular localities, they do so only ‘from the distance of an expatriate perspective of aesthetic internationalism’. Modernism is, by definition, liberated from provincialism and local allegiances, caught up in an ambivalent but creatively productive relationship with the fluctuating currents of modernity and modernisation. Paris, London, Berlin, St Petersburg, New York: these are the principal centres of the modernist maelstrom in Marshall Berman's account, and the city street is identified as ‘the medium in which the totality of modern material and spiritual forces could meet, clash, interfuse and work out their ultimate meanings and fates’. The great European and North American metropoles were home not only to publishing houses, galleries, and museums, but to the salons, coteries, and cafes in which writers from widely different backgrounds could meet, collaborate, and influence one another. Such settings provided cultured, highly educated audiences for the erudite and elitist products of an avant-gardist art. It was here and only here, the story goes, that a truly international modernist aesthetic could be forged.
Precisely because this narrative of modernism's formation has been so powerful, it calls for some qualification, as well as a more nuanced account of the fractured, multi-scale geographies involved. Indeed, Raymond Williams, whose own description of modernism's metropolitan perceptions has been widely influential, insists that ‘the metropolitan interpretation of its own processes as universals’ must be challenged by taking up the perspective ‘from the deprived hinterlands’.