Modernist Roots and Populist Branches

Author: Taura S. Napier (Wingate University)

Mary M. Colum. The Selected Works of Mary M. Colum. Edited by Denise A. Ayo.

When I began my Master’s thesis at University College Dublin in the early 1990s, my supervisor Declan Kiberd warned me of the difficulty in finding adequate material on the intended subject of my research, Mary Maguire Colum. He paraphrased Jean Sibelius: “No one ever built a statue to a critic,” but nonetheless encouraged my work on Colum, whose autobiography, Life and the Dream, Kiberd recommended as a starting point for my research on literary philosophers of the Irish Renaissance. 

Looking into the far-reaching theoretical, philosophical, and journalistic output of Colum’s career, which lasted from 1911 to her death in 1957, it became clear that Kiberd was describing an inevitable side effect of Colum’s status as the foremost literary generalist of her time, indeed as the standard for literary journalism in the United States. Although she idolized W.B. Yeats like the rest of her classmates at the Royal University in Dublin, she did not take his advice to become a specialist. As she remembers, “‘I believe you have a genuine talent for criticism,’ he said.  And then he set to gravely considering my prospects….He recommended that I make myself an authority on some kind of literature—French literature, for example—so that I would have to be consulted about it. If I began by translating Paul Claudel’s plays, he told me, he would put them on at the Abbey Theatre.”[1] In 1911, with a small but significant group that included George Moore, Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Padraig Colum, she founded The Irish Review, a literary and art journal intended to “give expression to the present intellectual movement in Ireland.”[2]

From the beginning of her career, Mary Colum understood that a young, female literary critic would be considered an anomaly—as she observed, “criticism is about the riskiest of all branches of the writing profession; it is very difficult; it demands a complicated equipment, a great deal of experience, not only of literature but of life; it is none too well paid, and not so many people know when it is first-rate.”[3] Even as an established critic she dealt constantly with the patronizing and the confused: a review of her seminal work on the development of modernism, From These Roots: The Ideas that Have Made Modern Literature, described it as “the most reliable book on the roots of literary experience written in recent years.”[4] She disagreed and stormed in a letter to her editor Max Perkins, “My work is NOT ABOUT THE ‘ROOTS OF LITERARY EXPERIENCE,’ whatever that is.”[5]

But she forged on ahead. After moving to the United States with her husband Padraic, Colum proceeded from writing for fashion magazines to substantial essays for The Saturday Review of Literature during the 1920s, then features in Scribner’s Magazine and the Forum and Century, where by 1941 she was the chief critic and doyenne of literary opinion in America. Alongside her periodical articles, Colum published From These Roots in 1937, as well as her autobiography, Life and the Dream, in 1947.  She was working on Our Friend James Joyce (1958), a collection of reminiscences co-authored with her husband, when she died.

The newly-launched website, “built on the belief that a discussion of essays and reviews in the modern period would not be complete without the Irish literary and social critic Mary Maguire Colum” features an open-access collection of Colum’s periodical work spanning the entirety of her career. From “John Synge,” her first work in The Irish Review, to reviews and essays in Scribner’s Magazine, New York Herald Tribune, and Forum and Century, as well as coterie magazines such as The Dial and Poetry, the site offers PDF and plain-text documents of articles “deemed pertinent to the interests and concerns of current humanities scholars.” These articles, accessible via links in the bibliography page, are well chosen as an introduction to Colum’s work: they include Colum’s first published essay, as well as a contemporary review of Joyce’s Ulysses in The Freeman, one of the few reviews that Joyce considered to be an accurate assessment of his work.[6]

By this summer, the site is projected to include a total of thirty articles by Colum. Since Colum’s books have remained out of print since the 1950s, digital access to her articles introduces a new world of opportunity for scholars and teachers of literary journalism, modernism, popular criticism, and postcolonial theory. As Denise Ayo, the project’s author, points out, Colum was the first modern critic to insist that understanding the works of authors such as Jonathan Swift and James Joyce entailed substantial knowledge of Irish cultural history.  Since the website is dedicated to the connection between modern periodicals and the development of literary modernism, its emphasis is on Colum’s stateside publications, citing the Modernist Journals Project as its precedent in providing online access to a range of twentieth-century journals.

Ayo has organized the site via a concise, introductory home page, providing an impressively thorough list of Colum’s articles, a bibliography of contemporary reviews, scholarly assessments of her work, five portraits of Colum at various stages of her career, and a biography authored by Ayo, who has published on Colum’s contributions to modernism via transatlantic print culture. 

There is very little I would change about I would suggest, however, that in addition to the five portraits of Colum that appear on the website’s heading, the photograph of Colum at age 25 in her Celtic Revival costume in Dublin be included, since it is the earliest of her as a literary critic. I would also submit that the BrushScript font used for the site’s title heading is not quite right, even for the relaxed, elegant style of Colum’s prose. A typeface in keeping with her status as the leading literary journalist of the first half of the twentieth century might be something more along the lines of Bell or Rockwell.

But these are superficial concerns. Ultimately, introduces Colum’s concise, accessible interpretations and definitions of literature in its socio-cultural context to a wider audience than Colum herself could have imagined, freeing readers from the labor-intensive quests formerly required to enjoy her writings.  Readers today will find that Colum was well placed in her time: she would not have been able to share her unique talents as effectively in the present age of blurbs and soundbytes, morsels of cultural commentary that have taken the place of holistic considerations of life and literature. Today, she would get lost among the bloggers, Amazon reviewers, and New Yorker columnists unless she had a specialty, which in spite of Yeats’s well-meant advice, she rightly refused to do.  It is for this reason that, more than any other current publication, is the best means of introducing general readers and literary enthusiasts alike to a writer whose straightforward prose enlightens us to the subtlest nuances of the development of modernist literature in English.


[1] Mary M. Colum, Life and the Dream (New York: Doubleday, 1947), 372.

[2] Early advertisement for The Irish Review in The English Review, May 1912.

[3] Colum, Life and the Dream, 372.

[4] Unsigned review, Harper’s Magazine, April 1938. (Scribner’s Archive, Princeton University Library, Princeton, NJ.)

[5] Letter, Mary M. Colum to Max Perkins, n.d., April 1938. (Scribner’s Archive, Princeton University Library, Princeton, NJ.)

[6] Colum, Life and the Dream, 372.