Nancy Cunard

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1916

To readers having more than a nodding acquaintance with literary modernism, Nancy Cunard will be something of a known figure. Her achievements as publisher, anthologist, poet, and general bad girl of letters have secured her a firm if secondary place in the genealogy of early twentieth century arts and culture. Even those unfamiliar with the literary history of this period and unaware of her actual achievements might well recognize Cunard from the by-now iconic photographs made of her by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton in the 1920’s. With her close-cropped hair and hard, chiseled features, the thin arms braceletted to the elbow with dozens of her signature ivory bands, she appears like some kind of fierce flapper siren, an embodiment of Jazz Age glamour, all edge and intensity, the image of insouciant daring and primitivist yearning. Lois Gordon’s new biography, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, however, suggests that Cunard was considerably more than this modernist pinup. Gordon sees Cunard not only as a vivid emblem of the new twentieth century aesthetic but also as a deeply involved political activist, a progressive campaigner for black rights, and intransigent foe of fascism in all of its forms. The biography mounts a persuasive case for making a principal player of a woman whom other commentators on the period have so often made a colorful figure in the background.

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Certainly she was colorful. Socially and sexually rebellious, with a history of headlong passions and furious enthusiasms, Cunard was a dazzling figure of avant-garde bohemianism, a high-profile, high-energy critic of artistic conventions and moral orthodoxies. She slept little, ate less, and seemed perpetually on the move, devouring experience with a gusto that delighted and shocked her peers and tortured and scandalized her parents. She was a prodigious drinker and defiant drunk and was promiscuous on a positively epic scale. Yet these excesses went hand in hand with a fastidious set of manners and real delicacy of feeling; she had an air of elegance at odds with her acts of violence. What any writer about Nancy Cunard must try to explain are the causes that fueled such extremes of behavior. What drove this mercurial aristocrat to her obsessive pursuit of unpopular causes and constructive social action while pushing her with equal force toward a systematic program of self-destruction? What made her a consummate “lost generation” insider in the immediate post-World War I years and made her such a curious outsider, an eccentric anachronism, in the decades thereafter? What linked her selfless martyrdom and her selfish manias? Gordon goes some way toward delivering satisfying answers to these crucial questions, supplying a persuasive psychological profile that clearly had its roots in a difficult, even scarring childhood.

Nancy Cunard was the only child of Sir Bache Cunard and the American millionaire Maud Burke, distant and unloving parentsthe father benignly absent, the mother actively antagonistic. While born an heiress to the shipping fortune and spending her childhood in a bona fide castle, her life was scarcely that of a storybook princess. It was lonely, regimented, chill. Abandoned to cold and repressive governesses, restricted in diet and dress, drilled in relentless studies, she quickly formed a hatred of tyranny and a fiery resistance to upper-class authority. Her mother, for decades a brilliant society hostess and patroness of the opera (as well as longtime mistress of its conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham), epitomized to Nancy the fossilized conventions and false pieties of the belle époque world she was expected to embrace. Though she did not rebel at the time, she would later define herself precisely through this lifelong rebellion against a smug antiegalitarian ethos she forever associated with “her ladyship.” She was also a deeply romantic young girl, influenced by another of her mother’s lovers, the Irish writer George Moore, and inspired by her own solitary reading of lyric poetry. By 1914, her coming-out year, she was not just another wealthy debutante, she was a fully formed romantic idealist and at least a closet anarchist. Her life would be forged around these identities.

The years 1913-1919 were teeming with activities for Cunard. She was a charter member of the “Corrupt Coterie,” young aristocrats and artists and writers who met regularly at London’s Eiffel Tower Restaurant, and later the Café Royal, for monumental bouts of drink and talk and sex. She became intimate with Ezra Pound and the Imagists, Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists, Bloomsbury and the Omega Workshop designers. New movements in art were bursting forth, and these “Bright Young Things” were in the thick of it all. Cunard was writing poetry by day and making historyor at least headlinesby night. When the war started, the volume was turned up even higher: a romance with a soldier who was killed, a rebound marriage with another that was dissolved, a breakdown after the whole awful bloodbath was over. Given the epidemic of disillusionment among the young generation, her collapse was not really surprising. Besides, since childhood Cunard had regularly experienced disappointment in her restless pursuit of an ideal that would make her feel whole, satisfied, secure. She tried to find it romantically with men, then politically with social causes, but, as Gordon makes clear, it never did and never could materialize. The pattern had been set early on: She needed something important to do, a quest worthy of her talents and energies, but she inwardly questioned the possibility of success and was too often frustrated by the outcomes. She launched grand adventures in spite of their futility. Her life of relentless, frenetic travel suggests a flight from loneliness as much as a search for stimulation and meaningful work. Hers is a history of undeflected recklessness that, while producing clear casualties on all sides, ultimately allowed her to achieve some extraordinary things.

The achievements began in Paris, where Cunard arrived in 1920 to find an artistic and intellectual home in the expatriate community there. She had affairs with Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon, godfathers of Dadaism and Surrealism. She inspired novels and poems, sculptures, paintings, and photographsfrom Ernest Hemingway to Aldous Huxley, Constantin Brancusi to Cecil Beaton. She published three volumes of her own poetrypassionately confessional verse, with hints of T. S. Eliot in the fragmented imagery. She founded The Hours Press, publishing experimental writing (the first work of Samuel Beckett) and producing hand-crafted books with a distinctively modernist design. Most important, she found her purpose: In the jazz clubs of Paris, just as later in the dance halls of Harlem, she discovered her passion for black culture and began a long campaign to make it better known. She took a black lover, jazz pianist Henry Crowder, and wrote a scathing exposé of her mother’s racist response to their relationship. For this she was disinherited, and for the rest of her life money would be increasingly difficult to come by. She now had to produce an income by her pen, and she did, throwing herself into political and social issues and writing about them with the same uncompromising passion she had focused on the world of literature. She researched and assembled the vast anthology Negro (1934), which was the first ever compendium of black culture studiesan 800-page volume from 150 writers, with some 200 entries covering everything from the history of the slave trade to the trial of the Scottsboro Boys. This mix of scholarship and personal recollection, music, poetry, and photography was a breakthrough publication and seen as such among black communities on three continents, though it generated little but hatred for her as a race traitor in her own country.

Crucial as the quest for racial justice was to Cunard, her involvement in the Spanish Civil War was an even more defining struggle, and its failure was the great lingering catastrophe of her life. She immersed herself in the Republican cause, seeing it as the front line of the fight against fascism; and she spent the war years as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, walking where troops walked, living where they lived, eating what they ate. She endured staggering deprivations and dangers and wrote about it all. She enlisted other writers too, producing the 1937 volumes Los poetas del mundo defienden al pueblo español (The Poets of the World Defend the Spanish People) and Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War. Even after the war, she never really abandoned her resistance to the Francisco Franco regime in Spain. She organized food relief, coordinated resettlement plans, worked tirelessly and gave generously until she was officially ejected from the country and barred from reentry.

By this time, the 1950’s, Cunard was living part of the year in an isolated cottage in France’s remote Dordogne region and traveling nonstop the rest of the year to visit friends. It is not a pretty story. Alone much of the time, in alarmingly bad health (emphysema from the eternal Gauloise at her lips, emaciated and anemic from the herculean drinking and infrequent meals), she eked out a living as she had during World War II in London, surviving on tinned meats, biscuits, and whiskey, and banging out an endless stream of poems, manifestos, translations, letters, and prospectuses for antifascist projects. Finally, having miraculously gotten herself to Paris after an enforced commitment to a London psychiatric hospital, she flung herself, barely able to walk, from hotel to taxi to the street, where she was found ill and unconscious three days later. She died alone, in a common ward, burned out but somehow splendid, even heroic, in her refusal to give up a life lived on her own terms.

There has already been one telling of this life, Anne Chisholm’s award-winning Nancy Cunard (1979), and in many important respects that earlier account has not been surpassed, in spite of additional material being available. Certainly, Chisholm is the more engaging, the better writer. Gordon, by comparison, can be flat and seems singularly at odds with the throb and hum of her subject’s story. Readers do not need to experience on every page the propulsive energy, the tense and dizzying drama that characterized Cunard’s life, but surely some of that pace and its breathtaking vibrancy should make its way into the text. It does not. Gordon is more a coordinator of biographical material than a writer of gripping narrative. Instead of a fluid string of events and figures mingling to create a riveting story, we too often get a series of chronological entries of the sort more appropriate to literary encyclopedias. On Imagism, say, she gives definitions, descriptions, principal practitioners, relation to Cunard; on Bloomsbury, definitions, descriptions, principal achievements, principal anecdotes, relation to Cunard; on World War I, principal causes, principal outcomes, relation to Cunard. Chapters begin with a kind of overview and then backtrack to fill in the details. It makes for a jumpy narrative, full of first-rate factual material (extensive revelatory passages from various Cunard diaries, for instance), but lacking imaginative shape and evocative power.

Nevertheless, a clear picture does emerge here, and it is an irresistibly striking one. If she was not, in Gordon’s sweeping phrase, “one of the most unusual women of the twentieth century and perhaps of all time,” Nancy Cunard was still a personality of fascinating range and astonishing ambition, a genuine eccentric whose hypnotic character inspired individual artists and whole communities. In her fevered pursuit of a few cherished ideals (whether of romantic love or racial equality or political freedom) she blazed a path that only the bravest and most high-minded have had the courage to follow.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

American Book Review 28, no. 6 (September/October, 2007): 21-22.

Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 30, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 420-421.

Booklist 103, no. 12 (February 15, 2007): 28-29.

The Nation 285, no. 5 (August 13, 2007): 30-35.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 1, 2007): 1-11.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 4 (January 22, 2007): 172.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 6, 2007, p. 34.

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