Skip to Content

Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism

ICASP Research Associate Rob Wallace's new book, Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism, is now available!


Improvisation, despite its almost ubiquitous presence in many art forms, is notoriously misunderstood and mysterious. Although earlier strands of American philosophy and art emphasized what might be called improvisational practices, it was during the modernist period that improvisational practice and theory began to make a significant impact on art and culture, specifically via the African American musical forms of jazz and blues. This musical development held important consequences for the larger artistic, cultural, and political life of America as a whole—and, eventually, the world. The historical convergence of jazz and philosophical currents like pragmatism in American culture provides the framework for Wallace’s discussion of improvisation in literary modernism. Focusing on poets ranging from Gertrude Stein to Langston Hughes, Wallace’s work provides a fresh perspective on the complex circuits of modernist culture. Improvisation and The Making of American Literary Modernism will be of interest to scholars of poetry, music, American and modernist studies, and race and ethnic studies.


“Rob Wallace is a sensitive, astute reader of poetry and of jazz. This book will be essential reading for anyone who appreciates both.” -- David Yaffe, Assistant Professor of English, Syracuse University, USA, and author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton University Press)

“Quiet as it's kept, the Modernists were making it up as they went along. At its root, that's the imperative of ‘make it new.’ Still, as any good jazz musician can tell you, making it new requires a long period of woodshedding, a mastery of forms and predecessor works. It has taken far too long for improvisation studies to come around to the published word. It may be that publication itself, the appearance in print or pixels of words as words, has caused us to misconstrue the acts of improvisation that are writing and reading. Rob Wallace has returned us to the improvisatory stage of writing and reading, reminding us of the central role improvisation plays in the advent of modernist consciousness, and restored to view the fuller engagement with black culture that was a constant in modernist arts.” -- Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Kelly Professor of American Literature, Pennsylvania State University, USA

"Elegantly written and provocatively argued, this book tells a compelling story about American modernist poetry as seen (and heard) through the emerging interdisciplinary field of critical studies in improvisation. Opening up fresh questions around issues of race, sound, the ethics of listening, the use of music in literary history, and improvisation’s role in testing the limits of language, cognition, and possibility, Rob Wallace crafts this story with exemplary grace, wisdom, and acuity." -- Ajay Heble, Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph, Canada.

There is a curious yet enormously fruitful duality in the way that improvisation plays on our expectations and perspectives.

– Tracey Nicholls