Edelstein on Freed-Thall, 'Modernism at the Beach: Queer Ecologies and the Coastal Commons'

Hannah Freed-Thall. Modernism at the Beach: Queer Ecologies and the Coastal Commons. Modernist Latitudes Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. Illustrations. 288 pp. $140.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-19708-3; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-19709-0

Reviewed by Sari Edelstein (University of Massachusetts, Boston)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=59097

I had never conceived of the beach as an “enormous bed,” but after reading Hannah Freed-Thall’s Modernism at the Beach, it will be hard to think of it any other way (p. 8). A place where half-naked bodies lie in horizontal repose, reading and sleeping, the beach instantiates its own temporalities and rhythms, aesthetic practices, and modes of attention. Indeed, as Freed-Thall argues, the beach is an overlooked but crucial site of modernist engagement, a case she makes through compelling readings of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Rachel Carson, Claude McKay, and Samuel Beckett and a final chapter devoted to contemporary art. This gorgeously written book, interspersed with arresting photographs, has much to offer those interested in modernism, oceanic studies, queer studies, and ecocriticism.

Two key ideas anchor Modernism at the Beach: transience, or the “shared condition of vulnerability,” and the notion of the commons, or “forms of togetherness not so predicated on possession” (p. 5). These concepts usher us through multiple iterations of the beach over the course of the twentieth century as it shifted from a place for therapeutic water cures to an elite leisure destination to an artificially produced simulacra in the new millennium. In contrast to romanticism’s mountainous sublime, modernism dwells on the beach, figured as a site of alterity, queer refuge, and a locale for multispecies gathering. Freed-Thall grants ample attention to such practices as “tide-pooling, beachcombing, diving, and sunbathing” and argues for their significance to modernist literary and cultural production (p. 3). The chapter on Woolf, for example, demonstrates how the coastal setting of To the Lighthouse (1927) produces the novel’s rhythms as well as its “queer ecological sensibility” (p. 75). Modernism at the Beach often models—in its astonishing attention to detail—the perspectival shifts it observes in novels. For example, Freed-Thall observes that Nancy’s trip to the seashore in that novel takes place entirely in parenthesis, a grammatical form that leads us into beach temporality, “an experimental aside,” the parenthesis themselves mimicking the shape of the tide pool (p. 84). Conversely, the lighthouse serves as an emblem of chrononormativity, organizing maritime traffic and regulating oceanic routes.

For Freed-Thall, “beach” can refer to an urban waterfront in Marseille or a New England shore; it is less a specific environmental space than a conceptual zone, a place where certain temporalities and practices emerge. Further, beach styles and rhythms shape modes of communication well beyond the shoreline. In a chapter on Carson’s lesser-known The Edge of the Sea (1955), Freed-Thall suggests that the postal rhythms that dictated her relationship with long-term love Dorothy Freeman echo “the lingering pace of the seaside wanderer” (p. 105). While these reflections on the epistolary nature of Carson’s relationship are poignant, at times the connections back to the beach seem a bit of a stretch. And one wonders whether “beach” can truly accommodate all spaces of contact, assemblage, and experimentation adjacent to water or whether some definitional specificity might serve our understanding of this particular geographic form.

Freed-Thall is explicit about her desire to read the beach as a site of queer utopianism. While there is passing mention of how white supremacy patrols the natural world and hoards its resources, the emphasis in Modernism at the Beach lies in the potential for alternative intimacies and collectives. As she writes, “the beach is a zone of indigence as well as of aesthetic enjoyment and bohemian sociality” (p. 135). Thus while Freed-Thall acknowledges how uneven access to coastal spaces has often made them sites of violence, she is more attentive to the improvisational communities that arise near water where the “logic of social reproduction gives way to other rhythms” (p. 67).

The final chapter calls attention to how the Great Acceleration has sped up erosion and ocean acidification, revealing the imbrications of coastal leisure with late capitalist fatigue. The dreamy beach we encounter in Proust’s work, for instance, has become “a spectacle of exhaustion, a site of continuous erosion and artificial replenishment, a besieged commons that abuts prime real estate” (p. 161). Freed-Thall’s final meditations on plastic pollution and salvage art are at once elegiac and optimistic, acknowledging the scale of anthropocentric degradation as well as the possibility for new imaginative possibilities. While the beach might be a bed, Freed-Thall’s rousing book reminds us that we should not get too comfortable.

Citation: Sari Edelstein. Review of Freed-Thall, Hannah, Modernism at the Beach: Queer Ecologies and the Coastal Commons. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=59097

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