Vincent Sherry

Chair and Professor of English​
Howard Nemerov Professor in the Humanities
PhD, University of Toronto
MA, University of Toronto
BA, University of Notre Dame
research interests:
  • Modernism
  • The Literature and History of the First World War
  • Modern British and Irish Literature
  • Decadence
    View All People

    contact info:

    mailing address:

    • Washington University
    • CB 1122
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
    image of book cover

    Professor Sherry teaches and writes about literary modernism in Britain and Ireland. Throughout his career, he has focused on bringing a historically informed understanding to the modernist project.​

    Vincent Sherry teaches and writes about literary modernism in Britain and Ireland.  He concentrates on the art of modernism in relation to the First World War, to European politics in the interwar period, and to the literary and artistic legacy of late 19th century Decadence.   Most recently, he has served as Editor of the Cambridge History of Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2017), a work of nearly 1000 pages, which, in 45 chapters, provides a comprehensive history of the major cultural productions of modernism, featuring not only its literature but also its music, visual arts and architecture, philosophy, and science. 

    Professor Sherry’s own work is also historically informed, but it is open to theoretical and topical approaches, which range from the politics of aesthetics to gender and science.  For example, in Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism (Oxford UP, 1993), he develops a framework of analysis that reveals the literary and artistic bases of these modernists’ attraction to—and tragic misunderstanding of—European fascisms.  Along similar lines, in The Great War and the Language of Modernism (Oxford UP, 2003), he recovers the substance of the debates within the British Liberal party on the ethics and rationale of the war.  He locates a crisis that drives deep down into the intellectual traditions of liberal modernity and, in this dissonance, establishes the provocative circumstance for some of the most important literary inventions in British modernism.

    He broadens this historical perspective on the literature of the war to an overview of pan-European and trans-Atlantic writing in the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War (Cambridge UP, 2005), for which he was Editor.  In the same frame of reference, his current research involves work on A Literary History of the European War of 1914-1918, currently under contract to Princeton UP, which puts the literatures of the various national protagonists in the war (Britain, Germany and Austria, France, and Italy) into conversation with each other.

    This broadly European frame of reference appears in the backgrounds to his most recent book, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (Cambridge UP, 2015), which follows the legacy of nineteenth-century French Décadance in English modernism.  Mapping out the main lines of continuity and change over the long turn of the century, he tracks these writers’ varied but shared feelings about living in what they perceive to be a late day of history: their presentiments about the waning energies of nation and empire and their concerns about new scientific ideas of entropy, especially as these notions relate to the decay of language. 

    Other work in literary modernism includes James Joyce: Ulysses (Cambridge UP, 1995; 2d ed. 2005), which presents a reading of Joyce’s monumental novel in the contexts of Irish modernism, Irish history, and the history of the novel.  He has also written The Uncommon Tongue: The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill (Michigan UP, 1987), which examines this contemporary British poet’s relation to poetic modernism as his most important precedent and legacy.

    Selected Courses

    James Joyce’s Ulysses

    James Joyce's "Ulysses" is probably the most important novel of the twentieth century, and possibly of English literary history. It is also the funniest, but perhaps also-at least initially-the most difficult. As such, it lends itself to the sustained single focus of a 400-level English course. We will read the book first of all for its intrinsic interest, examining the use of the Homeric parallel as well as of the various organizational schemes Joyce devised in writing the novel. We will also reference the novel to a number of external contexts: as an example of the emergent project of literary Modernism; as an imaginative remaking of the Irish political and religious culture in which Joyce grew up; as a vision of a new Europe in the aftermath of the First World War; as a daring experiment in fashioning new gender imaginaries, for female as well as male characters; and, most of all, as a reinvention of the form of the novel, which extends tendencies in modern linguistic thought to unprecedented dimensions. These considerations will be supplemented and enriched by various critical accounts of the novel, ranging from helpful expositions to understandings of the novel's impact on subsequent literary history.

      Virginia Woolf: Novelist and Feminist

      In this course we will be reading the major works of Virginia Woolf, including her non-fiction prose as well as her novels and short stories. We will be charting her development as an important voice in feminist criticism and politics, and we will be reading her evolution in relation to a broader backdrop of English and European social and political history. We will examine her reactions to the Women´s Suffrage Movement and pay special attention to her involvement in the First World War and her ongoing, changing response to its legacy in the long postwar period of the 1920s and 1930s. Our secondary reading will be drawn from a wide variety of critical attitudes and practices, including the interpretive approaches of biography, new historicism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. The major novels are "The Voyage Out," "Jacob´s Room," "Mrs Dalloway," "To the Lighthouse," "Orlando," and "The Waves," while the essential works of non-fiction prose are "A Room of One´s Own" and "Three Guineas." We will synchronize our reading of these texts with excerpts from her diary and letters.

        Modern Poetry I: Modernisms

        Modern-IST poetry: the caps for the suffix put in headline style the assertive, self-conscious feeling about being modern that this poetry so conspicuously features. For modernist poetry reinvents traditional meters and turns them into the cadences of the contemporary, it takes older-fashioned descriptions and recasts these as images of the instantaneous; it breaks with prosodic and rhetorical traditions to establish new, identifiably "modern" diction and rhythms. We will track this impulse on a transatlantic stage, reading it also in view of a pan-European background, as we situate modernism historically as well as conceptually, We will move from Baudelaire in Paris and Dickinson in America to Imagism and other international avant-gardes, and then engage with major works of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, David Jones, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Gertrude Stein. We will be reading their poems intensively as well as extensively—reading down and into the intricacies of rhythm and image, and reading out into the external contexts that provide the historical content and political depth of this verse. A long and lengthening tradition of literary criticism for modernist poetry will provide a variety and particularity of approaches, offering the critical and interpretive works of old and new historicisms and modern cultural studies and race theory as well as psychoanalytic and feminist, Marxist and post-colonial and post-structuralist, ways of reading.

          The Unmaking and Remaking of Europe: The Literature and History of the Great War of 1914-1918

          The Great War of 1914-1918 is one of the most momentous events in history. We can approach its broad European import by reading its literatures comparatively. Far wider than the concerns of any one national ideology, the literature of record represents a profound crisis in the European cultural imaginary. A number of critical and interpretive issues will be in play in our readings, which will move through three major phases. We begin with the powerful immediacy of trench poetry (1914-1919), develop into the constructed narratives of the great postwar novels and memoirs (1920-1931), and then turn toward the retrospect of the 1930s, which is also the prospect on the next, now inevitable, war. The authors featured include combatant and civilian writers, names well-known and not so famous: Mann, Apollinaire, Owen, Pound, Cocteau, H.D., Woolf, Maurois, West, Celine, Joyce, Musil, Eliot, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Graves, Hardy, Trakl, Stramm, Lichtenstein, Péguy, Barbusse, Manning, Jünger, Zweig, Brittain, and Kroner. All readings for class will be in English translation. Our secondary literature will provide approaches to specific texts and models of literary and cultural history that represent the longer-range importance of the war.

            Modernism and Decadence

            It is usually assumed that literary Modernism, in its more provocative or convention-dismaying character, is descended from a sensibility flourishing in the mid-late 19th century, a conglomerate of counter-cultural energies that is often assigned the group identity of Decadence. We will recover the substance of this connection as our major line of critical inquiry over the course of the term. The major figures of literary Decadence include a pan-European roster, featuring Baudelaire, Huysmans, Swinburne, Pater, Dante and Christina Rossetti, Wilde, and Beerbohm, while literary Modernism will feature the major writers of Anglo-American and Anglo-Irish modernism, specifically Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Joyce, Yeats, and Djuna Barnes. Some of the work of the course will be to survey and understand the constructions literary Modernists make of Decadents, as individual writers, and of Decadence, as a class and category of art. We will probe their understanding of "outsider" art in relation to "mainstream" codes and practices and also pay special attention to the two periods' special understanding of their own moments in historical time (the declining state of empire, new scientific ideas of entropy, and the feeling of late days in national fortunes) as establishing conditions of their identities. A course-pack consisting chiefly of critical readings will help us to read the literary texts closely and to map our analyses into larger theoretical formulations.

              On Time: Clocks, Calendars, Crisis in Modern British Fiction

              This course focuses on the cultural understanding and literary representation of time in the first half of the twentieth century. Our authors include Virginia Woolf, H. G. Wells, Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and a number of other canonical and non-canonical writers. In their novels, novellas, and short fiction, these writers take account of a profound change in the metrics and meanings of time, which, following the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time at the end of the nineteenth century, shifted the experience of time from a "natural" (daily, seasonal, annual) to an "artificial' (numerical, standard, global) measure. This new standard time, also known as "rational" or "public" time, stimulated interesting, significant, and lasting resistance from major artists and thinkers and writers. What we know as "the stream of consciousness," for instance, witnesses a new emphasis on "private" internal time as a reaction to rational, public time. We will follow this evolving sense of time into and through some of the cataclysmic, not so "rational" events in real historical time: two World Wars (both undergone and anticipated), the rising and spreading crises of Empire, a global financial meltdown, and the near-revolutions achieved by the women's and workers' movements. Here the understanding of the meaning and shape of history and the direction of historical time is richly conflicted, and the literature of the period takes the measure of this duress. Our reading will include work from the British Isles as well as colonial (soon to be postcolonial) locations.

                Modern Texts and Contexts

                This course provides beginning students of English with a chronological outline of modern literature in English from Romanticism to the present. It introduces them to the central themes, genres, and forces that have shaped the modern history of literature as well as the tools, vocabularies, and critical practices of literary studies. We will organize our semester around five themes: literary revolutions; questions of genre; subjectivity and authorship; gender, sexuality, and identity; modernism. We will study texts from Britain/Ireland, the United States, and at least one example of global literature in English.

                  The Art of Poetry

                  This course introduces students to the study of literature. It focuses on the most intense of literary forms, poetry, to develop a broad range of interpretive abilities. The course aims to give students a critical vocabulary for analysis; an instinct for discovering and evaluating literary problems; and a sense of different historical periods of poetic production. Students will acquire a basic understanding of the line, prosody, and figurative language. Writing and speaking well about poetry is a crucial goal of this class, and students will practice different forms of engagement. Questions of evidence and sound argumentation will be important, but the class does not draw an exact line between critical and creative kinds of writing and thinking. Instead, it wishes to cultivate lively exchanges between these poles.

                    First-Year Seminar: Literature and Fantasy

                    This course takes the operations of "fantasy" as a basic but extreme application of the literary imagination and builds an introduction to college literature in following the many genres and forms that fantasy has taken. It has been used to express possibilities both in the psychological and political realms, from private dream to social vision, and the selections in the course-pack have been drawn from a wide variety of literary genres and periods. The psychological readings, which will feature the appearance of the "uncanny" double or weird familiar in modern literature, include selections from Freud, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Malamud, while the texts of social vision, which offer radically imaginative ways of envisioning political possibility, move from Poe and Hawthorne to Margaret Atwood, Flannery O'Connor, Marquez, Joyce Carol Oates, Angela Carter, Faulkner and Kafka. Ideally, the student will develop an acquaintance with the manifold forms fantasy has found in literature and come to understand as well the revealing lens it directs at the material of real experience.

                      The Uncommon Tongue The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill

                      The Uncommon Tongue The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill

                      In the analysis of Hill’s poetry and critical ideas, Vincent Sherry illuminates Hill’s often obscure and oblique language, drawing connections between the rich verbal textures of the verse and the poet’s recurring concerns as a critic. The author focuses on Hill’s work in the context of postwar British literature and relates it to American as well as British extensions of literary modernism. The result is an engaging and far-ranging study of one of England’s most contemporary poets.

                      The Great War and the Language of Modernism

                      The Great War and the Language of Modernism

                      With the expressions "Lost Generation" and "The Men of 1914," the major authors of modernism designated the overwhelming effect the First World War exerted on their era. Literary critics have long employed the same phrases in an attempt to place a radically experimental, specifically modernist writing in its formative, historical setting. What real basis did that Great War provide for the verbal inventiveness of modernist poetry and fiction? Does the literature we bring under this heading respond directly to that provocation, and, if so, what historical memories or revelations can be heard to stir in these words?

                      The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War (Cambridge Companions to Literature)

                      The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War (Cambridge Companions to Literature)

                      The Great War of 1914-1918 marked a turning point in modern history and culture. This Companion offers critical overviews of the major literary genres and social contexts that define the study of the literatures produced by World War I. It examines the war's impact on various national literatures before addressing the way the War affected Modernism, the European avant-garde, film, women's writing, memoirs, and, of course, the war poets. The volume concludes by addressing the legacy of the war for twentieth-century literature.

                      Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence

                      Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence

                      In this major new book, Vincent Sherry reveals a fresh continuity in literary history. He traces the idea of decadence back to key events from the failures of the French Revolution to the cataclysm of the Great War. This powerful work of literary criticism and literary history encompasses a rich trajectory that begins with an exposition of the English Romantic poets and ends with a reevaluation of modernists as varied as W. B. Yeats, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. Rebecca West, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, and, centrally, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Sherry's hugely ambitious study will be essential reading for anyone working in modernist studies and twentieth-century literature more generally.

                      James Joyce: Ulysses (Landmarks of World Literature)

                      James Joyce: Ulysses (Landmarks of World Literature)

                      Vincent Sherry addresses two apparently separate preoccupations in Ulysses - its reliance on ancient epic, and its highly experimental verbal art - and develops new, unifying critical arguments through a detailed, sequenced reading of the text. Joyce's appropriation of Homer is aligned with other contemporary reconstructions of the Odyssey, in particular Samuel Butler's and Georg Lukacs', and this historically enriched view opens up a new axis of value in Ulysses: a shift from the interior sphere of the modern novel to the social wholeness of classical epic. Related issues in language philosophy point up a difference between concrete specifics and generic verbal abstractions, a problem Joyce understands as the tension between radical individuality and the generalising, socialising force of words.

                      Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism

                      Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism

                      Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis developed a highly experimental art; they were attracted simultaneously to political programs remarkably backward in outlook--the autocracies of Fascist Italy and Germany. That paradox, central to the problematic achievement of Anglo-American modernism, is freshly addressed in this study. Here Sherry examines the influence of music and painting on literature, presents original research on European intellectual history, and proposes a new understanding of ideology as a force in the literary imagination. Following the example of continental ideologues, the English modernists use the material of aesthetic experience to prove truths of human nature, making art the basis for social values and recommendations. This sensibility enriches their work, shaping the varied textures of Pound's Cantos and the complex designs of Lewis's painting and fiction, but their mastery of avant-garde techniques endorses the authority of an antique state. Sherry returns their "totalitarian synthesis" of art and politics to its originating moment, following its trajectory from 1910 to the eve of World War II.