Make It New is now such common shorthand for modernist novelty that it is easy to assume that it was always so. Yet these three words did not appear in Pound’s work, it should be remembered, until 1928, well after the appearance of the major works of modernist art and literature, and the words did not become a slogan until some considerable time after that. Just how utterly obscure the phrase remained even in the middle 1930s is evident in the reaction at Faber when Pound proposed it as the title for a collection of essays. Eliot informed him that Faber was not “altogether happy about your new title make it noo we may have missed subtle literary allusion but if we do I reckon genl public will also.” The general public did miss the allusion and, in fact, the larger significance of Pound’s reference, which quite escaped the reviewers when the collection appeared. Of thirteen contemporary reviews of Make It New consulted for this study, only two so much as mention the title, and both make it the target of sarcastic comment.
In fact, it seems safe to say that no particular significance was attached to Make It New until 1950, when Hugh Kenner called attention to its reappearance in a new translation that Pound had prepared of the Da Xue (Ta Hio), which he now called The Great Digest. When Kenner notices “the ‘Make It New’ injunction in the Great Digest,” not only does he pick this phrase out of the welter of Pound’s prose for the first time, but he also nominates it for the role it was later to play. Even here, though, Kenner refers to the “injunction” not as Pound’s but as belonging to the Great Digest; and when he glosses the injunction, he links it not to imagism or free verse or insurrectionary art in general but to “Pound’s translating activities.” Thus the emphasis is not on novelty at all but rather on “the sense of historical recurrence that informs the Cantos.” Even at this stage, though it had at last been recognized as an “injunction” of sorts, Make It New had not acquired either the meaning or the status that now seems inevitable.
Only six years later, the literary critic Philip Rahv refers in the Kenyon Review to “the well-known avant-garde principle of ‘make it new.’” Somehow, in the course of these few years, the quotation that had been obscure even to Eliot in 1934 and that had meant “recurrence” to Kenner in 1950 has become the all-purpose label for modernist novelty. In the course of the later 1950s and the early 1960s, writers for the literary quarterlies would make it into a catchphrase. The literary critic and literary theorist Northrop Frye, for example, writing in the Hudson Review in 1957, associated the “anti-‘poetic’ quality in Stevens” with “his determination to make it new, in Pound’s phrase.” The literary scholar Roy Harvey Pearce, writing in the same journal two years later, said that any American attempting an epic poem “would indeed have, in Pound’s phrase, to make it new.” By 1966, the literary critic Marvin Mudrick had turned the phrase into a single word: “make-it-new.” Writing in these years and in these journals, literary scholars such as Roy Harvey Pearce and Richard Ellmann established a dogmatic belief in “Pound’s determination to make it new,” and by way of Pound an association of modernism with novelty per se.
In the course of this remarkably brief transformation, Pound’s three-word phrase loses its ancient Chinese context, its debt to the devotional program of Legge, and its involvement in Mussolini’s Fascism. The bibliographical facts of its appearance in Pound’s work are so thoroughly obscured that it becomes possible for scholars such as Peter Gay and Alfred Appel to misplace it to 1914, where it can seem influential and even foundational instead of obscure. In the process, the role of novelty in the development of aesthetic modernism is distorted, and the nature of novelty itself is simplified. The vast array of different positions that can be identified among the practitioners of modern art and literature shrinks to the size of a simple, three-word slogan, and the complex history of novelty is subtracted even from that, so that modernism loses a crucial part of the debt to tradition that it owes, paradoxically, through its devotion to the new.
-- from Novelty: A History of the New, by Michael North, to be published in October by the University of Chicago Press. © 2013 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. A longer excerpt appears at Guernica.