Though elusive and, until recently, difficult to access, Mina Loy’s small body of work has motivated a lively, generative scholarly corpus, especially over the past twenty to thirty years. Virginia Kouidis’ 1980 critical study offers the first biographical survey of Loy’s life and work, pursuing a feminist recovery project that argues a central place for Loy in studies of modernist poetry. Focusing primarily on reading the poetry of the teens and twenties, Kouidis stresses the intersections of female selfhood and modernist innovation while providing contexts of biography and publication history.
William Drake’s survey of women modernist poets, The First Wave: Women Poets in America, 1915-1945, places Loy in the context of diverse poetic practices by women writing in the teens, from Sara Teasdale to Lola Ridge. Linda Kinnahan’s study of the intersecting histories of modernism and feminism, Poetics of the Feminine: Literary Tradition and Authority in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser (1994), positions Loy in relation to American first-wave feminism. Loy’s autobiographical novel, Insel, published for the first time in 1991 and edited by Elizabeth Arnold, brought attention not only to her prose writing but also helped stimulate more interest in the archives, particularly through the primary holdings of her papers at The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. These holdings include unpublished prose and poetry in varying states of completion, as well as visual artifacts like designs and sketches.[i]
By the mid-nineties, important articles by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and others began to appear, tracing Loy’s ideological, formal, and gendered challenges to male-centered formations of modernist poetics, while a fuller picture of Loy’s life awaited Carolyn Burke’s foundational Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1996). This comprehensive biography, drawing upon extensive archival research and developing crucial connections between her life, art, and poetry, concurred with the appearance of a new collection of Loy’s poetry, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (1996), edited and with comprehensive notes by Roger Conover. Together, Burke’s biography and Conover’s new selected poems brought greater access to Loy and her work, generating a rapid uptick in scholarship from established and emerging critics, contributing to a larger reexamination of modernism that came to be known, by the late nineties, as the “new modernist studies.”[ii]
In 1998, Maeera Shrieber and Keith Tuma edited the first collection of essays on Loy, appearing in the National Poetry Foundation’s “Man/Woman and Poet” series as Mina Loy, Woman and Poet. This collection gathers essays from critics and poets, and includes the first annotated bibliography of works by and about Loy, compiled by Marisa Januzzi. Wide-ranging topics highlight Loy’s connection to Futurism, fashion, and Christian Science, and explore concepts of devotional poetics and female subjectivity within her work. Clusters of essays on “Love Songs to Joannes” and “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” pay particularly concentrated attention to her innovations with the long poem and the love lyric and her feminist revisions of genre and poetic subject matter. Short pieces by contemporary poets collectively speak to Loy’s significance in a lineage enabling innovative poetics, especially for women.
With several exceptions, much discussion of Loy’s work up to the mid-nineties focused on her poetry of the teens and early twenties. More critical interest in her 1925 long poem, “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” beginning as early as Melita Schaum’s 1986 tracing of the “automythography” of the poem, developed further through works such as Keith Tuma’s chapter exploring her interests in Christianity, Christian Science, mysticism, and theological discourse (in Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers, 1998); Susan Stanford Friedman’s explorations of the long poem (in Dwelling In Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, edited by Yopie Prins and Maeera Shreiber, 1997); or Elisabeth Frost’s extended reading of the poem’s exploration of language and female consciousness as part of an American feminist avant-garde (in The Feminist Avant-garde in American Poetry, 2003).
Rachel Du Plessis’s analysis of the poem in Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (2001) stimulated and joined a trend of discussions of her Jewishness, as DuPlessis expanded paradigms of modernism that have excluded gender and race to argue for poetry’s articulation of social debates over “new” identities, reading Loy within tensions and anxieties attending modernity’s identity formations of the New Woman and the New Jew. With particular attentiveness to “Songs to Joannes” and “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” DuPlessis influentially reads Loy’s poetry to dissect the lyric’s ideologies of gender and sexuality, and to map Loy’s valorization of the “mongrel” — the racial mixing of Jew and Anglo – as a site of modernist expression.
DuPlessis’s book marks the beginning of a trend toward cultural studies approaches to Loy. Suzanne Churchill’s 2006 study, The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry, situates Loy’s early poetic development in the context of the little magazines that provided her space for poetic experimentation and allowed her unconventional writing to be recognized as poetry. Churchill argues that in the mid-teen’s, Loy was “virtually synonymous with Others,” representing the most radical school of poetry (185).
Situating Loy in the places she inhabited, Cristanne Miller’s Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schüler (2007) asserts the constitutive importance of the cosmopolitan locations of New York and Berlin to Loy’s (and the other poets’) experiences of subjectivity, gender, race, and religion, particularly through discourses and patterns of diverse immigration, racial, ethnic, and religious identities and languages. Miller’s attention to the demographic shifts and polyglot linguistic voices of New York City deepens these socio-historical contexts for considering Loy’s poetry and also brings her late poetry into greater critical visibility.
As one of several women writers challenging conventional notions of modernism, Loy is also central to Alex Goody’s (re)mapping of the modernist moment as generated through forces of technology, Jewishness, the body, consumerism, and war. Goody argues in Modernist Articulations: A Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein (2007) and in a subsequent essay on “Anglo-Mongrels” for a materialistically feminist modernism responding through the maternal body to modernity’s oppressive, patriarchal forces (2011).
Like Miller and Goody, Lara Vetter situates Loy in relation to other modernist writers, bringing surprising pairings into relation to argue a “religio-scientific discourse” underlying modernism’s representations of the body. In Modernist Writings and Religio-scientific Discourse: HD, Loy, and Toomer (2010), Vetter maps Loy’s sustained interest in Christian Science and her study of Eastern religion and Judaism, brought into relation with scientific discourses of electromagnetism and evolutionary biology.
Vetter’s work connects to other discussions of Loy and techno-scientific contexts, such as Tim Armstrong’s treatment of technology, mechanical systems, the body, and self-constructed female agency in a chapter taking up Loy’s 1919 pamphlet, “Auto-Facial Construction” (in Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study,1998). Jessica Burstein’s Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art (2012) includes a chapter that moves between Loy’s early writings and her inventions and designs, paying particular attention to concepts of the body that develop over her career as artist, designer, entrepreneur, and writer, and taking part in what Burstein theorizes as a “cold modernism” concerned with exteriors rather than internalized subjectivities.
Recent scholarship on Loy increasingly plumbs the archives to bring more visibility to her prose writings and unpublished manuscripts. Sandeep Parmar, in Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (2013), offers the first sustained reading of Loy’s published and unpublished autobiographical works, constructing a chronology of these writings and seeking to counter the mythmaking tendency she judges as problematic in feminist readings of Loy as a “new woman.”
Bringing significant portions of Loy’s prose work into print for the first time, Sara Crangle’s edited collection, Stories and Essays of Mina Loy (2011), importantly continues the recovery of Loy’s ouevre, which had left many non-poetry writings unpublished. Offering a second compendium of essays on Loy, The Salt Companion to Mina Loy (2010), edited by Rachel Potter and Suzanne Hobson, seeks to acknowledge the “proliferation of . . . different Loys,” a multiplicity arising in part because of changing directions and approaches in modernist studies. Contributing to the directions in Loy scholarship arising with the publication of Conover’s 1996 Lost Lunar Baedeker and Burke’s biography, the Salt Companion defines itself as taking a new look at Loy and filling gaps, especially through drawing upon “British-based scholarship” in discussions of prose, poetry, and drama, and in bringing emphasis to the later work balanced with new readings of the early work (“Acknowledgements” np).
In the short period of time since 2017, a new cluster of monographs devoted to Loy extend approaches and contexts for reading her work, especially in relation to avant-garde formations and cultures.
- Tara Prescott’s Poetic Salvage: Reading Mina Loy (2017) offers a collection of close readings to serve as a directed guide through Loy’s (especially early) poetry that excavates previously underexplored sources for Loy’s writing, such as the Baedeker travel guidebooks, Parisian sites like the Cabaret du Néant, and a range of little magazines publishing her work. Prescott’s attention to Loy’s poetic portraits of fellow artists and writers explores Loy’s position in relation to a global avant-garde.
- Linda A. Kinnahan’s Mina Loy, 20th-Century Photography, and Contemporary Women Poets (2017) charts the relationship between the rise of photography and Loy’s poetry, with particular attention to developments in Surrealism, documentary photography, and photojournalism in the 1930s and 1940s.
- Sarah Hayden’s Curious Disciplines: Mina Loy and Avant-Garde Artisthood (2018) foregrounds Loy’s involvement with the twentieth-century avant-garde art movements (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, “degenerate art”), arguing for Loy’s intervention, critique, and participation in efforts to construct new notions of art and theories of artistic identity.
Both Hayden and Kinnahan also consider Loy’s legacy among contemporary experimental poets, with chapters on Kathleen Fraser, Caroline Bergvall, Susana Gardner, Judith Goldman, and Laura Moriarty. Forthcoming in 2019, Laura Scuriatti’s Diamond in the Gutter: Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism will bring much needed readings of the Italian cultural and literary sources informing Loy’s Florence period and bringing her into relation with a global modernism.
While this chronologically-organized survey of critical contexts primarily mentions monographs and compilations, Loy scholarship has proliferated in many articles, book chapters, dissertations, and reviews published since the revival of interest in her work in the early 1980s. Feminist scholarship, cultural studies approaches, formalist readings, critical race theory, materialist theory, performance theory, genre theory, art history contexts, archival studies, geo-histories, economic theory – all and more have enhanced the varied and growing body of scholarship that has brought Loy from relative obscurity to pronounced visibility in the past twenty five years.
[i] Published by Black Sparrow Press, Insel went out of print before being reprinted, with a new introduction by Sarah Hayden and edited by Elizabeth Arnold, by Melville House in 2014.
[ii] The Carolyn Burke Collection on Mina Loy and Lee Miller, which includes Burke’s research files for biographies of both women, are now housed at the Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, expanding the archival holdings already located there. The Beinecke has digitized the Mina Loy Papers, but the wealth of materials in the Burke collections are not available online.