Jon Woodson’s “Oragean Modernism”

A Review by John Robert Colombo

oragean300In some ways I am the ideal person to review this book. In other ways I am the least equipped person to review it. So let me draw attention to my strengths and then to my weaknesses before summarizing the author’s argument and then assessing its merits. But before doing so, here is a physical description of the book itself.

The title and subtitle are the first unusual features of this publication. The title is a mouthful: Oragean Modernism: A Lost Literary Movement, 1924-1953. The author is a retired academic named Jon Woodson. The volume, a trade paperback with a black-and-white cover, measures 6 inches by 9 inches. The pagination is viii+204+iv. The print is large enough to be read with ease and there are seven black-and-white illustrations; except for one illustration (which will be described shortly), they make no specific point. The name of no publisher is listed on either the title page or the copyright page. I purchased my copy through at the all-in price of US $18.93.

The book begins with “Chart of the Oragean Modernist Network” (which is the illustration of genuine interest that I mentioned) which is a “sociogram” that offers links between and among people mentioned in the text. It continues with three chapters: “Oragean Modernism,” “Representative Works of Oragean Modernism,” and “A Lost Modernism.” The chapters are followed by the Conclusion: “Oragean Modernism as Psychohistory.” What follows those chapters are Endnotes, Works Cited, and Index.


The Endnotes are interesting, being in the nature of asides, but the section Works Cited is skimpy. For instance, the citation for a good many works is simply “Web.” At first I thought this was an acknowledgement of the contribution of James Webb, the historian of “rejected knowledge.” Then I realized that the author was referring generally to the World Wide Web, with little or no documentation and no date of “accession.” In these six pages, I counted over forty-five uses of “Web.” The Index, however, is nine pages long, double-columned, and quite substantial.

I am the ideal person to review this book because as an author and an editor who has copy edited a couple of hundred books for trade and educational publishers over the last fifty years, I automatically respond to the text on the page. The text of “Oragean Modernism” is not up to scratch in two ways. It would have benefited from the input of both a copy editor and a layout artist or designer. New sections begin at the tops of pages rather than lower down on the pages. The treatment of subsections and quotations is varied. There are numerous stylistic infelicities but, more importantly, spelling errors abound. Rather than blame the author for these, I suggest it was a mistake to “go-it-alone” without editorial input and typographical support.

I am also a reader of books devoted to the Fourth Way, so I have a fair knowledge of the characters and personalities involved in the Work. I know about the contributions made by A.R. Orage. Indeed, I knew Louise Welch, his biographer; I am familiar with her book Orage with Gurdjieff in America, which is cited here and there. I have read C. Daly King’s The Oragean Version, a very useful and often overlooked text, which is frequently mentioned.

Yet I am not an ideal reader of this book in the sense that I know little about its author, Jon Woodson, or his previous publications in this field. According to the author’s note on the book’s back cover, Jon Woodson is an emeritus Professor of English at Howard University. Howard is historically a Black university that is located in Washington, D.C., where Professor Woodson was born in 1944. He has described his sensibility as that of an “innate surrealist,” an interesting label. He is a recognized specialist in the field of African American expression.

Well received was his study To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance which was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1999. He is knowledgeable about a whole raft of writers whose names are familiar but whose writings are not as familiar as they should be. He makes out that the texts of these books, mainly novels, are inherently interesting but also relevant here for reasons that have less to do with literature and more to do with what he has dubbed “Oragean Modernism.”

A.R. Orage (1873-1934), whose last name is now an adjective, was the brilliant editor of The New Age in London. He devoted the last decade of his life to assisting G.I. Gurdjieff in his work in France and the United States. In essence, he formed a variety of study groups in New York City, some devoted to the craft of writing, others to the study of the Work. This work brought him to the attention of some of America’s leading writers, notably those located in Greenwich Village and Harlem. With them he shared his views on the value of traditional principles and practices, and Orage’s own sense of “modernism” is the subject of the present book. I can do no better than to quote Woodson’s account of this own discovery of the importance of Orage’s work. The text comes from the biographical note that he wrote for his entry on, accessed 12 Oct. 2013. Here it is:

“After publishing a poem in an important anthology of African-American literature in 1971, I turned away from poetry, since it was impossible to stomach the ruinous course of American literary culture. I wrote a dissertation that read Melvin B. Tolson’s poetry through the lens of Gurdjieff’s esotericism, a view that was immediately rejected by other scholars. I have since worked to explore the esoteric cast of American modernism and have published To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (1999), an account of how Tolson was introduced to esotericism by contact with the members of the Harlem Renaissance, many of whom were writing coded esoteric fiction and poetry.

“I have continued to write and to publish on this topic, showing that other major figures were also involved in this tendency – James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Dawn Powell, and Ralph Ellison. I have taught at Towson University and at Howard University. As a Fulbright lecturer in American Literature, I taught at two Hungarian universities in 2006. I now am at work on a series of comic novels.”

In essence, the argument of the present book is that Orage opened the eyes of more than thirty writers, a good many of them African Americans, to the absence of esoteric ideas in the literature of the period and to the need for such ideas and the requirement that they be expressed in secrecy, in veiled or “coded” references, in their works of fiction, in order to save the world from self-destruction. To make his point, Woodson has examined the texts of a number these writers and found instances of “legominisms” and “lawful inexactitudes,” the presence of which, once discerned, may be readily explained in no other way.

Has he been successful in realizing this aim and objective? Paul Beekman Taylor, the redoubtable historian of the Work, is quoted on the cover of the present book as saying yes: “This is the best scan of what was going on in those crucial years, 1924-1953. Your book is a major contribution to the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual history of the Harlem Renaissance and all the wells it drew from.”

I am not about to argue with Professor Taylor, or with Professor Woodson for that matter, and while I think and feel that Oragean Modernism has drawn useful attention to Orage’s work and its reverberations in the pages of a large number of important though often overlooked works of fiction, I believe Professor Woodson has overstated his case and in doing so has tested the patience of even the most patient of readers. Perhaps it is necessary these days to overstate one’s case in order to state anything at all, there being so much background noise and nonsense in the air.

Earlier I mentioned there is a useful illustration in the book. It is called the “Chart of the Oragean Modernist Network” and it is a sociogram which shows lines of influence emanating from Gurdjieff (top) and Orage (left) to embrace a “network” of writers and other influential men and women who are part of this “movement” led by Orage. Some names are household names, largely from Greenwich Village: James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Ralph Ellison, Walker Evans, Alfred A. Knopf, John O’Hara, John Dos Passos, Nathaniel West, Lincoln Kirstein, John Hall, Wheelock, etc. Other names are those of respected writers, many identified with the Harlem Renaissance: Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Nella Lawson, George Schuyler, Wallace Thurman, Melvin B. Tolson, Jean Toomer, Carl Van Vechten, Elinor Wylie, etc.

In the past it occurred to no one to search for esoteric influences or hermetic references in the works of Agee, Ellison, Dos Passos, West, for instance. Are there any? And how about Alfred A. Knopf who is included in this group? He and his wife Blanche established the most distinguished literary publishing imprint in the United States, largely by translating and issuing the cream of European literature of the Interwar Years. I know little about Knopf, but fresh from reading descriptions of him and his milieu written by fellow publisher and personal friend Bennett Cerf of Random House, I find myself doubting that there were any esoteric influences at all to be laid to the door of the publisher of “Borzoi Books.”

The argument that Knopf was subjected to Orage’s influence is based on the fact that he published one book by Orage and numerous books by Carl Van Vechten with whom the Knopfs socialized. This is thin gruel. I found myself thinking of the methods of Joe McCarthy, the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, who perfected the technique of finding Communist influences everywhere by declaring innocent people, in the absence of other evidence, “guilty by association.”

In the years ahead there may be readers and researchers who, following the lead of Professor Woodson, will devote time and energy to tracing the evidence for such influences. In the meantime, here are some of the author’s insights. Professor Woodson devoted his doctoral dissertation to the writings of Melvin B. Tolson whose “poetry showed outward signs of a significant interest in the occult, though this was not acknowledged by the few critics who at that early stage had published on Tolson. But there were significant tokens of a deep concern with the occult in Tolson’s poetry, and belong long, I could see that Tolson had drawn deeply on the writings of P.D. Ouspensky in order to shape his poems, and that Tolson was nothing less than a follower of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Though I was successful in earning a Ph.D. with my dissertation on Tolson, because of my view of Tolson as an occultist, my findings were summarily dismissed by the critics who began in the late 1970s to publish studies of Tolson.”

Fair enough so far. He further explains, “My interest in occultism was a matter of intellectual curiosity. I was never a follower of Gurdjieff or a member of any esoteric group. I am a literary scholar who happened to acquire a general acquaintance with the literature of esotericism – a body of knowledge that few literary scholars come into contact with.” Thereafter he began to track other writers of the Harlem Renaissance and note their interconnections and the fact that many of them attended meetings with Orage and met Gurdjieff himself, largely though the good offices of Gurdjieff’s secretary at the time, Muriel Draper.

Professor Woodson’s frustration has been experienced by other scholars and readers. I have on my bookshelf a copy of Joseph Hone’s early biography of W.B. Yeats which offers an analysis of his poetry that makes light the Irish poet’s interest in magic, theosophy, occultism, etc. Yet time passes and these days there are biographical and critical studies that focus on little else. There are even departments in major universities devoted to the influence of occult ideas on mainstream subjects.

“Finally, the breakthrough came wherein I realized the scope of Oragean Modernism. A scholar who had read my book To Make New Race wrote to me and told me that James Agee’s book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was the same sort of Gurdjieffian literary construction that I had been writing about in connection with Tolson, Hurston, Larsen, Fisher, Thurman, and Schuyler. This was a surprise to me …. ”

In a nutshell, here is what he concluded: “The Oragean Modernists subscribed to an unfamiliar ethos. As they saw their role on the planet, it was a given that they were above all supermen, and as such they may not have seen fit to reveal any more of their arrangements than they felt obliged to. Secrecy was important to the Oragean Modernists.” Names of writers so influenced by this form of modernism are given on pages 21-3. Pages 32-3 refer to Gurdjieffian ideas like the Law of Three, the Law of Seven, the Fourth Way, that found their way into fiction in non-realistic ways. This was accomplished ingeniously through the “phonetic cabala.”

The so-called “phonetic cabala” is not to be confused with the Hebrew kabbalah. The latter has for ages served as a way of wresting meaning from obscure and not so obscure passages of the “Torah.” The former consists of finding hidden meanings in letters of the alphabet and the words that they form. It was employed by the mysterious French alchemist and hermeticist who is known as Fulcanelli. In literary circles this pursuit is known as “lettrism,” and the arithmetical version is called “numerology.”

One morning I decided to try lettrism out for myself. That noon I was meeting with Barbara Wright and James George for lunch. Mr. George, a former diplomat and a present-day group leader, is familiarly known familiarly as “Jim,” so I decided to see what I could do with the letters of his name. To my surprise I discovered that “JIMGEORGE” lends itself to this treatment. The combined words contain the letters IMG, and in this context they obviously mean “I am Gurdjieff.”

A paragraph from a novel written by Zora Neale Hurston describes a room in a house and it yields two words that catch Professor Woodson’s eye: “gaudy” and “chiff.” They are said to sound out the name “Gurdjieff” – despite the fact that no fewer than eighty-three words separate these two key words. Astronomers have a term to describe a pattern or a shape that is more apparent than real, so the Big Dipper is described as an “asterism.” Psychologists refer to this activity as pareidolia. The term that crops up in psychical research is apophenia.

It is known that Louise Welch of the New York Foundation, who led the Toronto group for many years, had earlier in her career as a journalist contributed an “agony column” to The New York American. (As the newspaper was published by William Randolph Hearst, one observer noted that in accepting this assignment “she went from bad to Hearst.”) She wrote as Louise Michel, her name before her marriage to the noted physician William Welch. According to Professor Woodson, her name appears encoded in Nathaniel West’s well-known novel Miss Lonelyhearts which is about “agony aunts” or “gossip columnists.”

No one could imagine a more acerbic novel this side of French literature, one that is less likely to be a repository of “rejected knowledge.” The satire describes the ordeals of a journalist who is assigned to write the “agony column” for his newspaper. “West has inserted Louise Michel’s name at the beginning of his text using the phonetic ‘cabala.’” Professor Woodson explains, adding, “The name ‘Louise Michel’ is somewhat indistinct.”

Yes, it is “indistinct.” The passage from the novel which he quotes includes these italicized words in the following order: “clue,” “Miss,” “kill myself my.” The author explains that “Michel” must be read in reverse. Try as I might, I cannot figure out how this reading is plausible or even possible, but readers of this review who are intrigued with linguistic literalism are free to try for themselves by turning to pages 97-8 of the present text and puzzling out the sounds. Readers so inclined should watch out for eight other legominisms in Miss Lonelyhearts, all of them helpfully preceded by the use of the word “leg” in various formations and combinations.

What I have discussed up to this point are the points made by Professor Woodson in chapters one and two. The third chapter discusses the writers of this “lost generation” in considerable detail. I have nothing useful to add in this regard, as I am unfamiliar with these novels, and the author has a deep knowledge and appreciation of them. But the Conclusion takes the book’s argument into the field of science fiction, a subject I do know quite well, specifically the writings of Isaac Asimov (regarding the “Foundation Trilogy”).

Asimov coined the term “psychohistory” to refer to a meta-science, one by which statistical or stochastic analyses combine the insights offered by the hard physical sciences and the soft social sciences. Professor Woodson equates this with Orage’s “practical application of the laws that make up part of the Hidden Learning.” The argument here is suggestive and associative, rather than assertive and logical, but that approach should not be held against it, as the possibilities are intriguing.

These days most aficionados of science fiction view Asimov’s “psychohistory” as a dated plot-device, one that is on the same level as the philosophy of “nexialism” which guides the science officer aboard the space ship “Beagle” in a series of intergalactic stories written by A.E. van Vogt. These two pseudo-sciences probably owe much to the popularity at the time of Dianetics (the precursor of Scientology), the “General Semantics” of Count Korzybski, very popular in those days, Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” and even “The Decline of the West” by Oswald Spengler.

I am not sure, even after reading Oragean Modernism, what such “total systems” (which seek to explain the totality of history) have in common with “Hidden Learning,” but discussing the latter in light of the former is not necessarily an unrewarding endeavour. It is a task that the late historian and scholar James Webb would have undertaken in earnestness, but I doubt that even he would have found links between these “total systems,” secular as they are, with what evidence exists for the non-secular “Hidden Learning.”

Oragean Modernism concentrates on some of the writers who created the movement known as “literary modernism” in the 1920s and 1930s and on Orage’s unquestionable influence on these writers. What occurs to me is that Professor Woodson’s own book has been written not so much in the spirit of “modernism” as in the spirit of “post-modernism.” The “modernist” approach has been one of “structuralism,” whereas the “post-modernist” aesthetic has been one of “deconstruction.” In the first instance, the text points to the real world; in the second instance, the text points only to itself. Indeed, Jacques Derrida, a leading proponent of this approach, famously wrote, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (There is no such thing as outside-of-the-text).

I would pursue this notion further, given more space and time, but for now I believe a better title for Professor Woodson’s book would be Oragean Post-modernism.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist with a special interest in Canadiana and occult thought who lives in Toronto. The latest of his many publications is The Big Book of Canadian Jokes. In July 2013, he delivered an invited address at the three-day conference on science fiction sponsored by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which was held in honour of author Robert J. Sawyer. The text of the address may be found on JRC’s website < www. > .

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