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The Passion Projects

Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives

A counterhistory of the modernist canon that focuses on a range of unpublished, often unfinished biographical projects undertaken by, for, and between women writers from Sylvia Beach to Virginia Woolf.

How modernist women writers used biographical writing to resist their exclusion from literary history

It’s impossible, now, to think of modernism without thinking about gender, sexuality, and the diverse movers and shakers of the early twentieth century. But this was not always so. The Passion Projects examines biographical projects that modernist women writers undertook to resist the exclusion of their friends, colleagues, lovers, and companions from literary history. Many of these works were vibrant efforts of modernist countermemory and counterhistory that became casualties in a midcentury battle for literary legitimacy, but that now add a new dimension to our appreciation of such figures as Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Hope Mirrlees, and Sylvia Beach, among many others.

Melanie Micir explores an extensive body of material, including Sylvia Townsend Warner’s extensively annotated letters to her partner Valentine Ackland, Djuna Barnes’s fragmented drafts about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Margaret Anderson’s collection of modernist artifacts, and Virginia Woolf’s joke biography of her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, the novel Orlando. Whether published in encoded desire or squirreled away in intimate archives, these “passion projects” recorded life then in order to summon an audience now, and stand as important predecessors of queer and feminist recovery projects that have shaped the contemporary understanding of the field.

Arguing for the importance of biography, The Passion Projects shows how women turned to this genre in the early twentieth century to preserve their lives and communities for future generations to discover.

Author Information

Melanie Micir is assistant professor of English and an affiliate faculty member of the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.


"Examining intimate archives lovingly created by and about figures such as Virginia Woolf, Radclyffe Hall, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Djuna Barnes, and Hope Mirrlees, this stunning book counters masculinist narratives of modernism. Micir shows that acts of biographical enshrinement are at the heart of modernist, feminist, and queer practice. Our understanding of biography and its crucial relation to field formation will never be the same." —Benjamin Kahan, author of The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, and the Emergences of Sexuality

"Ambitious and insightful, The Passion Projects excels in telling the unknown, untold story of Anglo-American women writers who wrote about women and were integral to the development of transatlantic modernism. Filling a gap in modern literary criticism and feminist history, this book is assured a prominent place in modernist scholarship."—Urmila Seshagiri, University of Tennessee

"The Passion Projects makes the compelling case for renewed attention to the art of biography as practiced by often-marginalized women modernists. Micir sheds new light on profound and in some instances heart-wrenching acts of queer curatorial remembrance of friends and lovers whose stories could not be told openly. This beautifully written, paradigm-shifting work promises to be a must-read for the next wave of feminist modernist studies."—Madelyn Detloff, author of The Value of Virginia Woolf

"One of the vital motifs of this utterly beautiful book is posterity—that queer modernist women of yesteryear composed, culled, and compiled their writings and memorabilia for queer women of today. Making good on their magical thinking, Micir lovingly and judiciously brings their days and hours back to biographical life. Itself a lasting work, The Passion Projects exemplifies the ‘queer posterity’ of a field far from completion."—Scott Herring, Indiana University

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