Passports and Expatriates: Professor Reveals a Paradox of the Modernist Movement

‘Modernism and Mobility,’ a new book by Manhattan College professor Bridget Chalk, Ph.D., investigates the peculiar relationship between documentation and the individual.

The Roaring ’20s, an era that coined shorter hemlines, the Charleston and the motion picture, also popularized the expatriate. Trailblazing artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway shed their national ties to live bohemian lives abroad, and created a new, more flexible relationship to nationality.

This phenomenon is the topic of a new book, Modernism and Mobility: The Passport and Cosmopolitan Experience by Bridget Chalk, Ph.D., assistant professor of English at Manhattan College.

In the book, Chalk reveals an engaging literary and historical paradox: while international travel characterizes the modernist period, the era was also marked by mobility control and the rise of the passport we know today.

“The passport is a part of all of our lives if we want to travel, but this has not always been the case,” Chalk says. “It creates a distinctive and odd relationship between documentation and the individual, whereby one's identity is only validated and really constructed by this external thing — a booklet.”

Chalk examines a range of writers of the period from colonial immigrant Jean Rhys to privileged expatriate Gertrude Stein, and looks at the classifying energies of the passport, specifically the way individuals internalized and became conversant in identifying national types.

For example, in modernist cosmopolitan cities, Chalk notes that “rather than transcending the category of national identity, people were really interested in fixing it and knowing what various national identities looked like.”

Although Chalk examines these issues through literature of the past, this topic is still quite relevant nearly 100 years later.

“You may feel one way about your national identity, but it’s probably not the way the state cements and controls it,” Chalk says. “Today, of course, passport problems  exist for people want to travel to a particular country and can’t get a visa, or who hold dual citizenship.”

“If your mobility is restricted through categories over which you have no control,” Chalk says, “it’s a very alienating and particularly modern experience.”

Discover more about Bridget Chalk, Ph.D., and the English department at Manhattan College.

MC Staff