MODERNISM AND WORLD WAR II
By Marina MacKay
Cambridge University Press, 2007
The Second World War marked the beginning of the end of literary modernism in Britain. However, this late period of modernism and its response to the War have not yet received the scholarly attention they deserve. In the ﬁrst full-length study of modernism and the Second World War, Marina MacKay
offers historical readings of Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, T. S. Eliot, Henry Green and Evelyn Waugh set against the dramatic background of national struggle and transformation. In recovering how these major authors engaged with other texts of their time – political discourses, mass and middlebrow culture – this study reveals how the Second World War brought to the surface the underlying politics of modernism’s aesthetic practices. Through close analyses of the revisions made to modernist thinking after 1939, MacKay establishes the signiﬁcance of this persistently neglected phase of modern literature as a watershed moment in twentieth-century literary history.
Marina MacKay is Assistant Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.
Introduction: Modernism beyond the Blitz 1
1 Virginia Woolf and the pastoral patria 22
2 Rebecca West’s anti-Bloomsbury group 44
3 The situational politics of Four Quartets 71
4 The neutrality of Henry Green 91
5 Evelyn Waugh and the ends of minority culture
an excerpt from 'Introduction: Modernism beyond the Blitz'
narrator of Rebecca West’s shellshock novel The Return of the Soldier (1918) even states outright the link between textual crisis and the war in progress when she describes her soldier’s insanity as ‘a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships’. The soldier of the novel’s title has returned from the Front having forgotten his entire adult life, and the political implications of his ‘triumph over the limitations of language’ could not be starker when his madness represents his wholesale rejection of pre-war male privilege as feudal landowner, commercial imperialist and breadwinning husband. More canonical intersections of linguistic crisis, war damage and social protest could obviously be found in the predicament of Woolf ’s Septimus Smith and
Eliot’s nerve-wracked residents of The Waste Land, in post-war texts whose formal modernity arises from the erosions that they undertake of traditional distinctions between public and private spheres, war front and home front, between conventionally historical events and the painfully permeable psychic life. Woolf ’s experiments at the really subjective end of free indirect discourse in the rendering of the warravaged Septimus Smith (Mrs Dalloway is the ﬁrst of her novels written in what became her characteristic style) and Eliot’s spasmodic, syncopated verse in the passages of The Waste Land that deal with similarly broken homecomings (‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / . . . I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones’) make it inviting to connect the Great War’s causes
and effects to the emergence of new textual forms.
After all, it was the First World War that had showed the agonising incommensurability of the old realist historiography of decisive battles, victory and defeat, with the shapeless and essentially unbounded damage that war inﬂicts. War had ceased to look formal, was no longer believably contained by the sporting discourse, gendered and class-bound, of winners and losers. That uniquely modern lesson about the amorphousness of the war experience surely stands behind the argument made by one seminal feminist essay on war studies, that we have to think ‘beyond the exceptional, marked event, which takes place on a speciﬁcally militarized front or in public and institutionally deﬁned
arenas, to include the private domain and the landscape of the mind’.
Chapter 3, 'The situational politics of Four Quartets', is an eye-opener.