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Book Note: Twentieth-Century English Literature, edited by Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Britain, British Literature, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, The Novel, Western Civilization, Writing on October 24, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following excerpt first appeared as part of the Routledge Annotated Bibliography of English Studies series.

This history of twentieth-century English literature addresses a wide variety of texts produced in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  Made up of 44 critical essays, this book is divided into four parts: 1) Writing Modernity, 2) The Emerging Avant-Garde, 3) Modernism and its Aftermath, 1918-1945, and 4) Post-War Cultures, 1945-1970.  This division is meant to read like a history and not like a companion, anthology, or compilation of essays. 

The book attempts to avoid treating “Englishness” or “English literature” as fixed or essentialized categories and, instead, to use those loaded terms as illustrative of multiple and differing conceptions of place and identity.  As with any historical account of modernism, this book explores the tensions between continuity and change, but unlike many historical accounts of modernism, this book focuses largely upon transnationalism, diaspora, postcolonialism, and dispersal. 

In an effort to complicate simplistic characterizations of time and place, this book acknowledges overlapping chronologies even as it maps out a quasi-linear study of English literature in the twentieth-century.  As an example of the editors’ resistance against oversimplified periodization, the book begins not with a set date (say, 1900) but with a section of essays exploring the lives and works of authors both before and after the close of the nineteenth-century. 

This first section of the book (“Writing Modernism”) incorporates works about major themes in literature and the role those themes play in the gradual replacement and displacement of the literature of the so-called older generation.  The second section of the book also addresses the fledgling stages of modernism, considering as it does the divide between Edwardian and Georgian writers and literature.  This section closes with an account about how the Great War influenced literary production in Britain. 

Part three is, unlike the earlier sections, rooted in a particular time frame (1918-45), and it focuses on how authors such as Joyce, Woolf, Ford, Conrad, Lawrence, and Lewis experiment with forms while investigating their and their countries’ recent (and in some cases not-so-recent) past.  This section closes with World War Two and the literary productions emanating from that event. 

The fourth section, dealing chiefly with issues of continuity and change, also deals with issues of class, education, nationalism, and internationalism, and the fifth and final section, “Towards the Millennium,” examines literature and literary culture from the last 30 years.  This final section focuses on new opportunities for writing, publication, genre, performance, and experimentation.  It undertakes to explore the vexed “postmodern” signifier while refusing reductive conclusions about that term.   

In general, the book pays particular attention to genre and the construction and representation of literary culture during eras of new technology and shifting social circumstances.  When addressing more recent phenomena of literature and literary criticism, such as anxiety over the term “postmodern,” the book’s closing essays are careful not to “take sides,” so to speak, but to register the complexity of issues and insist that all claims about the contemporary or near-contemporary are provisional and not summative, speculative and not conclusive. 

This ambitious project leaves certain loose ends, as any project of this magnitude must, but it is nevertheless an impressive and meticulous contribution to ongoing and unsettled conversations about twentieth-century British literature.  The sheer number and variety of authors contributing to and represented by this text are so bold and interesting that definitive or comprehensive statements about them are difficult to make.  Suffice it to say that the complexity of this book, and of all of the authors and essays appearing in this book, is in keeping with the complexity of a subject as expansive as twentieth-century British literature.             

 

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