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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War
  • John McIntyre
Sarah Cole. Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. vii + 297 pp.

Sarah Cole's trenchant reading of modernism's investment in male friendship productively reorients discussions begun by Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory) and Joanna Bourke (Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War). While earlier discussions such as these have argued for the centrality of male bonds to the literary and historical imagination of wartime Britain, Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War reveals that the "organization of male intimacy" played a constitutive role in the formation of modernism itself. Cutting across an impressive range of fictional material and cultural contexts, Cole shows how writers as diverse as Forster, Sassoon, and Lawrence responded to the reconfiguration of male friendships—and the institutions that had fostered them—in the years of modernism's emergence. Throughout her study, Cole emphasizes the ubiquity of the bereft individual who reels from the loss of friendship and its cultural support systems. Indeed, in one of the most compelling features of her argument, Cole returns us to modernism's familiar associations with notions of fragmentation, loss, and alienation, seeing them as the "excavated" remains of "lost male comradeship" (122).

For Cole, male friendship in the modernist era is beleaguered because of its detachment from the various institutions in which it had been codified and safeguarded. Nineteenth-century educational networks—with their frequent appeals to Hellenic homosocial bonds, the increasingly fraught project of empire-building, and long-standing [End Page 773] militaristic codes of masculinity and comradeship, all falter under the combined pressure of internal contradictions and the shifting of male alliances that no longer conform to institutional imperatives. While some might see this waning of organizational power as a vindication of modernism's sometimes neglected liberatory politics, Cole argues for the disorienting effects of foundational shifts that leave in their wake a series of disempowered and disconnected individuals. The irony, readily evident in the cultural contexts explored by Cole, is that the only thing that institutions and uncoupled male pairings have in common in this period of crisis is their shared failures to live up to Forster's famous dictum to "only connect."

As its title indicates, Cole's study coalesces around an examination of the fate of culturally sanctioned male formations during the First World War. Unable to withstand the debilitating violence of the war, what are now hopelessly shattered male friendships live on only in the form of the grief-stricken soldier who returns home only to have his voice appropriated by a modernism eager to legitimate its claims for a hollowed out and alienated image of modernity. But unlike many before her, Cole does not return us to a "rupture model" of understanding the war's place within the modern imagination. Rather, the depletion of homosocial bonds was ushered in slowly, beginning in at least the middle of the nineteenth century, and continuing to unfold long after the war, as Cole's concluding chapter on D. H. Lawrence's fiction makes clear. The war itself simply intensified the fractures of an already incommensurable relationship between male intimates and the institutions in which they might take cover. Such a nuanced approach forms part of a larger and much-welcomed effort to revise our understanding of modernism's emergence from its literary and cultural antecedents, here understood through the slow and painful decline of various Victorian bastions of male intimacy. Cole's analysis thus attends not only to more familiar transitional figures like Forster and Oscar Wilde, but also to the more marginal voices of Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds. So linked, such figures become important precursors, even protomodernists, for their uneasy sense of the incapacity of institutional structures to house homosocial bonds in an era of increasingly divided and fraught male loyalties. By the same token, Cole's analysis of Romance, an underappreciated collaborative novel written by Conrad and Ford Madox Ford in 1903 stands as one of the volume's finest achievements.

The volume will be of special value to those interested in reevaluations of modernism...


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