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A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (review)
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Reviewed by
Jed Esty. A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. x + 285 pp.

Periods of national transition, however broadly considered, have drawn the most attention from historically minded literary scholars. For Jed Esty's A Shrinking Island, the transitional moment is between 1930 and 1960, the era of Britain's "late imperialism." Through his reading of the canonical modernist Four Quartets as well as minor works by major writers such as E. M. Forster's "Abinger Pageant," Esty argues that their renewals of a specifically English national culture reflect the "potential energy" of a contracting empire (8). In addition to literary texts, Esty also considers how the belletristic and economic writings of John Maynard Keynes at one end of the period and the nascent British cultural studies of Raymond Williams, Robert Hoggart, and E. P. Thompson at the other were intellectual attempts to manage the released sociocultural energy.

Esty first introduces the concept of the "anthropological turn" through which English intellectuals reintegrated their national culture in the wake of imperial disintegration. The anthropological turn retreats from what Raymond Williams called the "metropolitan perception," which locates not only the temporal power of the empire within an urban nexus but also the spiritual and ideological displacement of its colonial possessions (3). An important idea introduced in the first chapter, "Modernism and Metropolitan Perception," is that late modernist texts "introduced a moment of shaped time from the resources of national culture" opposed to the "occult or apocalyptic temporalities" set against "mere mechanical time" by high modernist [End Page 690] works (50). The narrowing of the spatial aperture of metropolitan perception leads to an increased focus on the national significance of time as opposed to its transformative, revolutionary potential.

An analysis of literary representations of the pageant-play in the 1930s composes the second chapter. Esty traces the history of the pageant-play from Louis-Napoleon Parker's founding of it in 1905 to its late modernist revisioning in John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance and Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts. Esty quotes Parker in a moment of lucid introspection: "A properly conducted pageant should be designed to kill the modernising spirit" (59). Separate sections of the chapter analyze how T. S. Eliot's The Rock and Charles Williams's Descent into Hell represent the pageant as historical stasis. The bathetic yet sublime epiphanies of Arthur's sword and the tench within the grail in Powys's novel suggest an ironic awareness of what Esty later calls "the domestication of the quest romance" (117), a point that could have been explored in more detail. And Woolf's Between the Acts, with its focus on the "anthropological scene of ritual" (104), mediates the movement from rationalist psyche to irrational myth through specific attention to national culture and place.

The third chapter reads Eliot's intellectual progression through the 1930s as symptomatic of "modernism's English end" (108). Esty places Eliot within an antidiasporic revival in British thought during the 1930s. Before discussing how Four Quartets uses the contraction of imperial space to redeem a kairotic moment, Esty returns to Charles Williams, whose War in Heaven is compared to Mary Butts's Armed with Madness and the work of fellow Inkling J. R. R. Tolkien as attempts to reenchant the national spirit. Both The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes towards a Definition of Culture depict how Eliot sought to transcend the revivalist elements through the spiritual unification of British national culture. The final section, " Four Quartets and the Chronotope of Englishness," provides a close reading of the four poems within the framework outlined before and provokes with unexpected descriptions of Eliot's "gnostic classicism" and his awareness of "converging destinies of poet and nation within a panoramic double-helix model of time" (159).

In "Becoming Minor," the book's final chapter, Esty analyzes Keynes's intellectual trajectory and how it mirrors developments within English national culture. He charts how the movement from "colonial periphery to domestic economy" affected the development of Keynes's arguments against deflationary orthodoxy and the later interventionist model outlined in A General Theory of Unemployment (174). We learn that...