restricted access The Good Soldier and the War for British Modernism
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The Good Soldier and the War for British Modernism

War and art, in those days mingled, the features of the latter as stern as—if not sterner than—the former.

—P. Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering

I may really say that for a quarter of a century I have kept before me one unflinching aim—to register my own times in terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are better poets and better prose-writers than myself to have the same aim.

—Ford Madox Ford, Preface to Collected Poems

In spring 1914 Ford Madox Ford (then Ford Madox Hueffer) accepted an invitation to lecture at P. Wyndham Lewis’s new Rebel Art Centre. Dressed in a tailcoat, Ford spoke of artistic practice in past and present London to an audience that Lewis promised would be “interested with the ideas of the great modern revolution in Art” (qtd. in Cork 158). Halfway through the talk a large picture behind Ford broke loose from the wall and crashed over his head. Luckily, explained a witness, “no harm was done since the frame broke[, . . .] leaving the canvas perched harmlessly over Ford’s head.” 1 This quirky event dramatically [End Page 303] unites a number of themes important for understanding the revolution in prewar British modernism and Ford’s unique position in it as observer, actor, and casualty.

Lewis’s “great modern revolution in Art” was defined in terms of its conflict with other competing revolutions. The Rebel Art Centre was conceived and founded after Lewis and some of his associates angrily broke their ties with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop in late 1913, and the sudden violence of one modernist’s art crashing upon another modernist’s head is a splendid image of the hostile relations between different groups of avant-gardists in prewar London. Ford’s appearance in traditional evening wear is remarkable in this bohemian setting and reflects his self-promotion as the artist-editor cosmopolitan who could productively mix “advanced” ideas with tradition. Further, this image of the colorful Rebels surrounding and concussing the conservatively dressed Ford suggests the new movement’s powerful impact on this established novelist at the very moment he worried that his Impressionist style was passé. 2 Of course, this violent baptism did not miraculously convert Ford to Vorticism, but it symbolizes the way aggression between modernist groups put Ford in a position to examine and even break through the frame of his own and other versions of modernism. The painting was Lewis’s own “Plan of War.” Its title not only portends the conflagration of World War I that would soon distract attention from such explosive characters as the Rebel Artists, but also bespeaks the intemperance and vitriol that created a war between modernisms in prewar London.

London’s painters, writers, and critics were at war before 4 August 1914 because art movements had become the vehicles for modernists to identify one another and struggle for cultural capital. 3 The early modernist landscape of Britain was shaped by friction between groups of modernist artists. First, this essay will show that prewar British modernism emerges from the intense conflict between diverging philosophies of modernist practice: on the one hand, an ideal of pure abstraction, and, on the other, the goal of using abstract art to depict the experience of modern life. Second, this essay will show that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier not only emerges from the center of this conflict model of modernism, but also explores the shortcomings of one of its principal camps. I will demonstrate that British modernism emerged from this crucible of strident internal conflict and that [End Page 304] The Good Soldier both bears the marks of that conflict and helps us to understand it.

British Modernism before the War

Artists remembering London between 1910 and 1914 describe a period when modernist ideas moved from obscurity to renown in rowdy, public, sparring matches. Ford’s dedicatory letter to The Good Soldier’s second edition describes the period: “Those were the passionate days of the literary Cubists, Vorticists, Imagistes and the rest of the tapageux and riotous Jeunes of that young...