- Modernism and World War II
Marina MacKay’s Modernism and World War II can be disappointing to the reader with preconceived ideas about how literary scholarship should be written. First of all, the slightly misleading title was the source of a major disappointment for me: neither modernism nor World War II belongs exclusively to a single national literature; however, MacKay’s title does not give any indication of the fact that her study is restricted to modernism and World War II in Britain. Secondly, while historicist approaches to literary texts have become commonplace lately, MacKay takes it to a new level as her book is really a cultural/literary history of Britain during the war. Despite these initial disappointments, the book pleasantly surprises the reader who is willing to take it for what it is: a refreshing addition to the scholarship of the period, largely due to MacKay’s wide-ranging coverage of cultural material that includes, in addition to literary texts, newspaper editorials, journals articles, propaganda movies, memoirs, diaries, and letters.
The last sentence of MacKay’s introduction confesses that this “is a study of public modernism: it aims to reinstate the complexity of mid-century British culture; it charts the depth, and attempts to measure the impact, of the late modernist engagement of it” (21). This is exactly where the strength of the book lies: through insightful discussion of the ample cultural material produced especially during the early stages of the war when Britain lived under the daily threat of an imminent Nazi invasion, MacKay successfully delivers her expressed purpose of demonstrating “the complexity of mid-century British culture.” However, this is not the main thesis of the book. MacKay states at the beginning of her introduction: “the end of modernism signifies [End Page 445] both its realization and its dissolution. Vindicated, certainly, but melancholy in its vindication, the mood of late modernism in England resembles the watershed event that it recorded: the Second World War, too, was both a win and a winding up” (1). This is a promising thesis, though the book is not completely successful in delivering it, partially because it takes it for granted that modernism did end in 1945. There is not sufficient discussion, either in the introduction or in the following individual chapters, as to why the study of modernism should be limited to this period. The occasional references to the postwar settlement that revolutionized the traditional structure of British society are indirect and not compelling enough to convince the reader that, having accomplished its raison d’être, modernism was ready to be supplanted by new modes in Britain.
After placing her study within the larger context of modernism and expressing the need for it to fill the void in the existing scholarship on modernism, MacKay moves on to discuss the wartime works of Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, T. S. Eliot, Henry Green, and Evelyn Waugh in as many chapters. These individual chapters convincingly present the argument that these writers, previously considered cultural dissidents, assumed “concessionary” political stances in relation to World War II due to the fact that they “were unmistakably public figures around the Second World War” (13). Yet, the book does not present an overall argument as to the selection of these particular writers to the exclusion of others (George Orwell, for example, is cited throughout the book, but not given his own chapter). On the other hand, the argument that the chapter on Henry Green “offers to suture the expedient ruptures of the course catalogue” (19) is not compelling enough to convince me that Green deserves a whole chapter in a book dedicated to the study of late modernist writers.
In terms of the methodology MacKay employs, the book can be considered either an accomplishment or a failed attempt, depending on the stance of the reader. MacKay is successful in putting texts into their proper historical contexts: for example, in chapter 1, she analyzes Woolf’s turn from adamant internationalism to nostalgic national heritage between the publication of Three Guineas and the writing of Between the Acts as reflected in...