restricted access British Writers of the Thirties (review)
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Reviewed by
Valentine Cunningham. British Writers of the Thirties. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 530 pp. $64.00.

I wanted, very much, to like this book. Its publication crowns Cunningham as the '30s expert, and the book is superb in its coverage—but perhaps an instance of when less would be more. His purpose is to provide "interpretations of central texts of the period, not in linguistic isolation, but in the contexts—social, political, historical, ideological, personal—in which they were actually written." Certainly an admirable task at which Cunningham more than succeeds: 486 pages of text, seven of notes, a twenty-eight page working bibliography (covering authors' bibliographies, period anthologies and criticism, political texts, art, film, religion, cultural studies, to name just a few), and a twenty-four page index. Everything one might look for is here.

But this coverage is also the problem. In trying to consider everything, nothing is particularly developed, and ties often seem either loose or forced as if the motivation were to mention rather than to illuminate. Cunningham constantly fights the battle between describing '30s literature and interpreting it, and too often he loses. For example, a seven-page look at detective stories—who wrote them, who was good, how Eliot categorized them, and so forth, is to what end? To be told that "the detective's real helplessness . . . makes just one more instance of that '30s sense of being enclosed in and by the destructive element" is no answer. Are detectives the point or the example? The tendency to catalogue information is the critical quicksand in such comprehensive texts, and Cunningham is often sucked under.

There is much here to admire, however, and there are new emphases, if not insights. The book is useful, for instance, in drawing attention to social/historical backgrounds of various period symbols, icons, and metaphors. Cunningham has also rescued many who might otherwise have been lost, pointing out how the label of "the Auden generation" effectively dismisses novelists, women, and the nature of Leftism from consideration, and how the period has in fact very shaky boundaries, encompassing "at least three literary generations." He provides more discussion of homosexual preoccupations and literature than earlier critical studies, noting how the tendency toward cliquishness among writers was reinforced by homosexuality and how homosexual interests meant that heterosexuality, women, and family interests were neglected in the works of the time whereas the importance of boys, dislike of mothers, and old school ties were emphasized.

There is, however, another problem. Has clean, smooth prose gone the way of the dodo? Cunningham is often difficult to read. Besides an annoying tendency to use dumped quotations and to omit documentation, he is all too fond of constructions such as:

And if separate poems and novels lack the tidily unproblematic boundaries and edges that Matthew Arnold imagined when he talked of 'seeing the object as in itself it really is'—and my whole supposition about contexts declares that the borders of a text are indeed fluid, [End Page 700] messy, not fixed: as Freud believed dreams to be (their thoughts interminable, ohne Abschluss, branching out on all sides, entangled complexly in the whole world of our thoughts), or as Derrida believes all textual edges to be ('the text overruns all limits assigned to it')—how much more fluid and difficult to trace out must a 'period' of textuality and (con)textuality be.

This example is one of the briefer selections.

Cunningham's conceptualization and scholarship are of the highest quality, but his execution and delivery are somewhat less man desirable. I can't recommend the book for individuals, but as a reference work it certainly should be in every research library. It is a marvelous book for consulting, rather man reading, and I heartily recommend it as such.

Lisa M. Schwerdt
University of North Alabama