- Modernism on Fleet Street
Patrick Collier’s engaging book takes on big issues in expanding circles—relations between aesthetic modernism and journalism, modernism and the public sphere, modernism and democracy—grounding them in five case studies that pair an author with a central debate in contemporary journalism. A chapter on T. S. Eliot focuses on “newspapers’ effect on the language as spoken and written” (7); one on Virginia Woolf examines “a crisis of literary evaluation” associated with book reviewing in newspapers (8); the Joyce chapter investigates perceived threats to privacy linked to the press; the penultimate chapter, on Rose Macaulay, analyzes “the capitalist mantra” that the popular press simply gives the public “what it wants” (9); and the last chapter looks at Rebecca West in relation to “the role newspapers can or should play in a democracy” (7). The book is lucidly written and very well researched, drawing on numerous examples of contemporary journalism that even in our digital era are not easily available. Published the same year as Rachel Potter’s Modernism and Democracy,1 Modernism on Fleet Street makes a valuable contribution to recent discussions of modernism and the public sphere as well as to studies of modernism and print culture.
Insofar as Collier is less interested in thinking about the newspaper as a particular kind of cultural object than he is in exploring a wide range of modernist responses to the growing cultural dominance of mass newspapers, his book participates less in recent developments in periodical studies than in the foundational move of the new modernist studies, what Michael North has called the “return to the scene of the modern.”2 In that spirit, Collier calls attention to a key event of 1922, the oft-cited annus mirabilis of Anglo-American [End Page 611] modernism: the death of Alfred Harmsworth, more often referred to as Lord Northcliffe (1), the man whose revolutionary invention of the popular daily newspaper, most notably the Daily Mail in London in 1894, remains with us today in the form of USA Today, the newspaper most likely to remind Joyceans of the fate of Tit-Bits in Leopold Bloom’s outhouse. Indeed, it is this very notion—the mass newspaper as degraded, inescapable, yet also kind of useful—that Collier wishes to open up and complicate in his effective first chapter, which surveys what most British intellectuals perceived as “the crisis in journalism” (11) early in the twentieth century. In ways that recall anxieties aroused by comic books in the 1950s or video games today, sensational tabloid journalism was thought to undermine “the habitual reader’s ability to concentrate” and, therefore, to pose a threat to literature (14); it also became “entangled with a sexually-inflected [sic] fear of consuming women” (25); it threatened to muddle public opinion through debased language and to blur boundaries between public and private. In short, the sky was falling, newspapers were thumping to the ground like frogs at the end of Magnolia,3 splattering filthy bits of modernity everywhere, and many cultural observers, following Matthew Arnold, who coined the pejorative term New Journalism in 1887 to decry the decline of standards he saw exemplified in William Thomas Stead’s the Review of Reviews,4 were worried. And yet, like Bloom, intellectuals wiped their buttocks with what they knew: the mass newspaper was here to stay and was addressed by modernists in diverse ways.
Remaining alive to the multiplicity opened up by scrupulous attention to the archive, Collier is to be commended for not shoe-horning his five modernists into a single master narrative. He does, however, end up telling a certain kind of story, one whose democratic values tend to favor some authors over others. Collier accurately observes that “the journalistic and literary worlds were so intertwined that it was impossible for writers to escape entanglements with the newspaper press” (3–4). Indeed, I would add that it was impossible for anyone to escape such entanglement. When the British government decided in 1915 that it needed to combat German war propaganda, it turned not...