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  • Edward Upward, W.H. Auden, and the Rhetorical Victories of Communism
  • Benjamin Kohlmann (bio)

According to a particularly influential critical account, the politicized literature of the 1930s was dominated by a small number of literary groups or coteries. The seeming pre-eminence of one such group led to the decade's writers being collectively labelled, by Samuel Hynes and others, the "Auden generation."1 Of course, this tendency has not gone uncontradicted and some of the best recent criticism on the politicized writing of the 1930s has been committed to revising the view of the decade as one presided over by only a handful of poets. The opening salvo in this revision of the canon was fired by Valentine Cunningham who drew attention to the vast field of cultural production that was being eclipsed by the myth of the Auden generation. Cliquishness, according to Cunningham, "cemented the Old Boys together just as [it] helped keep them in their Permanent Adolescence. The 'pylon boys' [ . . . ] had their own private corner in communizing solidarity."2 The mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that underwrite the canonization of certain thirties authors and the non-canonization of many others have been nowhere more severely at work than in the case of Edward Upward, a writer who (unlike countless of his more famous and more cautious literary confrères) joined the Communist Party in 1932.3 For much of the decade, Upward was idolized by other poets and prose-writers, including W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day Lewis. All of these authors later admitted that Upward (and the comparatively slim body of work which he produced over the course of the decade) had had a formative influence on their politicized writing. Mainly because of his political orientation, "Allen Chalmers," the pseudonym which Isherwood, Spender, [End Page 287] and John Lehmann used to refer to Upward in their memoirs, has become the iconic "case history" of thirties literature.4 The creation of Upward's alter ego formed part of the much-cited habit of thirties writers to "mythologise themselves as they lived and wrote," and the role carved out for Upward (mostly on the grounds of his doctrinaire 1937 "Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature") was that of the Communist hardliner - a semi-fictitious figure onto whom fellow-writers could project their fears about going over to the CP and whom they could later use to exorcize their own guilt at having sympathized with Stalinist Russia.5 When Communism became unmentionable after the Second World War, so did Upward.

Stephen Spender, in his autobiography World within World (1951), famously recalled his astonishment at discovering that "just as Auden seemed to us the highest peak within the range of our humble vision [ . . . ], for Auden there was another peak, namely Isherwood, whilst for Isherwood there was a still further peak, Chalmers."6 Spender's metaphor achieves a paradoxical double effect: it places Upward both at the heart of the 1930s and on its extreme periphery, moving him to its centre while also relegating him to its remote literary hinterland. It is a central paradox of Upward's reputation that his artistic voice has often only been heard obliquely through the literary works of Isherwood and, at a second remove, of Auden. Upward was aware of his contradictory position with regard to the decade. His acute sense of being near the centre of the 1930s' literary stage and of being at once strangely absent from it invites a re-examination of the critical narrative which uses Upward's name as a shorthand for the failed political projects of the decade and which consequently denies him the serious critical attention he deserves.

The tremendous sea changes in Upward's reputation as a literary writer are symptomatic of the critical reception of the politicized writing of the 1930s. Much of the decade's politically radical literature was celebrated by left-wing writers and critics as revolutionary and artistically progressive in the 1930s, and was then decried by subsequent critics as aesthetically conservative, ethically questionable, or simply unimaginative and dull. This essay focuses on the relationship between Upward and Auden in the early 1930s, and it does so in...


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