- At Midcentury:Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day
If underestimation of the midcentury persists in twentiethcentury literary scholarship, then that underestimation has been licensed in part by the powerful hold of modernism and postmodernism as heuristic and period frames for the century’s writing.1 A powerful hold, but not an intractable one. As the archive of Modernism/modernity alone now evidences, modernist scholarship of the past two decades has reassessed just what modernism was, just when modernism happened, and just how modernism worked (what institutions, technologies, and networks facilitated it). In literary criticism, the important project of overhauling received notions of modernism now underwrites a discourse of what I call “modified modernisms,” in which temporal modifiers such as “late,” “midcentury,” the capacious “new,” and, most recently, the prefix “inter-” extend modernism’s heuristic and historical reach.2 This modernist creep forward into and beyond World War II attests to how the assumptions and priorities of modernism still structure our thinking about the immediate postwar period. For reading the midcentury, the limitation of the modified modernisms is that this central period remains valued, if at all, primarily for its extensions of or elegies for modernism.
In contrast to this periodizing trend, midcentury writers across nations, generations, genres, and lines of political and aesthetic affiliation routinely described their epoch as an artistic and historical nucleus. Suspended self-consciously at the chronological middle of a century already defined by two global wars and only recently exposed to a nuclear future, the period bore what Wallace Stevens called “the weight of primary noon” (1947).3 Writers and readers conceived of themselves as living [End Page 125] through The Heat of the Day, as Elizabeth Bowen titled the key midcentury novel on which this essay focuses.
Though it is most often read as a war novel, The Heat of the Day (1948) thinks in the terms of the midcentury, when no term was more prevalent than “midcentury” itself. Both of those claims might well provoke immediate challenges. First, what does it mean to say that The Heat of the Day, set during World War II, thinks about and in the terms of the midcentury? In short, it means that the novel mines the idea of the middle; further, it means that the novel’s “middleness” is in keeping with a deep investment in being in the middle of the century that, we will see, suffused transatlantic public and literary culture of the postwar period. Next, why is it meaningful to attend to the prevalence of “midcentury” thinking at midcentury? Alongside other keywords typically associated with the immediate postwar period—among them, “cold war,” “communism,” “totalitarianism,” “containment,” and “atomic”—“midcentury” seems anodyne. At one level, it is. The term simply names the time. Yet “midcentury” also did and, I would argue, should continue to do, substantive cultural work. It is a keyword in the Raymond Williams sense: “midcentury” appears routinely “in discussions and arguments which [are] rushing by to some other destination,” such as modernism.4 One aim of this essay is to suggest that we pause instead of “rushing by,” and figure out what thought the word “midcentury” holds.
The Heat of the Day is thus taken here to indicate a crucial need to reconsider “midcentury” thinking and writing itself. The novel requires, and rewards, a reading that resists the tendency to think of texts of the middle of the twentieth century through the terms of either a waning late modernism or a waxing postmodernism. The novel requires a reading that credits what I describe as the over-determined “middleness” that suffuses it. For the purposes of introduction, consider one indicative passage from the novel. Bowen’s protagonist, Stella Rodney, is an upper-middle-class Londoner and a sophisticated divorcée. When she visits the suburban family home of her lover, Robert Kelway, in the fall of 1942, her reaction has a tinge of easy cosmopolitan dismissal about it. Snobbery notwithstanding, this family confounds Stella. Once she might have called the Kelways “middle-class English”; now even that handiest of labels does not quite apply. In this encounter, Bowen’s characteristically indeterminate syntax only underlines Stella’s uncertainty about...