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Modernist studies has embarked on a significant reinvention of itself as a field, emphasizing a range of plural, alternative modernisms that challenge Eurocentric narratives of aesthetic diffusion, underscore the increasing importance of the transnational, and situate modernism within a more comparative global framework. Genevieve Abravanel’s Americanizing Britain demonstrates that part of this revisionary gesture involves a reexamination of how a variety of canonical authors encode British anxieties about the emergent “American Age,” troubling “conceptions of Britain’s imperial scope and what it meant to have or to be an empire” (3). Abravanel suggests that by viewing British modernism in this transatlantic framework, “it is possible to move beyond the familiar pairing of metropole and colony to suggest that British imperial anxieties not only emerged within the geographic bounds of empire but were also roused by the idea of the United States” (5), emphasizing that the postcolonial has always been at the heart and center of Anglo-American modernism. Throughout the study, Abravanel offers compelling new readings of Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bowen, Evelyn Waugh, F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot, and others, considering their texts in relation to the rise of the “American Entertainment Empire,” including jazz, American talkies, and Hollywood film.
The first chapter takes up transatlantic fictions through a series of what Abravanel calls “Ameritopias,” or “texts that imagine the future through America” (25). These texts “work through a shared problematic, one that leads them to imagine the future of Britain and the world in reaction to American imperial, technological, and cultural developments.” These Ameritopias are, quite ironically, “not primarily about America, at least not in the most literal sense,” but [End Page 405] rather “about Britain and England, Britishness and Englishness, and their imaginative production through and against the idea of the United States” (26). Abravanel begins by exploring Rudyard Kipling’s insistence that the United States was merely a weaker and immature Britain against H. G. Well’s longing for a “United States of Everywhere.” The chapter also revisits Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) to argue that the text “not only indicts aspects of American culture, or of a world culture inexorably coming to resemble American culture, but also invents a version of Englishness in resistance” (42). The chapter closes with an extended analysis of a 1938 essay Virginia Woolf wrote for Cosmopolitan in which she “is able simultaneously to ironize British tendencies to transatlantic contrast and to exploit them for their revelatory power in providing a new picture of what Britain may become” (45).
The second and third chapters examine the rapid and transformative influx of jazz and Hollywood cinema into Britain throughout the 1920s and 1930s. As opposed to an earlier British model of colonial occupation, this “American Entertainment Empire easily trespassed territorial borders,” serving as “the ambassador of a broad system of Fordist capitalism” (86). As a consequence, these two imports embodied America’s emergent cultural hegemony. Abravanel argues that jazz became a “metaphor for the modernization of England. . . . it was precisely because jazz invoked so many competing discourses—art and entertainment, whiteness and blackness, England and America—that it served this end so well” (55). This cultural history sets the stage for perceptive readings of jazz in W. H Auden, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Bowen. Turning toward cinema, Abravanel doesn’t simply recount the rise of Hollywood’s global influence, but rather considers “how British elites told the story of the Entertainment Empire as a means to make sense of their own place in the world” (88). She specifically investigates how these accounts “implicated racial ideology, suggesting that the Americans might take control of the meaning of whiteness,” thus prompting “grim announcements of colonization in reverse, long before the post-World War II period with which such images are most often associated” (87). The chapter includes an extended focus on the film journal Close Up, run by H. D., Bryher, and Kenneth Macpherson, to investigate how anxieties about American cinema catalyzed...