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Peter J. Kalliney. Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. ix + 316 pp.

Literary historians tend to divide twentieth-century literature into two segments: the modernist period that lasts into the 1950s and the postmodernist period that begins in the 1960s. Postcolonial literature supplements these eras by sitting outside of and apart from modernism and only tangentially relating to postmodernism. Postcolonial literature, the story goes, fully integrates itself into metropolitan literature in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to become the prevailing one-world concept of global Anglophone literature. Peter J. Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters suggests otherwise. In a major contribution to rethinking the relation of metropolitan modernist and late colonial and postcolonial literature, Kalliney examines London’s post-World War II cultural institutions of publishing, broadcasting, and cultural canonization. In presenting an impressive array of archival evidence, he argues that though the prewar institutions of modernism had worked to consolidate imperialism and empire, they changed their tactics in the postwar era by collaborating with late colonial writers, especially those who deployed modernist aesthetics in their writing. The result of which, Kalliney states, was to enhance London’s prestige as a cultural center even after Britain was stripped of most of its colonies. Rather than seeing the rise of global Anglophone literature as occurring in the last decades of the twentieth century, Kalliney demonstrates that it was [End Page 185] modernism with its emphasis on aesthetic autonomy that paved the way for global Anglophone literature.

In saying this, Kalliney is not claiming that the institutions of modernism simply appropriated postcolonial writing. Rather, in a finely historicized account, modernism emerges in the 1950s as a collaborative endeavor between metropolitan elites and late colonial intellectuals partial to both modernist aesthetics and anti-imperialist politics. Kalliney begins his study with the iconic 1942 BBC photograph featuring modernists T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, and William Empson intermixed with colonial writers and cultural workers Una Marson, Mulk Raj Anand, M. J. Tambimuttu, Narayana Menon, and others. The overseas programs of the BBC, of course, were designed to foster colonial loyalty to empire, and its elite cultural programming, Kalliney notes, was intended to smooth over political differences. An important element of this highbrow impartiality was the inclusion of colonial artists in BBC programming. This scene, and others like it, is often read as an image of modernist artists’ condescending patronage toward colonial parvenus. But Kalliney documents the need felt by modernist cultural workers to combat modernism’s highbrow image as effete and apolitical. Late colonial and postcolonial writers brought a sense of urgency and political effectiveness paradoxically to the very disinterested nature of autonomous aesthetics.

Moving from Matthew Arnold and F. R. Leavis to C. L. R. James, Kalliney finds surprising affinities between British elites and late colonial and postcolonial writers. Rereading Arnold as a precursor of modernist aesthetics, Kalliney argues that Arnold not only believed in the high cultural ideal of disinterestedness, but, given his ethnic typecasting of British subjects as either Hebraic or Hellenic, he also imagined “high culture as a product of racial frisson, the unpredictable result of ethnic competition and cooperation” (15). In particular, it is the minority or alien artist, as later depicted by Leavis, who is in the best position to produce disinterested intellectual work. Moving forward to James’s Beyond a Boundary, which posits the sport of cricket as an aesthetic practice, Kalliney provocatively suggests that we should turn James’s observations of cricket on its head, asking “what would it mean if art—if intellectual work more generally—could be described as an intricate form of play, an expressive practice with highly developed rules governing the spirit of the competition?” (22). Art in this guise becomes a competitive spectacle in which sporting personalities represent their constituency to the world at large while also performing according to the autonomous rules of artistic practice. Kalliney formulates a delicate balance between aesthetics and politics. Here, in late empire, disinterested aesthetics “infused with the logic of racial competition” can invoke the Greek ideal of democratic society [End Page 186] that was legitimated through competitive sporting spectacle (23). This genealogy of aesthetic autonomy allows Kalliney to investigate the specifically literary meanings of racial comparison that, he says, “often speak more to the racial dynamics of a narrow artistic milieu, where white and black writers could imagine a zone of autonomous cultural practices, and often speak less clearly on the general problem of racial conflict in a decolonizing world” (258). Kalliney is careful not to downplay these larger problems, but he argues that these sharper political questions were often bracketed in the interest of art.

Kalliney grants the fragility of this collaboration, noting that it was a short-lived time (1930–70) when high modernist principles spread through the Commonwealth and beyond. It began to falter even earlier with the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, and growing racial hostility throughout the decade. Stronger militancy in postcolonial and minority struggles also contributed to the increase in cultural separatism, but in the interim, an emphasis on liberal arts education and aesthetic autonomy were often the single thread of hope offered amid failed national development, according to Kalliney’s reading of Ayi Kwei Armah’s Teacher in The Beautyful Ones, Chinua Achebe’s Odili in Man of the People, and Teacher in Ngűgi̋ wa Thiong'o’s The River Between. He concludes his study with two organizations. The first is the Caribbean Arts Movement (CAM)—begun in 1966 and ending in 1972—a loosely organized, independent organization that was strongly supportive of artistic autonomy and the defense of black culture. The second is the Booker Prize, founded in 1968 and dedicated to commerce and the spectacle of high-stakes, high-visibility single-author victory. In selecting these two entities, Kalliney notes the latter’s undisputed ascendance that fully institutionalizes ethnic competition but abandons any pretense to aesthetic autonomy.

Kalliney follows a sociology of literature approach to his topic that allows him to cover a huge swathe of literary history: from the writings of Arnold and Leavis to James, Nancy Cunard, Claude McKay, Ezra Pound, the Windrush Generation, Ngűgi̋, Amos Tutuola, Jean Rhys, Achebe, Tayeb Salih, T. M. Aluko, Armah, and others. He covers key cultural institutions instrumental in shaping postcolonial literature: the BBC, the Heinemann African Writers Series, and Faber and Faber, which discovered and marketed Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard and reinvented Rhys as a postcolonial writer. For such a wide history, it is remarkable that Kalliney is able to keep aesthetic modernism in sight and even to offer some close readings of texts. At moments the sociological evidence is fairly scant: for instance, McKay’s refusal to contribute to Cunard’s Negro anthology without payment allows for some wide generalizations about black writers. [End Page 187] But these slight concerns should in no way detract from the merits of this ambitious, well-written, and extremely timely contribution that Commonwealth of Letters makes to debates about the future of postcolonial literature, the rise of global literature, and the role that modernism has played in these developments. [End Page 188]

Laura Winkiel
University of Colorado, Boulder