- Modernism, History and the First World War
A book bearing this title makes a number of large claims. If modernism retains any consensus understanding, we may assume at least that the artists grouped under this heading [End Page 173] share not just a common chronological situation in the present century but a self-conscious awareness of their modernity, i.e., a profound and enabling sense of difference from what has gone before. No more sharply marked a watershed in the history of modern consciousness exists, it easily may be argued, than the line the Great War of 1914–1918 drew. The attempt to situate modernism in its originating or characterizing moment is, moreover, relatively new, although a number of valuable studies on the literature of the war exist. Of these the best known are Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Samuel Hynes’s A War Imagined, where the critical focus falls mainly on writings not ostensibly modernist: it is the Edwardian and Georgian sensibility at war, in the agon and pathos of its dying, that Fussell and Hynes so eloquently record. The one work of reference within the purview of Trudi Tate’s book seems to be Modris Eckstein’s The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, but there the concern lies mainly in the role a continental avant-garde played in shaping early (even antecedent) imaginative responses to the war. The modernism Tate is trying to account for lies instead in a more narrowly drawn configuration: a literature of Anglo-American modernism, generated in response to a specifically (mainly) British experience of the war. In this context the subjects she clusters within her title promise a consideration as urgent as it is novel. What is the difference World War I made to the insular cultus in which the literature of early English modernism flourished? What record of the shift in consciousness that the war will have afforded does this writing preserve—and augment?
These are questions to be set against the modernist fiction to which Tate directs her attention, in particular to the short stories and novels of H. D. and Ford Madox Ford, D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and to several of the war memoirists. In her account the consciousness of these writers is pitched in a verbal medium of mass deceit, a public culture of propaganda. While an openness to these (relatively) new conditions marks the really new thing she might label modernist, these circumstances are brought to bear only—and revealingly, in terms of Tate’s own approach—in prose. For this writing, it turns out in Tate’s account, can only reproduce its originating conditions; it is as though there needed to be some consonance of genre or mode between the products of the War Information Office and those of literary modernism. Thus modernist fiction features an imaginative consciousness awash in a tide of prose verbiage, of untruths ranging from the casual euphemism to the concerted and far-reaching deception, to the bloody lie, but coinciding all in all with the formulations of its only possible literary response—in prose. Which is to say: there is an echoing or duplicating function here that circumscribes the efforts and import of any imaginative rewriting. Poetry is wholly omitted from her consideration, and while the absence is not adequately explained, the reason is evident in the line of inquiry on her chosen authors. With the very shift in genre, it seems, poetry gains an agency Tate must otherwise abjure.
While this restriction is potentially interesting from a theoretical or ideological standpoint, it is not accompanied by the requisite degree of intellectual self-consciousness to make it count. And so this denial of imaginative agency ends up being a ramifying absence. Nothing is made of the effect of propaganda and mass deception on the contours of the language with which these authors necessarily work. Nothing literary comes in this account of the massive reengineering of the credibility of prose...