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  • The New Age and the Emergence of Reactionary Modernism Before the Great War
  • Charles Ferrall (bio)

It is well known that the New Age played a vital role in the dissemination of literary modernism and post-Impressionist art in Britain before the First World War. Of the three main polemicists of early modernism—T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis—Hulme wrote almost exclusively for the magazine, Pound wrote a large proportion of his criticism for its pages and Lewis, who described the New Age in 1914 as "one of the only good papers in the country" ("Letter" 319), published some of his early stories in the paper and used its correspondence columns to lash out at his opponents, real or imagined.

But despite its lively interest in such pre-war movements as Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, Cubism, and Expressionism, the New Age was a paper primarily concerned not with contemporary developments in art and literature, but with politics. Although historians of Edwardian Britain are well acquainted with the fact that the New Age played an important role in pre-war British politics, very little has actually been written about the paper. John Finlay, an historian of the Social Credit movement, maintains that historians have "neglected" the journal because its politics are "so hard to categorize" (83). Rather than attempting any categorization himself, Finlay concludes that "the paper was sui generis , a judgment which would have appealed to its editor," Alfred Orage (83). Similarly, Wallace Martin, the main literary historian of the New Age , attributes the paper's mercurial politics to its writers' independence from existing political parties and factions. Martin argues that the readership of "the first Socialist weekly in London" (The New Age 5) was comprised mainly of an "intelligentsia" [End Page 653] with no particular class or political affiliations (The New Age 8). According to Martin, therefore, the New Age was "independent and neutral with respect to the heterogeneous collection of organizations that then constituted the political left" (Orage as Critic 7 ).

Contrary to the assumptions of Martin and other historians, I will argue that the New Age was not "neutral" toward the "political left" but actively hostile. Thus if there is any connection between the anti-leftist politics of the paper and the aesthetics of its modernist writers, then we need to reassess the widely held assumption that writers and artists such as Lewis and Pound only became politicized as a result of their response to the First World War. Movements such as Vorticism and Imagism were, I will argue, both part of and influenced by a larger reactionary political culture whose relationship to early modernism remains largely unexplored by literary historians.

The New Age was founded in the year following the landslide victory of the Liberals and their new Labour allies in the 1906 general election. Initially, Orage and the other founding editor, Holbrook Jackson, supported the new government and its progressive and radical allies; after all, both men had been members of the Fabian Society, a political movement which advocated the gradual institution of socialism by means of parliamentary legislation. But by 1911, Orage was criticising the Labour Party for its "flunkey-like dependence upon the Liberal Party" (12 Oct. 1911: 554) and calling upon "Socialists" to boycott elections (8 June 1911: 342). As well as claiming that there was very little ideological difference within parliament between the Tories, Liberals, and Labour, Orage also attacked the institution of parliamentary democracy. At the same time as he was calling for a general strike, Orage was trumpeting: "Down with the Tricolour; by which you understand that I mean the three-headed dog of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" ("Down with the Tricolour" 489).

Orage's hatred of liberal democracy and its institutions derived partly from his antipathy toward a series of legislative reforms which became known as the "New Liberalism." Essentially, this legislation—which provided for a system of health and unemployment insurance—represented a shift by the Liberal Party away from a nineteenth century ideology of laissez-faire toward a position which recognized the need for the State to take a more active role in ameliorating the conditions of the working class (Hay). For those associated...


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