- British Culture at Mid-Century:Wartime Writing and Intermodernism
Mid-twentieth-century British culture has long been underappreciated and under-analyzed. Falling into the chronological and taxonomical gap between modernism and postmodernism, the writers of the 1930s and 40s have received only scant critical attention compared to the canonical figures of high modernism or the generation that appeared on the scene after the Second World War and the end of the British Empire. The three studies considered here participate in a broader effort to fill in the blank spaces of literary scholarship by turning our attention to a singular moment in British cultural history, when the creative energies of modernism were being rerouted into alternative modes of cultural production, especially those emerging in response to wartime experience. In this effort, the volumes join other significant recent studies, including Jed Esty's A Shrinking Island, Marina McKay's Modernism and World War II, and Bluemel's own George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics, to map the [End Page 258] central terrain of twentieth-century British cultural history in all its variety and complexity. Despite the emergence of an immensely powerful mass media and culture industry dedicated to unifying the British people around the war effort, the period witnessed the rise of other forms of expression that contested widely held notions about national identity and the nature of war. Together, the present studies vividly demonstrate that rather than presenting a lull in creative activity, the years of heightened political tension, global warfare, and imperial decline coincide with a remarkable cultural boom. It is not surprising, given the tumult of the war years, that each volume also gives ample attention to the historical forces that attended this cultural boom, viewing literature alongside propaganda filmmaking, sociological investigation, military strategy, war crimes prosecution, and a host of other contextual matters. In doing so, they cover a broad field of cultural production and open that field to further scholarly exploration, opposing the conventional critical wisdom that the war initiated a cultural decline that continued through the end of the 1940s.
Kristine Miller's British Literature of the Blitz, for instance, sets out to challenge prevailing historical accounts of the so-called People's War, which have assumed that a coherent nationalist ideology united the British home front during the Nazi bombing campaign. In this revisionist project, Miller contributes to a new wave of historical scholarship that has begun to recognize the diversity of responses to the Blitz and the important influence of class relations and gender roles on those responses. She finds evidence of this diversity not only in literary representations of wartime experience, ranging from the innovative texts of Elizabeth Bowen and Henry Green to the genre fiction of Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, but also in popular film and personal testimony. In fact, Miller concludes her study with an entire chapter on the Blitz-era cinema, addressing movies such as The Gentle Sex, Millions Like Us, and In Which We Serve, because their popularity demonstrated "the wartime British public's willingness to pay for films that were willing to question and experiment with the ideology of the People's War" (162). Throughout the study, the diaries and questionnaires of the Mass Observation project, gathered from thousands of British civilians beginning in the late thirties and now archived at the University of Sussex's Special Collections, prove an invaluable resource for this brand of cultural history, as indeed they do for each of the studies considered here. Miller's volume, in particular, makes ample use of the materials in order to demonstrate the range of responses to a radically new kind of civilian experience, commencing an important scholarly effort by giving a number of testimonies "the literary critical attention they deserve" (4).
Another important resource for all three studies is the writing of...