- Travel Writing, 1930s
The 1930s have long been a difficult period for modernist scholars to categorize and assess. While a number of high modernist literary works were published during this tension-filled decade, including Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), William Faulkner's A Light in [End Page 254] August (1932), and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), the majority of advanced literature produced during this era bears only a tenuous relationship to the modernist masterworks of the early 1920s. Indeed, it is now widely recognized that the narratives of rebellion, heroic subjectivity, and formal liberation that have so successfully been used to describe Anglo-American literary modernism in the period just before and after World War I do not adequately explain or help us make sense of this later decade. With the advent of the Great Depression, Stalin's consolidation of power in the Soviet Union, Hitler's seizure of government in Germany, and the prospect of another world war looming on the horizon, global events undermined belief among authors that individual sensibility, craft, or the symbolic ordering of fragmentary experience could compensate for or give meaning to a broken social world. These events also forced writers to engage more closely—and often less confidently—with political and social forces that were widely believed to threaten two of the most important foundations of the modernist movement: private subjectivity and the autonomy of the artist.
By examining the role travel writing played among modernists during the 1930s, David G. Farley joins a growing group of academics who are attempting to reconceptualize how we think about modernism during the decade preceding World War II. Drawing upon the work of Tyrus Miller, Helen Carr, Marina MacKay, and other scholars of late modernism, Farley argues that travel writing is a crucial genre for understanding the evolving aesthetic practices of modernists between the wars. He contends that the emphasis that so many Anglo-American modernists placed on direct perception, interior subjectivity, and formal craft in the heady early days of the modernist revolution underwent a pivotal transformation amidst the political upheavals of the 1930s. As authors such as E. E. Cummings, Wyndham Lewis, and Rebecca West travelled abroad to observe political and social developments that threatened to restrict modernist individualism or ignite a second world war, they developed a heightened awareness of the limitations of eyewitness testimony and of a modernist aesthetic that sought to link precisely described exterior events with internal states of mind. For Farley, this growing skepticism about the value of perceptual immediacy and its formal representation in literature creates a distinctive tension in the works of these authors, one that marks an important, albeit incomplete, shift in focus from "the interiority of subjective experience to the exteriority and new forensics of politics and public life." It also leads these authors, he posits, to be more richly mindful in their [End Page 255] writing of "the way that history prescribes their immediate perceptions and the perceptions of those around them."
Beginning with Ezra Pound, whose frustrations with passport regulations during and after World War I make him a paradigmatic figure in the emerging field of modernist travel studies, and concluding with Rebecca West, whose Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) is among the greatest works of travel literature ever written, Farley reflects on the varied ways in which modernists adapted—sometimes successfully and sometimes not—their experimental styles to the task of reporting about events in remote or distant parts of the world. In his first chapter, Farley examines Pound's Cantos and considers the different roles played by firsthand observation and secondhand testimony in this self-described "poem including history." Pound hated passports and every other form of bureaucratic regulation that hindered the free flow of people and ideas across national borders. In his view, the success of The Cantos, indeed of a modern renaissance more generally, depended not just on making the past intelligible to readers but on making sure that individuals were, in Farley's words, "fully informed of the political events that were transpiring throughout Europe...