- Immodernist Midcenturies
In recent years, the new modernist studies has helped to generate a welcome swell of critical interest in literature of the mid-twentieth century. The most recent complete volume of Modernism/modernity, for example, includes seven articles whose titles announce a focus on the midcentury period, however precisely or loosely the period is defined by reference to historical condition (e.g. “postwar”) or chronology (e.g. “at midcentury,” “1955”). The umbrella of modernism now opens widely enough to afford a kind of institutional cover, or disciplinary legibility, to important scholarly work on literature of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. That much no longer seems to need stating. What does need stating, however, is that the consensus extension of the modernist timeline into and beyond the war risks consolidating modernism as the assumed grounds for thinking about literary and cultural forms across the entire twentieth century.
This heuristic and historical expansion of modernist studies alone would make refreshing the publications of Gill Plain’s and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s new books. Plain’s Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar, and “Peace” and Gumbrecht’s After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present share a productive resistance to reading the midcentury or its literature according to the critical imperatives of old or new modernisms. Plain works deliberately outside of the discourse of the new modernist studies, Gumbrecht without reference to it; both propose usefully alternate models for thinking about literary works and cultural forms of the immediate postwar period. At its core, Plain’s work aims to recover the sheer variety of British literature of the 1940s. (I borrow the term “recovery” from Plain, who rightly uses it to describe the efforts of earlier critics, and especially feminist critics, of the literature of the Second [End Page 821] World War.) In service of this important aim, the book draws a chronological and thematic grid for 1940s British writing. Its subtitle identifies three more or less distinct literary-historical phases: war (1939–45), postwar (1945–48), and an “often reactionary” “peace” (1948–51), whose illusoriness Plain signals with inverted commas (234). The chapters of Literature of the 1940s identify seven “pre-eminent features” or thematic “preoccupations” that, Plain argues, characterize an incredible range of British writing across cultural and generic registers (10, 234). By contrast, Gumbrecht’s willfully personal, more philosophically speculative work on what he views as the predominant condition of postwar experience—latency—draws on “metonymic” readings of major works by (mostly) European writers and thinkers, as well as on Gumbrecht’s own coming-of-age as an intellectual in postwar Germany (35). All of which is to say that these books work in different genres: Plain’s is a meticulous work of literary-historical scholarship, Gumbrecht’s a hybrid of autobiography and literary-philosophical inquiry. Plain conducts a systematic demonstration of the various energies that shaped 1940s British literature, Gumbrecht a thought experiment about the postwar and its effects on our lived present.
Gumbrecht wants, in a sense, to read postwar literature and thought broadly on his own intellectual terms, and he acknowledges that he arrived at those terms, most crucially “latency,” out of his own experience and “in the course of extensive readings and intense seminar discussions” (34). “It is not my aim to develop, illustrate, or apply any ‘theories’ (let alone ‘methods’) however much I may have drawn—and depended—on the thoughts of predecessors, colleagues, and students in working through this vital matter,” he writes (30). It follows from these and like comments that After 1945 rarely engages with literary or other scholarship on the writers and works to which Gumbrecht attaches his conceptual vocabulary. The unwitting effect is that his allegorical literary readings often seem unmoored, impressionistic. They neither engage scholarly conversation nor conduct original archival excavation. To the latter point, print culture largely recedes from After 1945 after...