- The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life by Thomas S. Davis
A brilliant and timely book, The Extinct Scene joins the growing list of scholarly works that deal with Anglo-British modernism in the middle of the twentieth century, such as Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism (1999), Marina MacKay’s Modernism and World War II (2007), Leo Mellor’s Reading the Ruins (2011), Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters (2013), and Gill Plain’s Literature of the 1940s (2013). These works establish continuities from the interwar years through the Second World War and into the era of British decolonization. In The Extinct Scene, Davis defines an “outward turn” as characteristic of late modernism (3). Consciousness, feeling, and inwardness—traits important to high modernism—did not suit mid-century writers. From the 1930s through the 1960s, writers and artists turned to the political and economic turbulence in the world as resources for artworks; in particular, they represented the alignments and misalignments between citizens and states. At the same time, late modernist texts correlated everyday phenomena with political crises, such as the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, the [End Page 469] Second World War, and the Notting Hill Riots. In The Extinct Scene, Davis focuses on British culture, though he keenly notes the international stance of British writers and filmmakers; they look outward to Spain, China, and the Caribbean to understand changes in world-systems.
Throughout The Extinct Scene, Davis keeps a steady focus on everydayness. In an explication of John Grierson’s documentary aesthetics in the 1930s, Davis claims that “art must capture and reveal something about everyday life. It should neither assume a mimetic function nor drift into a self-contained world of endless experimentation” (39). The everyday throws up any number of opportunities for seizing capitalism, politics, and history in action. For Humphrey Jennings, Charles Madge, and other researchers associated with Mass-Observation, the everyday manifests itself in singular events and anecdotes. Mass-Observation aimed to “uncover the particularities of everyday experience and show how that experience permeates the collective” (57). In this regard, late modernist film, fiction, and art renounce the avant-garde experiments of high modernism—interruptions, lyrical monologues, defamiliarization—unless they address the radical disruptions inflicted on everyday life by geopolitical forces. Davis puts the matter more succinctly: “Late modernism designates the moment when modernism no longer recognizes itself” (11). Neither realism nor the resources of high modernism adequately captured changes in the world-system that happened at mid-century. If anything distinguishes the difference between high modernism and late modernism, it is the determined politicization of art forms that occurs in works by George Orwell, Humphrey Jennings, Elizabeth Bowen, and numerous others.
Davis’s superb analysis refreshes what scholars know about late modernist works, not least because he draws upon an original and compelling corpus of materials: Henry Green’s novel Party Going, the sociological interventions of Mass-Observation, Virginia Woolf’s The Years, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Journey to a War, Henry Moore’s paintings of women and children in tube shelters, Cecil Beaton and James Pope-Hennessy’s History under Fire, Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories about blitzed London, a clutch of novels by Vic Reid, Sam Selvon, and Colin MacInnes, and, in an epilogue about the afterlife of modernist everydayness, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Davis’s close readings are virtuosic. His analysis of power relations between white landowners and black Jamaicans in Vic Reid’s New Day, for example, dwells on the transformative power of seeing, especially the ways that white and black citizens understand uprisings and bloodshed as actions that impinge on everyday life and incrementally register changes in geopolitics. By giving meticulous accounts of specific works, Davis vivifies late modernism.
In one vector of inquiry in The Extinct Scene, Davis offers commentary on the duties and entitlements of citizenship. As expressions of a political unconscious, artworks model citizenship as a form of necessary engagement. Vernacular fictions such as Absolute Beginners (1959) and The Lonely Londoners (1956...