- 1922: Did That Year Change Literature?
BOOKENDED by the so-called pinnacles of modernist literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, 1922 is often referred to as the annus mirabilis of literary modernism. Ezra Pound famously hailed 1922 as the first year in a new calendar—“year one, post scriptum Ulysses”—while Willa Cather would later lament, “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” Though Bill Goldstein disparages Cather as “the relic of an old literature,” he shamelessly reappropriates her assessment of the changing literary landscape for the title of his book.
It is worth noting that 1922 witnessed the publication of other notable works in Engish literature, such as the first of Pound’s Cantos, Cather’s One of Ours, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age, [End Page 536] Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Rebecca West’s The Judge. In The World Broke In Two, Goldstein adopts the biography-of-a-year format to chronicle the interconnected literary and personal lives of Eliot, Woolf, Forster, and Lawrence. Drawing on excerpts from diaries, journals, and personal letters, Goldstein attempts to demonstrate how 1922 was a “crucial year of change and outstanding creative renaissance” for these writers.
The World Broke In Two is not the first attempt to offer a biography of the literary and cultural events of 1922, the ostensible “birth of modernism.” Jean-Michel Rabaté, 1922: Literature, Culture, Politics (2015), Kevin Jackson, Constellation of Genius, 1922: Modernism Year One (2013), and Michael North, Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern (1999) have also engaged the celebrated year. Goldstein’s effort is more narrowly focused on the personal and creative challenges of Eliot, Woolf, Forster, and Lawrence. Notably, his attention to the minutiae of their personal dramas brings to light less familiar aspects of these “four legendary writers” as he spotlights how they grappled with creative self-doubt and artistic inertia, chronic illness, neurosis, depression, and unrequited love and loss. Goldstein’s primary achievement is found in the engaging, chatty narrative that he constructs about the interwoven relationships between Eliot, Woolf, and Forster. Lawrence, however, who was always a literary outlier, even among his peers, remains a peculiar exile in Goldstein’s story.
In a letter to Eliot in January 1922, Pound enthusiastically declared: “It is after all a grrrreat litttttterary period,” a proclamation that likely plunged Eliot—not to mention Woolf, Forster, and Lawrence—into deep despair. For these writers, Goldstein claims, 1922 began “frighteningly, with a blank page even more starkly empty than usual because of personal travails and the open questions of form, style, and subject that haunted them all.”
In the first four chapters Goldstein explores the circumstances that rendered these writers “painfully conscious of [their] past and impending failures.” Nearing her fortieth birthday, Woolf was bedridden with influenza, as she would be intermittently throughout the year. She was despondent over the delayed publication of her third novel, Jacob’s Room, and frustrated that she could not make any progress [End Page 537] on her book of essays about reading. In a letter she composed from her sickbed, Woolf confessed to Forster her struggles with writing and her lack of productivity: “Writing is still like heaving heavy bricks over a wall.… I should like to growl to you about all this damned lying in bed and doing nothing, and getting up and writing half a page and going to bed again. I’ve wasted 5 whole years (I count) doing it.” The sense of wasted years and the feeling of literally being at a loss for words would certainly resonate with Forster. Despite his august reputation, it had been over a decade since his last published and very successful Howard’s End (1910). A seemingly fortuitous summons, however, from the Maharaja of Dewas in 1921 to serve as his private secretary...