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  • Conservative Modernists
  • Henry Mead
Christos Hadjiyiannis. Conservative Modernists: Literature and Tory Politics in Britain, 1900–1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 254 pp. $99.00

THIS IS AN EXCELLENT ADDITION to scholarship on modernist ideology. Hadjiyiannis traces varieties of "Tory" attitude notably held by British modernists in the early stages of that movement. T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot are prime examples, both indebted to the neo-Royalism of Charles Maurras, along with Ford Madox Ford, whose nostalgia for an eighteenth-century paternalism was distinctively his own. Also in focus are fellow contributors to the Edwardian avant-garde: the poet Edward Storer and the political writer J. M. Kennedy, the former a founding Imagist along with Hulme, the latter a translator of Nietzsche, whose version of "Tory Democracy" had racialist tendencies. Hadjiyiannis uses these writers to illustrate a prewar dissatisfaction with liberalism which shaped modernism's bargaining between a lost past and an emergent future.

The conservative aspects of modernism have long been problematic for liberal critics. Recent work in modernist studies strives to expand the boundaries of the canon, but that expansion is often measured by reference to certain core figures. Despite taxonomies of high modernism's offences by Anthony Julius, Robert Casillo, John Carey, et al, Eliot [End Page 270] and his circle remain large presences in primers, syllabi and the public mind. Hadjiyiannis acknowledges this and insists that this very centrality makes them worthy of renewed examination. Why were the roots of the modernist revolution so entwined with conservative principle, and was there, as Donald Davie has argued, a direct line between their aesthetics and fascism?

In deeply researched, intertwined treatments of several writers' careers, we are shown how they sought to reorientate a wilfully anti-intellectual Tory tradition to address, even to seduce, both the masses and a cultural elite. Following Salisbury's premiership, the Conservative party was partly moribund, partly diluted by Balfour's engagement with his liberal counterparts. Early modernism, both vitalist and conflictual in character, sought action and sharply defined political difference. The House of Lords crisis in 1911 was a catalytic moment as the complacently progressive statism of the New Liberals repelled young intellectuals. In its wake, Hulme and Storer both contributed to a new weekly, The Commentator, established with the hope of reviving British conservatism; Hadjiyiannis adeptly draws on this little-known journal's archive to show how the Imagist aesthetic was adapted to reenergise political language, coining new metaphors to make old ideas new. The revival of the intellectual right was informed by Bergson and Nietzsche, seen by many as radical foreign influences. Their influence converged with that of "crowd psychology," also traced expertly here, with hints of its later fascist uses. Building on recent scholarship, some of the most fascinating pages here show how theories of linguistic artifice and decay, taken from Nietzsche and, interestingly, Emerson, informed both modernist poetics and politics (and also intriguingly anticipated post-structuralist theory). An equally insightful chapter traces theories of abstract modern art, into which Hulme transferred much of his political thinking, hailing a paradoxically anti-humanist "renaissance."

Conservative Modernists: Literature and Tory Politics in Britain, 1900–1920 breaks new ground in linking Eliot's stance to Isaiah Berlin's post-war anti-utopianism, and in a brilliant reading of Hulme's war poetry through the lens of German theories of empathy and phenomenology, a link revealed by newly discovered manuscripts showing Hulme's debt to Max Scheler. This is a work of exemplary intellectual history, moving gracefully between carefully contextualised readings of political theory, literary and visual aesthetics, and the more abstruse reaches of German philosophy. Hadjiyiannis's treatment of his [End Page 271] protagonists is sometimes unequal, simply because some of its figures' lives are sparsely recorded (Kennedy and Storer remain intriguing but somewhat mysterious figures), while others clearly warrant fuller attention. Ford's war-time analysis of German and British culture stands out, while Hulme's and Eliot's call for a classicist revival remains fascinating and resonates with challenges to liberal assumptions today. It is tempting to agree to Eliot's tribute to Hulme, extending it to his own work and Ford's, to conclude that these...


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