- Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923–31 by Max Saunders
Students of modernism have long been familiar with the despairing conclusion that the world’s evil cannot be overcome. It dates to the “lost generation” after World War I, which precipitated the conviction that modernity is an unmitigated disaster. The styles of pessimism may have changed, but the substance has not. Barely a glimmer of hope to be seen anywhere—and god help the intellectual who betrays the slightest belief in progress, in a better future. He will henceforth (and summarily) be condemned to middlebrow hell from which there is no return.
Max Saunders is well acquainted with wistful melancholy. He is the author of a majestic two-volume biography of Ford Madox Ford. Is there anywhere in literature a more extended portrait of the hapless “good” man than Parade’s End’s (1924–28) Tietjens, whose decency and moral integrity is thwarted at every turn, given no possible scope of effective action in a damnable [End Page 865] modern world? Now, in his entertaining and fascinating new book, Imagined Futures, Saunders offers a bracing counterhistory of despair, overturning both our received notion of the disillusionment following World War I and challenging our by-now habitual pessimism.
The vehicle for Saunders’s assault on facile generalizations about the post-World War I cultural mood and on the fashionable weltschmerz of our own day is a series of 110 short books published between 1923 and 1931. The “To-Day and To-Morrow” series was edited by C. K. Ogden (the translator of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, coauthor with I. A. Richards of The Meaning of Meaning , indefatigable editor, and the high priest of BASIC English). Most volumes in the series were titled in a similar fashion: a figure from classical Greece, followed by “the future of . . .” A few examples: Halycon, or The Future of Monogamy (Vera Brittain); Lars Porsena, or the Future of Swearing and Improper Language (Robert Graves); Paris, or the Future of War (B. H. Liddell Hart). The notables who contributed volumes included Dora and Bertrand Russell, Sylvia Pankhurst, Winifred Holtby, C. E. M. Joad, Bonamy Dobrée, André Maurois, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Jeans, and future Indian president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.
The series got rolling with Marxist scientist J. B. S. Haldane’s 1923 Daedalus, or Science and the Future, with Haldane’s upbeat prognosis countered by Bertrand Russell’s pessimistic 1924 riposte, Icarus, or the Future of Science. From there, as Saunders shows (his book partakes of the burgeoning field of the history of the book), the series developed the momentum that carried it through its eight-year life, with subsequent volumes often entering into direct dialogue with previous ones, and most volumes fairly widely reviewed and circulated.
I defy any reader of Saunders’s book to come away indifferent to the treasure trove he has uncovered. Just his quotations from the thirty or so volumes he discusses in some detail whet this reader’s appetite. The writing is lively, and the imaginations on display energizing. One sample, from Douglas Woodruff’s Plato’s American Republic, in which Socrates visits twentieth-century America, will have to suffice. Modern Science appears as “a divine priestess” who “is invoked in all difficulties, whose words are received with great reverence, and that though her oracles are more than usually incomprehensible and fickle and her words long and horrible; . . . she is dear to the Americans because she speaks principally about machines, and tells them there shall be more and more of them, and an increasing number of parts in each” (quoted in Saunders, 187).
If Saunders’s book has a flaw, it is how to deal with such wealth. Like most scholarship that offers a first visit to an archive, Saunders opens up numerous possible paths of investigation that he cannot fully explore. He devotes chapters to the natural sciences, the human sciences, technology...