Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats

By Michael Tratner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Leaving the Self at Home

'The Voyage Out'

Although writers in the 1920's and 1930's conceived of the emergence of a new mass collectivist consciousness as a sudden, explosive, almost incomprehensible event, forces that led to this explosion began battling against individualism long before those writers were born. The first historian of the transition, A. V. Dicey, claimed that "between 1830 and 1840 the issue between individualists and collectivists was fairly joined."1 Most historians still follow Dicey's periodization of the history of the transition, seeing individualism dominating until around 1870, then a period of rapid change characterized by uncertain theorizing from 1870 to 1910, and finally a period in which collectivism became the dominant philosophy. This fits nicely with the periodization now current in literary history: roughly from 1830 to 1870 is generally regarded as the Victorian era, from 1910 to 1940 is recognized as the modernist era, and the period from 1870 to 1910 has given literary historians much trouble, possibly because it was an era in which two views of society, and, we might say, two master narratives concerning it, were in conflict. To understand the way literary and political history were entwined in the modern era, we need to examine briefly the changes during the nineteenth century that led up to the explosions of mass politics and of modernism.

The change in politics can be understood as a change in the way people explained and plotted their lives, particularly in the way they envisaged each life as tracing a relationship with the masses. In 1835, when de Tocqueville defined the term individualism, the goal of each person was understood to be to calmly leave the masses for the pleasures of private life: "Indi

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