Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 To 1945

Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 To 1945

Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 To 1945

Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 To 1945


Though often defined as having opposite aims, means, and effects, modernism and modern propaganda developed at the same time and influenced each other in surprising ways. The professional propagandist emerged as one kind of information specialist, the modernist writer as another. Britain was particularly important to this double history. By secretly hiring well-known writers and intellectuals to write for the government and by exploiting their control of new global information systems, the British in World War I invented a new template for the manipulation of information that remains with us to this day. Making a persuasive case for the importance of understanding modernism in the context of the history of modern propaganda, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda also helps explain the origins of today's highly propagandized world.

Modernism, Media, and Propaganda integrates new archival research with fresh interpretations of British fiction and film to provide a comprehensive cultural history of the relationship between modernism and propaganda in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century. From works by Joseph Conrad to propaganda films by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, Mark Wollaeger traces the transition from literary to cinematic propaganda while offering compelling close readings of major fiction by Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce.


In a 1941 radio address, George Orwell asserted that “propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book, that every work of art has a meaning and a purpose—a political, social and religious purpose—and that our aesthetic judgements are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs.” Change “propaganda” to “ideology” and this familiar thought would fit easily into any recent introduction to literary studies. But Orwell's invocation of propaganda is characteristic of his historical moment, for after the so-called propaganda boom of the 1930s, the proliferating array of discourses through which ideology was disseminated, spreading in waves across the globe, became as much a matter for public concern as the ideological messages themselves. a relatively innocuous word in the late nineteenth century, propaganda most often designated persuasive information or mere boosterism; by midcentury it had acquired the sinister connotations so familiar in today's world of government-sponsored fake news, doctored facts, and transnational public relations firms. the political consequences of these developments are familiar, the aesthetic less so. By the forties Orwell and others had begun to wonder whether there was a place within an increasingly manipulated public sphere for forms of aesthetic experience that preserved some degree of autonomy. Was there a place, in other words, for modernism?

Orwell's address offered what became the standard account of the fate of modernism in the interwar years. Under the pressure of global politics and economic depression, writers and artists in the thirties increasingly began to choose political engagement over the previous decade's emphasis on aesthetic experimentation and technique. Orwell's focus on the thirties makes sense, and not only because historians so often think in terms of decades. Within that highly politicized climate of opinion, art was often defined in relation to propaganda: for some, art was precisely what propaganda was not; others followed the artist Eric Gill in declaring that all art is propaganda. But Orwell's literary history tells only the latter end of a story that began at the turn of the twentieth century, when modernism and modern propaganda emerged as mutually illuminating responses to modernity.

Charting relations between modernism and propaganda from 1900 to 1940, Modernism, Media, and Propaganda offers a missing chapter in the history of British modernism. I argue that through its real and imagined proximity to propaganda, modernism came to know what it was in . . .

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