A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England

A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England

A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England

A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England


This book describes a major literary culture caught in the act of becoming minor. In 1939, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, "Civilisation has shrunk." Her words captured not only the onset of World War II, but also a longer-term reversal of national fortune. The first comprehensive account of modernism and imperialism in England, A Shrinking Island tracks the joint eclipse of modernist aesthetics and British power from the literary experiments of the 1930s through the rise of cultural studies in the 1950s.

Jed Esty explores the effects of declining empire on modernist form--and on the very meaning of Englishness. He ranges from canonical figures (T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf) to influential midcentury intellectuals (J. M. Keynes and J. R. R. Tolkien), from cultural studies pioneers (Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson) to postwar migrant writers (George Lamming and Doris Lessing). Focusing on writing that converts the potential energy of the contracting British state into the language of insular integrity, he argues that an anthropological ethos of cultural holism came home to roost in late-imperial England. Esty's interpretation challenges popular myths about the death of English literature. It portrays the survivors of the modernist generation not as aesthetic dinosaurs, but as participants in the transition from empire to welfare state, from metropolitan art to national culture. Mixing literary criticism with postcolonial theory, his account of London modernism's end-stages and after-lives provides a fresh take on major works while redrawing the lines between modernism and postmodernism.


Both professional and lay readers in America seem to share an intuitive belief that English literature has suffered a steady decline in the twentieth century and, moreover, that the decline can be correlated to and even explained by the contraction of British power. Yet few would argue that geopolitical power corresponds in a predictable way to literary creativity. If anything, the evidence from the past century points to an inverse relation. We find celebrated literary booms in Revivalist Ireland and in Cold-War Latin America, classic instances of aesthetic experimentation in the semi-peripheral avant-gardes of Russian and Italian futurism, a high index of formal invention in the “minor literature” of Kafka and Beckett, and linguistic exuberance flowing out of the relative backwaters of Joyce’s Liffey and Faulkner’s Mississippi. And yet the idea persists that postimperial English writing, in becoming provincial and ex-centric, also became stale and wan. This view is not restricted to outsiders; consider a fairly typical 1966 statement from the novelist Anthony Burgess:

What subject-matter does England provide (or Wales or Scotland or North
ern Ireland or the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man)? Not, I would say, the
subject-matter of an expansive vision, which, whatever Americans may think,
is there in America for the American writer’s taking. Some of us got in just
in time to record a dying, or heroically relinquished, empire. The transition
from free society to welfare state provided material for a few novels, but the
theme has lost all its vitality.

Burgess’s complaint reflects not, I think, a real relation between lost political and artistic power but the recurrent tendency of commentators on the English scene to metaphorize literary change as national decline. That metaphorical habit causes a great deal of critical haziness; it sustains myths of a fallen heritage in the land of Shakespeare, of an island’s poetic sourcewaters run dry, of the death of the English (but not anglophone) novel. If we cast these myths aside, what precisely is the relationship between British imperial contraction and the shape of English literary culture?

Since elegists of English literature tend to date its decline to the eclipse of high modernism, we can restate this question in terms of modernism’s original relationship to British hegemony: what accounts for the appar-

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