Americanizing Britain: The Rise of Modernism in the Age of the Entertainment Empire

Americanizing Britain: The Rise of Modernism in the Age of the Entertainment Empire

Americanizing Britain: The Rise of Modernism in the Age of the Entertainment Empire

Americanizing Britain: The Rise of Modernism in the Age of the Entertainment Empire


How did Great Britain, which entered the twentieth century as a dominant empire, reinvent itself in reaction to its fears and fantasies about the United States? Investigating the anxieties caused by the invasion of American culture-from jazz to Ford motorcars to Hollywood films-during the first half of the twentieth century, Genevieve Abravanel theorizes the rise of the American Entertainment Empire as a new style of imperialism that threatened Britain's own.

In the early twentieth century, the United States excited a range of utopian and dystopian energies in Britain. Authors who might ordinarily seem to have little in common-H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Virginia Woolf-began to imagine Britain's future through America. Abravanel explores how these novelists fashioned transatlantic fictions as a response to the encroaching presence of Uncle Sam. She then turns her attention to the arrival of jazz after World War I, showing how a range of writers, from Elizabeth Bowen to W.H. Auden, deployed the new music as a metaphor for the modernization of England. The global phenomenon of Hollywood film proved even more menacing than the jazz craze, prompting nostalgia for English folk culture and a lament for Britain's literary heritage. Abravanel then refracts British debates about America through the writing of two key cultural critics: F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot. In so doing, she demonstrates the interdependencies of some of the most cherished categories of literary study-language, nation, and artistic value-by situating the high-low debates within a transatlantic framework.


There are many things we love about editing the Modernist Literature & Culture series: one of those is nicely represented in Genevieve Abravanel’s Americanizing Britain: the Rise of Modernism in the Age of the Entertainment Empire. To wit: it’s a thrill to encounter the work of new scholars in modernist studies, and to allow their work to mess with your head.

For us, the central paradox of Americanizing Britain is this: if Abravanel’s claim is correct—if much about British modernism can be understood only by restoring the dynamic relationship of British and American to those various other vectors along which we’ve become used to performing our analyses (high vs. low, art vs. entertainment, center vs. margin)—then surely we would have known of it before now. a claim as bold as this is almost certain not to prove out.

But when it does… well, it’s a beautiful thing; and for that reason, this is a beautiful book. in it, Abravanel unravels, with extraordinary patience and clarity, the absolutely articulate (if largely unconscious) history of twentieth-century British culture’s simultaneous invention and demonization of “the American Age.” the “Americanizing” trope from her title is not her coinage, it turns out, but instead floated through British cultural discourse in the early decades of the twentieth century to identify a force akin to what Matthew Arnold had, a half-century earlier, dubbed “Philistinism.” “Early twentieth-century British writers, scholars, and commentators,” Abravanel explains, “had a name for what was happening to England and the world: they called it ‘Americanisation.’” Arnold had spotted it “on the French coast,” whereas Kipling and Wells and Woolf and Leavis saw it instead across the Atlantic: but both generations understood themselves as standing on “a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

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