The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
1936, Madrid: The Heart of the
World

Cary Nelson

In that most notoriously political of all twentieth-century decades, revered by some and castigated by others – the 1930s – a singular turning point came just after the decade’s midpoint, in the summer of 1936. The decade began, of course, with the worldwide depression that followed the US stockmarket crash in October 1929. As the Great Depression deepened, with a full 25 per cent of Americans unemployed and many more severely underemployed, homeless and hungry, it began to seem as if there was no end in sight to years of misery. Capitalism, it appeared to many, could not fix itself. The economic system would have to be drastically overhauled, perhaps scrapped entirely and something very new installed in its place if people were to have reliable food and shelter, a future they could believe in, and some chance of a voice in political life. In Britain, France and the United States, among other countries, the Left grew in numbers and visibility. Its discourses were partly based on revolutionary agendas elaborated since the 1917 Russian Revolution, itself underwritten by still older socialist and communist movements. In the United States, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movements for workers’ rights and unionisation drives would prove another source for rhetoric and organisation.

The less overtly political versions of experimental modernism that define the previous two decades for many literary scholars continued to flourish. Hart Crane could publish his ambitious poem-sequence The Bridge in 1930 in part because it was conceived in the 1920s. Crane takes the Brooklyn Bridge as his ecstatic symbol of the potential for American unity, a vision the Great Depression would make improbable. In Britain too experimental modernism would continue to evolve. Virginia Woolf published perhaps her most radically experimental novel, or at least the one most decisively removed from ordinary speech and action, The Waves, in 1931. The Irish novelist (and later playwright) Samuel Beckett would depict a universal human subject in extremis in the 1938 novel Murphy, and his countryman James Joyce would issue the novel Finnegans Wake, his masterpiece of verbal play, in 1939. T. S. Eliot, whose 1922 The Waste Land would virtually define high modernist poetry, published ‘Ash Wednesday’, a poem of religious abnegation, in 1930 and ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of his Four Quartets, meditating on time and eternity, in 1936. Nonetheless, what is most distinctive and coherent about the literature of the 1930s is the outpouring of political poetry and fiction.

Yet the long-standing opposition between modernist experimentation and politically committed writing does not survive wide reading in 1930s literature. Left-wing poets such as Louis MacNeice in England, Sol Funaroff and Edwin Rolfe in the United States, adapted modernist collage to progressive themes while continuing to use traditional forms for other

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