Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s

By Clarke, Ben | Twentieth Century Literature, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s


Clarke, Ben, Twentieth Century Literature


Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s, by Benjamin Kohlmann. Oxford University Press, 2014. 228 pages.

As Benjamin Kohlmann argues in Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s, the "intensity with which many thirties authors criticized the idea of political writing after 1939 has become one of the iconic volte-faces in twentieth-century literary history" (197). By the end of the decade, numerous authors and intellectuals had already begun to dismiss the politically committed literature produced during the 1930s. Among the most prominent voices were some who had contributed to this very literature. This dismissal established a foundation for a postwar representation of the period as a "literary wasteland" (198), a view that Kohlmann argues was shared by figures from the "influential American critic, Stanley E. Hyman" to the writer and Horizon editor Cyril Connolly, both of whom saw the "attempt to politicize literature" as a failure (199). This response to the decade, Kohlmann argues, continues to inform "our own standards of critical evaluation." His position parallels that of Valentine Cunningham, who insists that the 1930s are still seen as "a sort of unfortunate historical blip or bypass on which writing got snagged and slowed down in the good march of the twentieth century from modernism at the very beginning to postmodernism at the end," a time when writers were distracted from their proper artistic concerns by "crude ideological preferences which history has not sustained" (1997, 5). The emphasis on the beginning and the end of the century is reflected in the focus of journals, conferences, professional organizations, job advertisements, syllabi, and publishers' lists. A few authors from the period, such as W. H. Auden, have, as Cunningham puts it, made "it into the pantheon of the great and good" (6), but their standing often depends partly on the claim that they avoided or later rejected the errors of their contemporaries. As Kohlmann argues, while recent "neo-formalist criticism has virtually bypassed thirties literature ... Auden's 'September 1, 1939' and his elegy for Yeats with its resonant warning that 'poetry makes nothing happen'" have "become touchstones for critics like James Longenbach, Angela Leighton, and Peter McDonald precisely because their air of resignation seems to advocate a way to retreat from political action and into the narrower confines of poetic form" (12). These poems seem to confirm the idea of engagement as a mistake that allowed politics to displace literature, an error that had to be rectified. Auden is important, then, because he achieves a distance from the period.

Conventional wisdom maintains that the intellectual life of the 1930s was dominated by mass movements, most notably Communism, which stifled writers, imposing on them a rigid set of ideas, political positions, and even literary forms, such as "Socialist realism." At the end of the decade, the most talented artists confessed their errors, regaining their creativity, while the rest faded into deserved obscurity. This narrative has multiple origins, but arguably the most important, as Kohlmann suggests, were some of the artists who recanted. Figures such as Stephen Spender had a disproportionate impact on perceptions of the decade; their prominence during the 1930s served as a guarantee of the value and good faith of their interpretations. The individual experience of a handful of prominent, disillusioned authors established a "familiar trajectory of thirties writing--from grandiose political expectations to disillusionment" (13)--that came to be seen as characteristic of the period as a whole, obscuring the diversity of its writers, political positions, and forms of engagement.

There have been numerous attempts to challenge this image of the 1930s and the narrow canon of literature it sustains. These interventions have valuably complicated and extended our understanding of the decade, drawing attention to a wide range of writers beyond the small circle of white, male, public-school educated poets on which influential texts such as Samuel Hynes's The Auden Generation (1976) and Bernard Bergonzi's Reading the Thirties (1978) have focused and undermining the narrative of a common experience of political engagement and disillusion. …

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