In 1918, the British writer Lytton Strachey published Eminent Victorians, a biographical account of four prominent figures of Victorian England. Strachey came from a prominent literary and political family and was a close friend of Virginia Woolf, her sister the artist Vanessa Bell, as well as of other members of the Bloomsbury group. Educator Thomas Arnold, health care administrator Florence Nightingale, military hero General Chinese Gordon, and Cardinal Manning, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England during its great expansion in the late nineteenth century, were the personages portrayed in Eminent Victorians.
The book, which became an immediate bestseller, was a humorous and savage prostration of these Victorian icons. Thomas Arnold appears a snob and a bigot. Florence Nightingale is a busybody and a petty tyrant, General Gordon, a racist and grotesque incompetent, and Cardinal Manning, a vulgarian hypocrite. With the possible exception of General Gordon, who seems to have been a psychopath by all accounts, most biographers today would question Strachey's characterizations. Eminent Victorians was enormously popular, despite its questionable validity, and represented the reflexive anti-Victorianism which constituted a primary ingredient of Modernism.
Rebellion against the Victorian world, hostility or contempt or at least a profound lack of sympathy for it, remained a hallmark throughout the Modernist movement during the first half of the twentieth century. Just as we have posited, in our culture, that everything the American establishment did in the 1960's with respect to the Vietnam War was wrong, just as it once sufficed to mention names like Lyndon Johnson, McGeorge Bundy or Richard Nixon to elicit visceral negative reactions, justified or unjustified, so by the second decade of the twentieth century, one only had to name prominent Victorians much admired in their own day, in order to get a similar unfavorable response.
In addition to this reflexive anti-Victorianism that continued throughout the heyday of Modernism and well into the 1950's, specific ideas and attitudes characteristic of Modernism manifested themselves in fields ranging from literature and art to science and philosophy. By identifying these fundamentals, the Modernist mentality can be reconstructed.
First of all, Modernism was anti-historicist. It did not believe that truth lay in telling an evolutionary story. Modernism cared little for history; it was in fact hostile to it. Truth-finding became analytical, rather than historical. As