The Geneaology of Late Modernism

by onepuzzledspecies

This picture is supposed to give you some idea what I am doing nowadays. What you see is an attempt to chart the “geneaology of late modernism”, that is, the evolution of academic criticism concerning (mostly anglo-american) literature written during (roughly) the 1930s, a period that has provided the critics with some taxonomic trouble, being both modernist but not quite. It started out as a project of trying to pinpoint W. H. Auden’s stylistic affiliations, but has become fairly fascinating in its own right.


A lot of people have asked me when and where Auden wrote. Some are vaguely familiar with the name, but think he lived in the 19th century; others know that he was a 20th century writer, but have only read the one poem that was on the syllabus for British Literature. One or two have read more of his poetry, but they too usually ask: So, was he a modernist or what? (The others ask: So, what kind of writer is he? …a poet? Oh.) I tend to answer yes, sort of  a modernist, but in the generation after Eliot (his first volume was published by Faber and Faber under Eliot’s editorship), and therefore his poetry is already diverging, moving away from, the classic early modernists.  

But so I’ve had to ask myself, how much of a modernist was he? In which ways can his poetry be said to have evolved out of – in both senses – early modernism? By the time Wystan Hugh came of age, the first world war was over (his father served there), and the 20th century was well on its way. Entering into the world of poetry in a post-war world  of new political entities, continued European instability and economic depressions – it must have been a very different cultural backdrop than that perceived by artists before 1914. The difference must be discernable in his writing, its style and content, its poetics. How am I supposed to define this quality of being modernist-but-not-quite?  As Frederic Jameson has put it, “One cannot not periodize” – or categorize, for that matter.

One of the articles I’ve found the most useful in my research in this respect (that of categorization) is Cheryl Hindrichs’ “Late Modernism, 1928 – 1945: Criticism and Theory.” (2011)

She writes: “Since the late 1990s, a critical reassessment of writing between the late twenties and late forties has facilitated the emergence of late modernism [as a critical concept].” The article presents “a survey of criticism on thirties writing and writing between the World Wars in order to suggest that the early success of Auden Generation criticism narrowed the scope of the critical field.”

You probably noted the mention of the “Auden Generation”. How come you’ve never really heard of him if that is the kind of phrase that is thrown around? Well, first of all, because no one really cares about what is written within the academic world. (But, you might argue, what we read and write about today is always shaped by the selections made by critics past, and I agree – otherwise you’d have heard of a few more women writers from the thirties as well. However, people do read or have heard about T. S. Eliot today, prompted or not – perhaps Auden simply wasn’t as good of a poet? I disagree, so I’m going to ignore the question.) Second, his popularity waned a lot due to certain changes of style in the second half of his career – what is referred to as the “later Auden” – and because of certain controversies concerning his role, or lack of one, in England during WWII. I’ll have to write more about that some time.

But yes, the “Auden Generation” is a phrase that used to be thrown around a lot. It refers to a group of young writers that became acquainted during their years at Oxford or Cambridge respectively – myes, that’s right – and that counted Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, John Lehmann, Cecil Day Lewis, Rex Warner and Edward Upward. This group is often described as having “gathered around Auden”, whether they would have agreed with that or not. This group, as Hindrichs notes, had a knack for self-promotion and “placed themselves at literary center stage in the thirties…[this] self-mythologizing “rising generation” set the focus and tone for most subsequent study of the literature written between 1928 and 1945.”

The Auden Generation is also the title of Samuel Hynes’ 1977 work on “thirties writing” in England. Hynes’ study is the starting point for Hindrichs’ overview and analysis. She discusses the usefulness and the limitations of this definition, and shows us how the definitions of “thirties writing” have changed and expanded to include other authors, forms and genres to produce a more nuanced and accurate picture of the literary production of the period.

Critics after Hynes have, in the 1980’s and 90’s, emphasized different aspects in their projects to revise or supplement the Auden Generation canon. Some have focused on political affiliations and the importanc e of political commitments to writers of the period, countering perceptions of politics as irrelevant or inhibiting (Andy Croft). Some have focused on women writers and/or given attention to undervalued or ignored segments of thirties literature such as autobiographies and memoirs (Janet Montefiore). Others again have explored the links of “late modernism” not only to earlier, “high” modernism but to the later postmodernism (Alan Wilde, Frederic Jameson).

In spite of these critics, Hindrichs concludes that scholarship of late modernism has been relatively scanty. She seeks a definition of late modernism that is both inclusive enough, and precise enough, to encompass various, and sometimes contradictory, strands of literature that is neither quite modernist nor quite postmodernist. And she wants a definition that emphasizes “the diverse interrelations of the period’s writing” rather than dyadic model in which “late modernism” is seen as a radical break from earlier modernism. To do this Hindrichs initiates two main discussions, with Kristin Bluemel’s concept of “intermodernism” and Joshua Esty’s case for the effects of “imperial contraction” on English writing. Bluemel’s analysis helps recognize and promote a “plurality of aesthetics” in late modernism, and is “particularly important since a hybridization of styles intensifies in late modernism and is symptomatic of a response to the period’s transitions.” (845) But Bluemel’s “radical eccentrics” refers to one specific group of writers, and the intermodernism she suggests defines a style more than a period, and is characterized as “non-modernist” or “anti-modernist”. Thereby it is not quite sufficient for Hindrichs, who considers intermodernism a useful concept but one that “fits into” the more flexible category of late modernism, which comprises forms of “thirties writing” that count as continuities from modernism as well.

Joshua Esty focuses on England’s historical transition to a post-imperialist state, and the influence of that context upon English literature of the period. What Hindrichs suggests is to extend Bluemel’s theoretical framework by “historicizing variations in the late modernist poetics” with help from Esty.

To demonstrate the usefulness of such an approach, she compares two authors whose respective writing styles are characterized as radically different: George Orwell and Theodor Adorno. One promotes transparency, while the other is difficult on purpose (guess who’s which!). Both, in Hindrichs’ view, may be understood as expressions of the same historical/aesthetic “tendency” if considered in light of the “first sustained phase of decolonization” (Esty) confronting writers with the challenge of “reconfiguring” identity in the wake of past universalizing narratives. Thus Orwell’s Last Man of Europe (the original title of Nineteen Eighty-Four) can be compared to the “mythos” of Adorno as the Last Man Out of Europe, exiled in Los Angeles, a part of the Jewish intellectual diaspora, but “carrying on a belated modernist aesthetics…heroically if grumpily.” Both cultivated forms of literary resistance to what they perceived as threatening tendencies in contemporary politics and culture, Adorno seeking an “unproductive productiveness”, Orwell a “practical productive”.

Whereas Esty builds his analyis upon Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, Hindrichs uses Said’s framework from On Late Style, in which he writes about Adorno. This framework, she argues, shows particular relevance with regards to “late modernism’s distinct temporality and reassessment of difficulty.” This difficulty is related to the forms of resistance mentioned above, a resistance that persists in literary modes opposed to mass homogenization of one type or the other, even if it means investing in “unmarketable difficulty” or the “dead ends” of literary humanism.

Hindrichs goes on to argue that a concept of lateness, a historical context of lateness or an “awareness of being at a moment of ending and judgement” is that which “most reshapes the topography of modernism in late modernism.” This might very well become relevant for my analysis of Auden as well: How Auden perceived and portrayed different notions of “being at a moment of ending and judgement” plays a central part in my thesis.

I think I’ll stop there. Before I quit, though, I’d like to share one last point from Hindrichs’ article that I found interesting:  She suggests that October 1929 might be the point at which the nature of modernist fiction started to change – as comparad to Virginia Woolf’s declaration of December 1910 as the starting point of modernism: “The beginnings of modernism’s endgame, the beginning of the period, and the aesthetic that “late modernism” demarcates, can be identified with a complex network of changes in art and politics that began in the late twenties…”  Among these changes were the ebbing of “private patronage” such as little magazines, causing artists to rely increasingly on institutions such as universities instead. “The nature of modernist fiction changes as the institutions that fostered its growth and created its audience foundered.” (852)  Something to think about!