Andrew Hammond, British Fiction and the Cold War.
Andrew Hammond's provocative, detailed analysis of British fiction between 1945 and 1989 provides a welcome jolt to assumptions that have, for the last two decades, informed discussion of literature and culture of the second half of the twentieth century. Arguing that British fiction is best understood in the context of global forces, he makes a compelling case for reading it anew within the geopolitical and domestic political frameworks of the Cold War. The implication of Hammond's book--and of a growing body of Cold War scholarship --is that we refocus the lenses through which we view literature of the period. Concepts that have become critical commonplaces, like postmodernism and postcolonialism, might benefit from being rethought through their relation to the conflux of local and global economic, political, social and cultural forces that constituted the Cold War.
Hammond draws on new histories of the Cold War that challenge a number of assumptions: that it is best understood as a US-Soviet conflict, without reference to its broader global dimensions; that, as a matter of high politics, it somehow did not relate to the lived experience of ordinary people; and that, because it did not explode into nuclear conflict, its defining characteristic was that nothing happened, as if the numerous conflicts and casualties short of nuclear war somehow did no matter. Hammond's claim is that the Cold War could not but be present in literature after 1945. This is a bold claim, made boldly: 'all British novelists produced texts which addressed or articulated Cold War concerns, and ... such concerns are found in a majority of novels from these 45 years' (p. 1).
Perhaps one could unearth a novelist so parochial as not to be influenced by the geopolitics of the period but the broad thrust of this claim is right and it is extraordinary how blind criticism has been to the contexts Hammond discusses. With an impressive breadth of reference British Fiction and the Cold War charts the presence of Cold War tropes across the literary landscape, demonstrating its impact on both theme and form. This approach extends work in literary and cultural studies in the United States, where a growing body of scholarship is now demonstrating the importance of the Cold War and also by a generation of British historians who are turning their attention to British Cold War culture. (1)
There are points at which one wishes Hammond's argument had been taken further. The first chapter reads 'literary containment' (the term comes from the United States foreign policy objective of containment of communism around the globe) as a fairly direct reflection of political circumstances in fiction. There is room, surely, to build on this useful foundation and push the analysis further, as scholarship on containment in the United States has done for some time. For Alan Nadel and Elaine Tyler May, for instance, 1950s United States domestic culture, seemingly disconnected from global politics, is actually the flipside of the early Cold War, a yearning for security in a world haunted by uncertainty. As Nadel puts it, seemingly innocent narratives were actually 'filled with repressed duality, [and] attempted to reconcile the cult of domesticity with the demand for domestic security'. (2) For May, in 'the domestic version of containment, the "sphere of influence" was the home' where 'potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed'. (3)
British domestic culture is, of course, markedly different in this period (most notably in being characterised by austerity rather than affluence) but there is scope to build on the foundation laid by Hammond here. A piercing analysis of British domestic culture would open up the more complex ways in which global consciousness and containment resonate in British home life and its representation in fiction.
Similarly, the chapter on nuclear debates provides a good overview of anxiety in British fiction but there are some missed opportunities. While it is right that 'experience [of nuclear anxiety] is most interestingly found in novels whose ostensible concerns lie away from military ideologies and events, but which make sudden reference to nuclear anxiety in the narrative' (p. 64), the analysis would have benefited from further reference to scholarship that has already identified and developed this insight. Also, it is perhaps too harsh in finding a failure in fiction effectively to oppose nuclear policy. Hammond argues that the frequent lack of support for the left-leaning peace movement ... meant a failure to advance political methods of resistance' (p. 81). Though there is some truth in this assertion, the atmosphere of acrimonious public debate about nuclear policy and scepticism about the effectiveness of nuclear protection effectively politicises many nuclear texts. I would argue that a politics of vulnerability emerges around these texts' exposure of the defencelessness of ordinary citizens, which unseats the state's presumption to provide protection.
These criticisms should not, though, detract from the sense that this is an important contribution to the understanding of British fiction. Hammond does not argue that we should abandon established interpretative categories but that we should understand them to be integrated in the broader geopolitical structures of the Cold War that shaped lived experience. Reading with the Cold War in mind also provides, as he interestingly notes, a way of contesting the accusations of parochialism sometimes levelled at British fiction since the 1945 for it shows a clear engagement with global issues animating the period.
As Hammond's book shows, 'Cold War' is a cultural, as well as an historical or political, category. This perspective is relatively well established in the discussion of United States literature but has hitherto been largely neglected in relation to British literature. To fail to discuss the Cold War or to marginalise it as somehow peripheral to the other great forces that shaped culture is to ignore some of the most interesting and revealing dimensions of literature of the second half of the twentieth century.
Nottingham Trent University
(1) See, for instance, The British Journal for the History of Science 45.4 (2012) for a special edition on 'British Nuclear Culture'.
(2) Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age (Durham, 1995), p. xi.
(3) Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, rev. ed. (New York, 1999), p. xxiv.
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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