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

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. In many instances, though, even these accounts are informed by broader academic narratives that limit their radicalism, as we see in the prominent idea of "late modernism." As Kohlmann argues, the reasons for the success of late modernism "as a critical category ... are in some cases artistic," but they are also "ideological and institutional" (11). The concept was "designed as a critique of earlier critical orthodoxies," but its "academic prestige" is founded "on that older literary-historical classification, 'modernism,'" and it functions in part by reassessing the literature of the period within established hierarchies of value (12). The 1930s thus becomes more significant as the decade is shown to be more modernist. The use of the term "late modernism" has been productive insofar as it identifies relations denied by rigid forms of periodization, but Kohlmann contends that it can be problematic because many of the most interesting texts to emerge from the 1930s were produced by authors "writing against modernism, rather than simply after it" (12). The idea of modernism to which many authors in the thirties responded may have been as reductive as the image of realism the modernists themselves had rejected a generation earlier, but it similarly informed their writing; as Kohlmann insists, politically conscious young writers in the period were shaped by their attempts to distance themselves from "the notion of the Ivory Tower" that they associated with their immediate predecessors even when they shared some of their concerns and methods (13). An emphasis on literary continuity risks obscuring what is distinctive about the 1930s and reproducing the categories that artists in the period tried to unsettle.

Kohlmann's study makes a valuable contribution to the project of developing a critical model of the 1930s that does not reproduce what Andy Croft calls the "entirely conventional" idea of the "inalienable opposition of art and ideology" (1990, 17). The notion of such an opposition structures memoirs by some prominent authors from the period who represent their committed writing as a necessary but unfortunate diversion from their artistic work. Stephen Spender insisted that in its engagement with contemporary politics his generation was "aware of having renounced values which we continued nevertheless to consider aesthetically superior in Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence and Virginia Woolf" ([1967] 1979, 6)--a view that leaves inherited models of art intact. The statement exposes the fact that, as Kohlmann argues, "much politicized literature of the decade was produced in direct engagement with ... artistic uncertainties" (3), as writers struggled to reconcile the distinct aesthetic and ethical demands upon them, but Spender obscures the productive effects of this struggle. Engaging with contemporary threats demanded new ways of writing, new strategies and techniques, and the period is characterized by a dynamism that is often not recognized, perhaps because it does not fit dominant models of formal experimentation. Committed writing in the decade, and particularly left-wing writing, is conventionally seen as marked by a dogmatic certainty that reduced literature to propaganda, an instrument to shape public perceptions and behavior, and reduced writers to what Zhdanov, quoting Stalin, described in his speech to the famous 1934 Soviet Writers' Congress as "engineers of human souls" ([1935] 1977, 22). In fact, as Kohlmann demonstrates, many engaged authors were acutely aware that recognizing the political implications of art increased rather than resolved the formal problems that confronted them and felt torn between their commitment to literature, as they had previously understood it, and politics. Their work emerged from this tension and bore its imprint.

Committed Styles is clearly organized around the central figure of I. A. Richards. A number of the authors Kohlmann discusses encountered Richards directly at Cambridge, and his ideas, expounded in texts such as The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), informed a generation of writers and critics. Richards is at first glance an unlikely focus for an analysis of engaged literature and, as Kohlmann observes, his "influence, though pervasive, was largely negative in providing a foil for the quite different agendas of politicized authors" (8). Young intellectuals reacted to what they saw as Richards's "defence of 'pure' writing," although Kohlmann argues that this interpretation of his ideas "originated to a significant degree in Eliot's canonical attacks" on them and that it was the public dispute between the two figures, rather than Richards's work alone, which gave a new generation "a language through which they could voice their nascent political interests and reflect on the implications of those interests for their own literary work" (19, 40). The debate not only provided a basis upon which to explore what Kohlmann describes as "the 'weak' version of the belief-problem," the idea of "belief as a passive presence in poetry which complicates the idea of a text-centred critical hermeneutics" (18), but it also made possible an exploration of "the 'strong' version" (19) of the problem that considers "the possibilities of advertising and propagating belief, whether religious or political, by artistic means" (18-19).

Despite Eliot's "public assertion of his royalist and Anglo-Catholic convictions," Kohlmann argues his "attention to 'the relation of poetry to the spiritual and social life of its time' was in many ways closer to the concerns of left-wing authors than Richards's own position" (22), and, in general, his influence on the period has been more conspicuous and widely discussed. Writers in the 1930s nonetheless continued to engage with Richards's ideas about literature and to pursue his critical concerns under new historical conditions. Kohlmann argues that the "intensity" with which they "discussed the notion of artistic 'sincerity' emanated in part from Richards's writing, where it was linked to a belief in poetry's salvational powers" (55). They also adapted his methods to different ends, and Kohlmann claims persuasively that "the anonymized reader reports which I. A. Richards collected from his students in his practical criticism lectures" provided Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings with an "early template" for the "day surveys" used by Mass-Observation (128). Investigators for Mass-Observation asked a multitude of observers to give an account of individual days, concentrating on everyday events, practices and routines, and provided the material for texts such as May the Twelfth (1937), which used the work of more than two hundred diarists. Kohlmann's analysis demonstrates a sophisticated model of influence that not only considers the simple imitation or inversion of earlier forms and positions but recognizes the importance of adaptation and misreading in generating new texts. The result is a complex understanding of the literature of the 1930s that recognizes the various, sometimes contradictory, pressures that acted upon individual authors, as well as the extent to which they developed their distinct artistic practices and concerns using models and terminologies inherited from earlier critical struggles.

Kohlmann's book not only critically challenges some dominant conceptions of interwar literature but considers marginalized authors and the neglected work of canonical figures. His discussion of William Empson, for example, focuses on his verse rather than his better-known critical works; he argues that while the latter also "participate in the search for a position outside the decades ideological frontlines," they "often gloss over the difficulties and perplexities which are so perceptively recorded in his poetry" (72). The poems are valuable in part because they expose tensions in Empson's thought that his prose conceals, revealing in particular his struggle to achieve an "'honesty' that would enable a stance of detachment without implying a retreat from the sites of political action" (54). Kohlmann contests the "critical commonplace ... that William Empson succeeded in maintaining a form of 'mental equilibrium'" (53) amid the struggles and violence of the 1930s and insists that Empson was a conflicted thinker, acutely conscious of the problems of any claim to neutrality. Empson tried to retain his "artistic and political independence" in a period marked by repeated calls for commitment, but he knew that this "could too easily resemble a defeatist retreat from social and political action," particularly for those of his peers who prided themselves on their engagement (67, 76). While he insisted on the "inherent value of trying to understand both sides in a conflict," he also believed that "poetry must be able to engage with the particularity of its historical moment" and recognized that, in a time of wars, authoritarian government, and political polarization, this engagement might involve sympathy and support for particular causes (87). Kohlmann argues that Empson's time in China and Japan was crucial in developing his ideas and anxieties about commitment and that he eventually took "sides with the Chinese during the Second Sino-Japanese War" (68). For Empson's experience of being "forced into exile" with National Peking University following the Japanese invasion of China had put "his political neutrality under strain" (79). Kohlmann's reading of Empson's poetry not only emphasizes its role in understanding his work as a whole but, more important, restores him to discussions of the relationship between literature and politics in the 1930s. In Kohlmann's analysis, Empson is not a detached figure isolated from the concerns of his contemporaries, but one in whose work and thought the characteristic anxieties of the period play out.

A concern with contradiction and ambivalence characterizes Committed Styles as a whole, as does the attempt to extend ideas of what texts and movements should be considered in discussions of literature and politics. This is demonstrated in Kohlmann's reading of the Surrealists. The Surrealists have often been represented as turning from the social to the individual, from politics to psychology. The contemporary Marxist critic Christopher Caudwell acknowledged a radical element in their project, noting that they had tried to "revolt" against the "sordid craftlessness of mass-production," but claimed that they did so by retreating into the personal and technical, like "the craftsman who makes trifling models and toys in his spare time to exercise his skill" (1973, 126). Kohlmann insists on the political dimensions of English surrealism, arguing that many of the artists who contributed to the movement initially believed "in poetry's ability to change society," and he discusses writers such as Roger Roughton to trace their attempts to construct surrealism as a "serious form of political engagement" that "subverts deeply ingrained ways of seeing reality" (94). Conversely, he emphasizes the ways in which even the most overtly engaged writers retained artistic concerns that complicated their efforts to contribute to political movements. The chapter on Edward Upward, often dismissed as one of the most dogmatic 1930s writers, a man whose "literary career is usually held to be symptomatic of the artistic failures of thirties politicized writing more generally," focuses on the tensions in his work and argues that his "fiction gives a voice to the anxieties which are sometimes suppressed in the more confident communist tracts of the decade" (161, 188).

Kohlmann has already established himself as a sympathetic and perceptive critic of Upwards writing and his analysis here continues the work of his collection Edward Upward and Left-wing Literary Culture in Britain (2013) by insisting on Upward as a complex, conflicted writer who was conscious of the friction between his artistic and political commitments. While some of Upwards contemporaries, most obviously Stephen Spender, reduced him to a simple caricature, a "figure onto whom politicized authors of the 1930s could project their artistic fears about going over to the Communist Party" ([1967] 1979, 161-62), Kohlmann argues that his work is structured by a series of unresolved tensions, between "the internal discursive 'Truth' of a text and the 'Truth' of its statements about reality," between "two narrative modes ... fantasy and prophecy," and between "a commitment to historical particularity and a search for the vaster subtext of historical development" (166, 172, 196). To expose the "profound instabilities" in his work "is not to question the seriousness of his political commitment" but to recognize the "complexity of the revolutionary sentiments that animate much left-wing literature of the 1930s" (188). Upward is important to our understanding of the 1930s, not because he demonstrates the destructive consequences of commitment for the creative artist but because he shows some of the ways in which writers in the period struggled with their simultaneous commitments to art and politics.

Committed Styles is an impressively researched book that makes extensive use of little-known texts, including archival material, and grounds its broader analyses in a close engagement with specific works. This includes a productive attention to language. Kohlmann's reading of Empson, for example, notes his "persuasive use of gerunds" in "Autumn on Nan-Yiieh" and the centrality of "progressive verb forms" to his "poetry in the 1930s" more generally (84). This level of detail means that the book can sometimes be demanding; but Kohlmann's prose is consistently lucid and precise, and his arguments are well-organized and tightly focused. Committed Styles will be criticized by some for its focus on the kind of middle-class, white, male authors central to previous accounts of the decade, but it is clear about the parameters of its critical intervention and opens a space for further scholarship on the 1930s. The book complicates and extends our understanding of a dominant literary culture still identified primarily with the "Auden circle" writers and their experience of engagement and disillusion, but it also recognizes, for example, the "widespread neglect of working-class writing" and raises broader questions about the relations between literature and politics, both in the 1930s and beyond (10). As Kohlmann argues, the fact that "committed writers such as Upward continue to be excluded from the literary canon today indicates that our own standards of critical evaluation are still more deeply embedded in the anti-thirties discourse of the 1940s and 1950s than we commonly admit" (199). Literary histories and interpretative models continue to insist that there is an inherent opposition between literature and politics, that anyone who dedicates themselves to one neglects the other. The idea of the 1930s as a literary wasteland seems to support this claim. Kohlmann not only suggests that authors in the period were more conscious of the difficulties of reconciling the various demands upon them than established narratives allow but that this friction could be productive, driving innovations in form and subject matter. Committed Styles offers new insights into the authors it discusses, but it also contributes to the necessary work of dismantling the tired stereotypes of the 1930s and the rejection of committed writing they legitimize. It opens the way for a more generous, diverse, and challenging view of the decade and a renewed engagement with political literature more generally. Scholarly, perceptive, and carefully argued, it deserves to be widely read.

DOI 10.1215/0041462X-3654263

Ben Clarke is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of Orwell in Context: Communities, Myths, Values and coauthor, with Michael Bailey and John K. Walton, of Understanding Richard Hoggart: A Pedagogy of Hope.

Works cited

Caudwell, Christopher. 1973. Illusion and Reality. 1937. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Croft, Andy. 1990. Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Cunningham, Valentine. 1997. "The Age of Anxiety and Influence; or, Tradition and the Thirties Talents." In Rewriting the Thirties: Modernism and After, edited by Keith Williams and Sean Matthews, 5-22. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Spender, Stephen. (1967) 1979. The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1930s-1970s. New York: Vintage.

Zhdanov, A. A. (1935) 1977. "Soviet Literature--The Richest in Ideas. The Most Advanced Literature." In Soviet Writers' Congress 1934: The Debate on Socialist Realism and Modernism in the Soviet Union, by Maxim Gorky et al., 15-24. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
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Author:Clarke, Ben
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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