The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968.

The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931–1968. By Emily Bloom. Oxford University Press, 2016. 205 pp. $80.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Melissa Dinsman, York College–City University of New York


“Only connect.” In E.M. Forster’s Howards End, this phrase encapsulates the quintessential modernist paradox: the desire to connect with others, and the knowledge that this connection will fail. Modernism is filled with such moments, from an imagined telephonic umbilical cord in Ulysses to a snapping thread in Mrs. Dalloway. In these examples, the tethering of the space between is precarious and fragile. Emily Bloom explores and amplifies this tension in The Wireless Past, an exciting addition to the growing field of radio studies, by focusing on modern Anglo-Irish writers—W.B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen, and Samuel Beckett—each of whom wrote and broadcasted for the BBC. Radio provided these writers an opportunity to reach a broader (global) public, but as Bloom notes, with this ability came the fear that such a connection would “limit and circumscribe [one’s] art” (2). Bloom takes an intertextual approach to the study of late-modernist radio broadcasting and connects radio to print in multiple ways. In each chapter, Bloom explores not only how the print literary careers of Anglo-Irish writers influenced their BBC broadcasts, but also how time in the broadcast studio altered their post-radio literary aesthetics, thereby “leaving upon traditional forms, from the poem to the novel to the stage play, a distinctive radiogenic trace” (26).

That this book focuses on Anglo-Irish writers is significant as it begins to fill a gap in radio scholarship that heavily weights British and American broadcasting histories. In the very name, “Anglo-Irishness” manifests distance and connection: the hyphen links space and time and nation in much the same way as radio does. In fact, although it goes unsaid, Bloom’s book is essentially about the many hyphens that make up late-modernist writing and radio broadcasting. Throughout The Wireless Past she discusses various states of troubled connectivity that emerge due to the nature of wireless broadcasting and national inbetweenness. These include public and private, oral and written, poetry and propaganda, imperial center and colonial periphery, neutrality and war, Irish independence and Ascendancy displacement, past and present, ephemerality and archive, and, most importantly for Bloom, broadcasting and literature.

In her opening chapter on W.B. Yeats, the most infrequent broadcaster in this study, Bloom argues against the perceived affinity for authoritarianism in Yeats's 1930s writing, advocating instead for a nuanced understanding of his relationship with public broadcasting. Far from seeing himself as speaking to the stereotypically passive masses, Yeats imagines interacting with intimate audiences, what he refers to as “the poet’s parlour” in one broadcast and “the poet’s pub” in another (42). Bloom’s tracing of Yeats’s evolution from transcribing Irish oral tradition into print to new performative methods such as stage readings and the radio is excellent and helps explain his perception of wireless broadcasts reaching small, distinct listenerships. Far from being a traditionalist, Yeats, as Bloom presents him, is open to technical experimentation and embraces radio broadcasting in his desire to make the Irish oral tradition new again. 

Like Yeats, MacNeice also hoped to encourage active listening through radio broadcasting. MacNeice began writing for the BBC during World War II when divisions between poetry and propaganda became nearly indistinguishable. By looking extensively at the multi-part wartime radio feature The Stones Cry Out and the postwar radio play The Dark Tower, Bloom explains how the blurring of aesthetics and politics during wartime continued after its end. Yet most interesting about this second chapter is not the mixing of art and propaganda, but rather the surprising identification of the echo chamber as the means to listener agency. Within MacNeice’s print poetry and radio broadcasts, Bloom identifies three types of echoes: 1) linguistic repetition, 2) intertextual references, and 3) sonic echoes produced by BBC sound effects (72). These echoes, Bloom explains, were MacNeice’s means of “addressing the political, ethical, and moral conflicts of the Second World War” (73).  And while today we think of an echo chamber as a space in which differing opinions are excluded, Bloom shows us that for MacNeice the echo acts as a form of hyphenation that amplifies both sameness and difference.

Chapter 3 moves away from poetry and explores the conceptual and formal links between radio broadcasting and the late-modern novel. Like MacNeice, Bowen wanted to “retrain” audiences, but whereas MacNeice aimed to teach active listening, Bowen wanted to challenge nostalgic readings of literature by bringing their significance into the “now” (94). Bloom begins this chapter by exploring the “fuse” between literary past and technological present through Bowen’s radio broadcasts (94), specifically those on Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. Here, Bloom convincingly argues that Bowen’s broadcasting goal was to make past literature relevant to a 1940s war-beleaguered audience. This goal, according to Bloom, continued postwar and post-BBC, as the immediacy of radio’s nowness led to a drastic “radiogenic” shift in Bowen final three novels, each of which focus on the past’s reemergence in the present. Of these three, Bloom’s work on A World of Love is the most persuasive, while Eva Trout seems to challenge any redemption made possible by technology. And while Bloom retreads familiar ground in terms of reading the return of the literary past and radio broadcasting as hauntings, she adds a welcome new twist by connecting Bowen’s radiogenic conjuring to the Irish gothic.

The connection between past and present continues in the last chapter, which explores Beckett’s work as “document[ing] the possibilities and limitations of the sound archive” (128). Specifically, Bloom reads Beckett’s 1950s radio play All That Fall and his subsequent stage play Krapp’s Last Tape as trying and failing to “preserve an auditory past” (131). This chapter is particularly rich in historical content as Bloom seamlessly glides from the Irishness of Beckett’s broadcasts to Beckett’s impact on BBC sound experimentation to his frustrating experience accessing BBC recordings of his work. Bloom’s reading of the plays as being about archives (the people and places of Beckett’s youth and the Irish language) in All That Fall and their destruction (both materially and in intelligibility over time) in Krapp’s Last Tape is also new and provocative. But perhaps most thought-provoking in this chapter is the striking tension between broadcasting ephemerality and archival materiality as found in Beckett’s plays. This, ultimately, is a comment on our own present-day struggles within radio studies to “preserve, access, and disseminate” the radio-event (133).

In her conclusion, Bloom opens up new research questions, the most fruitful of which may be Irish-Catholic broadcasting and the ways in which its political and literary messaging differ from the Anglo-Irish tradition. Another area for future scholarship at which Bloom hints in her chapters, but never fully explores, is that radio listening is also a visual process. This audio-visual hyphen has, in part, been taken up by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind, but an intertextual approach via radio (late) modernists could lead to new ways of hearing and seeing radio broadcasting. Finally, although Bloom mentions the Frankfurt School in the introduction, I felt the absence of at least a brief discussion of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht (both of whom sought to instruct listeners through dialectical radio plays) in the active listening sections of the early chapters. Despite this, The Wireless Past, with its focus on the Anglo-Irish broadcasting story, is a much-needed perspective in radio studies. Throughout, Bloom’s archival work is impressive, which makes the focus on archives in the last chapter all the more resonant. The Wireless Past comes at an exciting time in radio scholarship, as a number of books and articles are being published in quick succession. Bloom’s work fits nicely within this growing body of literature, adding new histories and literary readings that will help reshape the ways we view the interconnected and symbiotic relationship between modernism and radio broadcasting.

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