The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question


The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question. By Nick Hubble. Edinburgh University Press, 2017. 224 pp. £75.00 (cloth).  

Reviewed by Michael McCluskey, University of York


Recent work in modernism examines the networks that emerged in the early twentieth century (transportation, communication, information), their impact on literature and culture, and—self-reflectively—the field of modernist studies itself. Amid this research comes Nick Hubble’s The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, a fascinating book that looks into the relationships touched upon in these other studies—“class, gender, societal, colonial, media, and mechanised production relationships” (2)—but considered through the concept of “proletarian-modernist literature” (28). Proletarian literature was a particular interest among British interwar writers and, as Hubble demonstrates, its forms and subjects—as well as the concept of working-class culture itself—has continued relevance, especially in our current political climate. While the book begins with Edwardian ideas of class and culture, it ends with some considerations for a “post-capitalist politics that can handle intersectional complexity as well as individual desires” (198). These considerations include a call for literary scholars to recognize the radical potential of early twentieth-century texts as possible resources for an “intersectional approach” (199) to politics today. Indeed, Hubble’s book is a manifesto for a new “New Modernist Studies,” (199) one that can harness the energy seen in the explosion of interest in various modernisms and direct it toward sustained, global, public engagement with the complexities and desires of our current world. 

The “modernist question” that the book addresses stems from a statement made by the writer Alick West in 1937: “When I do not know any longer who are the ‘we’ to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who ‘I’ am either” (1). While the relationship between the “I” of the writer and the “we” of society might be seen as a potential source of inquiry for writing from any period, Hubble makes clear the significance of West’s statement in the context of the early twentieth century. Economic and technological changes, the expansion of education, and political revolution in Russia precipitated a crisis both in capitalism and in class relations, that is, relations between classes and between an individual and their conception of the limitations and possibilities of their own particular class. The question “to whom do I belong?” was particularly resonant in the 1930s and, according to Hubble, found expression in the “proletarian-modernist” writing that he investigates in this book. The hyphen indicates that this is not another addition to the spate of “adjective + modernism” titles published in recent years but, rather, a study of literature that could be both proletarian and modernist: interested in populations, experiences, and desires not often represented as well as experimental in technique.

Hubble provides a useful discussion of the term “proletarian” and what exactly proletarian literature is and is not. The literary history that he briefly but deftly moves through in the book’s introduction is in itself an excellent resource for scholars interested in the interwar period. The overall takeaway, though, is the book’s argument that literary representations of working-class cultures (whether produced by “proletarian” writers or not) are unavoidably interconnected with ideas of gender, capitalism, politics, and patriarchy. The “intersectional web” (8) that underlies these works can help us to understand the challenges of the interwar period, modernist responses to them, and even the capacity of literary scholars to intervene in debates about gender, capitalism, and politics today. 

The five chapters bring together canonical works by Woolf, Lawrence, Orwell, and Ford and less familiar titles that, as Hubble suggests, would be engaging additions to course reading lists. These include Ellen Wilkinson’s Clash (1929), Walter Brierley’s Means Test Man (1935), Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), and John Sommerfield’s May Day (1936). While at first it seems odd to have a long section devoted to Mitchison’s novel in the middle of the book’s introduction, this editorial decision becomes clear as one moves through the chapters that follow. The extended close reading of Mitchison’s work sets up the book’s interests in intersubjectivity and women’s agency (working class women, in particular) and establishes its strategy: allowing long passages of shrewd readings of novels to illustrate the points Hubble makes, most notably the point that sexual desire intersects with political desire and the desire to create a different society. William Empson’s ideas of pastoral and Kristin Bluemel’s conception of intermodernism are brought in early on as theoretical touchstones, and referred to throughout to help examine the work of specific writers as well as to pinpoint the book’s intervention in both interwar discussions and more recent work in modernist studies. It is this double focus that gives the book its pep and punch. Behind every case study is Hubble’s insistence that these texts are incredibly relevant today. And each case study offers detailed evidence of the intersectional approach that the book advocates—an approach understood more clearly as the case studies build to create their own intersectional web. Hubble not only offers fresh readings of each novel but also makes connections among them: “Woolfian techniques” (26) in Sommerfield’s May Day; the “music-hall modernism” (73) of Ford and Wells; the freedoms of the city; shop-girl fantasies; and, most prominently, the idea that “women’s desires are often the driving force for change,” (198–99) particularly in proletarian-modernist writing. This is the central point of Hubble’s book and the source of his belief that modernist studies (or the alternatively-titled “Twentieth Century Studies”) might itself be an agent of change in the world we face today.

Following the results of the 2016 US presidential election, Debra Rae Cohen as co-editor of Modernism/modernity sent out a call for modernist scholars to consider what exactly those working in the field of modernist studies could do to intervene in “these uncertain times” by actively integrating “social justice, teaching, and research.” It seems Nick Hubble had already been thinking along these lines and has produced a book that is both richly researched and socially engaged. “When I do not know any longer who are the ‘we’ to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who ‘I’ am either,” Alick West wrote in 1937. The quotation is relevant to Hubble’s writers but also speaks to the crisis many in the US and UK face in these uncertain times and, more parochially, to researchers concerned with the spread of “modernism” as catch-all for anything twentieth century. The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question is Hubble’s address to both these audiences: a manifesto and a model for future research. To whom do modernist scholars belong? Hopefully the “we” of Hubble’s intersectional web.



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