The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | A History of 1930s British Literature

A History of 1930s British Literature. Edited by Benjamin Kohlmann and Matthew Taunton. Cambridge University Press, 2019. 474 pp. £84.99 (cloth); $110.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Naomi Milthorpe, University of Tasmania

It’s not simple presentism to hear echoes of the politics, aesthetics, and anxieties of the 1930s in our contemporary moment. The polarization of the political spectrum, the documentary turn (seen nowadays, particularly, in the personal essay and the podcast), the sharp increase in utopian and dystopian visions: these and more seem reflective of the mood, as well as the forms, of 1930s literature in Britain. In particular, crisis—which as Marina MacKay comments in her essay in this volume, “formed the sensibility of an entire literary generation” (362)—is familiar to humans living in this century’s teens and twenties. As I write, coronavirus sweeps the world, forcing millions into unemployment in a matter of weeks, and setting off what looks to be a bigger economic and joblessness crisis than the Great Depression. A History of 1930s British Literature pivots towards the now in its opening paragraph. Editors Benjamin Kohlmann and Matthew Taunton note that the decade is “en vogue.…Turning back to the 1930s seems to exert the same morbid fascination as watching a car crash in slow motion, a catastrophe that seems tragically inevitable but that could have been avoided by the historical actors involved” (1). Perhaps our fascination stems from the hope that we can avoid similar such disasters.

But, as Kohlmann and Taunton say, reading the 1930s as though it were equivalent to our own time “produce[s] a profoundly distorted” and “reductive and fetishized” portrait of the decade and its literature (2). A History of 1930s British Literature gathers together twenty-six essays from leading scholars in the field, under four key themes. In so doing, the volume offers an expansive, complex, and productively messy account of the literature and culture of what Leo Mellor and Glyn Salton-Cox in 2015 termed the “long 1930s,” underscored by the use of the indefinite article in the title of this volume (1). The volume supports and extends scholarship that recognizes the decade’s connections to as well as departures from modernism, and that seeks to more closely understand the distinctive forms and practices, and broadening networks of writers and professionals in the cultural sphere, that emerged during the thirties. Kohlmann and Taunton frame the decade as a time of “profound and continuous transition” that proffers to scholars a means to “rethink the literary history of the twentieth century with a new and distinctive set of questions in mind” (12). These questions are distilled in the volume’s organizing themes: space, place, and identity; professional networks and structures; commitments both political and aesthetic; and geopolitics. This volume showcases the breadth, diversity and vitality of 1930s cultural texts and producers (stretching the purely literary to other media including music, film, and radio), and offers an invaluable resource for students and scholars.

Part I, “Mapping a New Decade: Geographies and Identities,” focuses on representations of aspects of British identity, including those of region, sexuality, gender, politics, and class. The essays in this section illuminate the intersection of modes of identity during this decade, thus setting the stage for the volume’s overall project of thinking about literary production in the 1930s through “newly ambitious theoretical and historical accounts” (9). Kristin Bluemel’s chapter, “Beyond Englishness: The Regional and Rural Novel,” is somewhat of an opening salvo, reading ostensibly “regional” novels as contesting not only the dominance of the cosmopolitan and metropolitan during this period, but also the very notion of a homogeneous national identity. In contesting a centralized literary culture, Bluemel’s chapter effectively introduces the other essays in this section, by Emma Zimmerman, Nick Hubble, Kristin Ewins, and Glyn Salton-Cox, all likewise working towards recovering the period’s diversity through examining “neglected and non-normative” identities, including work by women, proletarian, and queer writers (8). Several of the essays put forth the claim that we need to read the thirties as a long decade. For instance, Nick Hubble reads the proletarian writing of the thirties, in particular the “social-realist urban pastoral” depicting life in working-class English streets and urban centers, as profoundly influencing the “dominant mode of the cultural representation of the British welfare state,” evident in countless serial soaps, kitchen-sink dramas, and popular sitcoms (55). The long 1930s, in Hubble’s account, ends somewhere in the mid-1970s. Glyn Salton-Cox argues in a similar vein that the 1930s should be seen as “the start of a long process of contestation over the class formation of the canon” as working-class writers gained recognition and influence through leftist publishing ventures like John Lehmann’s New Writing (76). Salton-Cox suggests that the decade’s democratizing of literary culture, particularly through new mass media forms and institutions (radio, newspapers, paperbacks) can be seen to prefigure the late twentieth century’s canon wars, as writers from the working class, queer writers, regional writers, writers of color, and professional women writers (all variously examined in Part I) disturbed established hierarchies and institutions of cultural production.

The essays that comprise Part II, “Media Histories and the Institutions of Literature,” move from the individual writer to the institutions and systems in which these writers and their work circulated: through libraries, bookshops, and book clubs (Andrew Thacker), educational institutions (Matthew Taunton), the International PEN (Rachel Potter), paperbacks (Vike Martina Plock), journalism (Peter Marks), radio (Ian Whittington), film (Laura Marcus), and what James Purdon in his chapter terms “Telemediations,” communications across a range of technologies. In so doing, these essays underscore the relevance of the 1930s to many debates that continue to this day about the role of institutions in defining and promoting culture’s relation to, among other things, identity, economics, and the nation-state. Many of the essays, both in this section and in the volume as a whole, demonstrate the importance of the archive to recovering the complexity and heterogeneity of 1930s literary culture. Potter, for example, makes use of the records of International PEN (now known as PEN International) held at the Harry Ransom Center to illustrate the intersecting and conflicting interests of politics and aesthetics gathered in that organization’s membership. Taunton consults the Winifred Holtby Collection at the Hull History Centre to show Holtby’s work educating a popular audience through her journalism. Plock consults the Penguin Archives at Bristol University in her examination of the new reading publics to which Allen Lane’s paperback venture catered. These contributions illustrate the vitality of the archive for scholars seeking to better understand the professional and institutional contexts in which 1930s literary culture was produced, disseminated, and mediated.

Part III, “Commitment and Autonomy,” seeks to undo, or, at least, complicate, the oppositions between politics and art, left and right, which still frame much work about this decade. The essays in this section examine a “diverse range of commitments,” including political, religious, and economic commitments, “and their interlocking rather than oppositional relation to forms of artistic experimentation” (10). It is this section that contends most directly with modernism and its afterlife, while nevertheless acknowledging that the 1930s ushered in other modes of expression which cannot rightly be subsumed under the label “modernism.” As Leo Mellor writes, the thirties revised the mythic tendencies of modernism into a more inclusive and heterogeneous “pattern-seeking,” emphasizing “the ‘interrelated’ nature of all individual lives with others, and the political implications of understanding such interrelations” (257). Louise Wiggins’s chapter on British music illustrates the interrelation of cultural production across multiple authors, media, and institutions, showing the ways in which the “continuities and legacies” of modernism and politicized music connect British musicians and composers of the thirties—previously condemned as insular—with their counterparts beyond national boundaries (236). In an essay on “film-mindedness,” Rod Mengham traces the “re-wiring of the modernist project” through the experimental works of Len Lye (a collaborator of Laura Riding) and Humphrey Jennings (224), while Janice Ho’s chapter “The Colonial State and Transnational Welfare” reads fiction and music of the thirties through a historicist account of the embryonic transnational welfare state. These essays contribute to the recent tide of work that questions the “colonising logic” of new modernist studies (Mellor and Salton-Cox 4).

The final section of the volume, “Conflict and Change,” attends to the work of writing and the role of the author during the years of what John Connor describes in his essay on Anglo-Soviet literary relations as “imperial realignment, a partial and uneven transfer of economic and political power from the empires of old Europe to the emerging superpowers of the Cold War” (317). Many of the essays in this section consider a familiar trope from the cultural texts of this period: crisis. The essays here clearly read the thirties as a fulcrum—what Laura Winkiel describes as a “pivotal moment” (391)—between total wars, along the trajectory of empire, or in the waning of Britain’s international might (whether political or literary). Of course, what some people read as crisis or decline, others welcome as a necessary, and hopeful, break with the past. Connor, for instance, details how the “realignment” of literary and cultural “centres of gravity” away from London, Paris, and Berlin, and towards Moscow and New York, ushered in a democratized, postcolonial, and international cultural scene (318). Connor cites Mulk Raj Anand as an example of a “trajectory for a history of the long 1930s” (327): Anand’s waning reputation in Britain following the thirties was offset by his literary consecration by the USSR and involvement in the first Afro-Asian Writers Conference in 1958. From this was established the trilingual journal Lotus, “the major forum for a postcolonial literature untethered to the aesthetic norms and ideological pressures of the North Atlantic world” (328). Peter Kalliney likewise examines the career of Anand (along with Aimé Césaire and C.L.R. James) beyond 1939 through to the “aesthetic Cold War” to show “the emergence of colonial and postcolonial literatures” from the politicized writing of the thirties (377). Finally, Winkiel, in the volume’s closing essay, reads 1930s imperial and anti-colonial writing, much of it satiric, as signalling “the massive reorganisation of the world literary system that will eventually, post-1989, become global Anglophone writing” (403). These essays underline the aims of the volume’s editors, showing the 1930s as, indeed, a long decade, “a focal point of the political, social and aesthetic history of the past century” (8).

In tracing the pre-history and profound impact of the decade and its cultural agents, including writers, readers, composers, filmmakers, publishers, editors, educators, and readers, A History of 1930s British Literature invites us to see the thirties, in many ways, as the key period for scholars of twentieth-century literature.

Work Cited

Mellor, Leo and Glyn Salton-Cox. “Introduction: The Long 1930s.” The Long 1930s, special issue of Critical Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 3, 2015, pp.1–9.

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