Joan Didion begins her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem with W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” printed in full as an epigraph; the title and the long quotation underscore Didion’s perception of the rupture of the 1960s: a revolution—sexual and political—of which she was skeptical. As she explains in her preface, she “had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.” Later in the same book, in the essay “On Morality” she argues that the “ethic of conscience” as a measure of a writer or anyone else’s morality was an “insidious” metric; neither the individual’s intention nor—as will be discussed in this essay—the form of the work conferred “any ipso facto virtue.” Scholars of modernism have not been so careful.
“Respectfully submitted for your perusal—a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown.” So begins Rod Serling’s characteristically clipped voice-over narration near the beginning of “To Serve Man,” a 1962 episode of the cannily uncanny half-hour television series The Twilight Zone, in which one such Kanamit arrives in his spaceship in New York City and soon afterward appears before the Security Council of the United Nations. There the hyperintelligent giant, speaking perfect English (though without moving his lips) offers Earthlings freedom from war, hunger, and disease—problems that the Kanamits themselves, he says, long ago overcame.
French surrealism at mid-twentieth century was marked (some would say, marred) by André Breton’s new-found interest in esoteric knowledge—a period, argues Gavin Parkinson in his latest book, in which surrealism “willingly entered a critical and theoretical wilderness with its advocacy of magic and occultism in its art, poetry and theory, and its insistence on the ‘indispensable condition of enchantment’—the impenetrable nucleus of resistance to human inquiry that exists within any system of knowledge” (322). Parkinson’s justification for what he calls surrealism’s “journey into obscurity,” is an accomplished revisionist account of what has been treated as surrealism’s most misguided moment, one that Parkinson has successfully complicated—and recuperated—with the movement’s engagement with metaphor, symbolism, regional medievalism, and abstraction, as articulated by Breton’s concurrent assessment of fin-de-siècle French painting (323).
In the editorial statement of the first issue of Rhythm, John Middleton Murry writes: “Our intention is to provide art, be it drawing, literature or criticism, which shall be vigorous, determined, which shall have its roots below the surface, and be the rhythmical echo of the life with which it is in touch.” He would later explain that the magazine treated rhythm as “the distinctive element in all the arts, and that the real purpose of ‘this modern movement’ . . . was to reassert the preeminence of rhythm.”
How did the novel, which shared most of its history with the rise and consolidation of the modern nation-state, adapt to a new world order scrambled by war, colonialism, and migration?
In the introduction to his superb book Realism after Modernism, Devin Fore describes a “shared modernist aspiration to achieve conditions of perception and consciousness outside of what is customarily arrogated to the human.” He sees this as the tie that binds avant-garde movements across early twentieth-century Europe: from José Ortega y Gasset to Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Cezanne to Velimir Khlebnikov, modernism was a radically diverse enterprise with an eye to the aesthetic transcendence of language, figuration, an
From 1920 to 1932, the Literary Digest—a weekly American magazine—accurately predicted the winner of each presidential election in the United States by conducting massive straw polls. In 1936, however, the magazine fell into irreparable ignominy when, after distributing over ten million questionnaires, the editors predicted a landslide victory for Republican candidate Alf Landon, only to have Franklin Roosevelt win handily, securing sixty-one percent of the popular vote. George Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion, founded just the year before, gained widespread notoriety for not only correctly predicting the election’s outcome using only 50,000 respondents, but also estimating the Digest poll’s error in advance of their publication, with a sample of just 3,000. Gallup took the technique of the questionnaire, made politically potent by mass print culture, yet still employed as a blunt instrument, and infused it with a newfound statistical rigor. Gallup’s confrontation with the Digest at once exemplified and accelerated the growing influence that questionnaires had in American culture in the 1930s, and particularly highlighted how modern periodicals might thrive—or wither—by using this technique to actively engage national political debates. The Literary Digest, founded in 1890, endured its shame only briefly, being sold in 1938 and shortly thereafter dissolved into Henry Luce’s Time. Gallup’s Institute, meanwhile, became a leading authority in evaluating public opinion, his name soon treated as metonymic for the use of modern, quantitative polling.
A brilliant and timely book, The Extinct Scene joins the growing list of scholarly works that deal with Anglo-British modernism in the middle of the twentieth century, such as Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism (1999), Marina MacKay’s Modernism and World War II (2007), Leo Mellor’s Reading the Ruins (2011), Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters (2013), and Gill Plain’s Literature of the 1940s (2013). These works establish continuities from the interwar years through the Second World War and into the era of British decolonization.