Samuel Hynes (1924-2019) R.I.P.

Another veteran American literary scholar and critic died earlier this month at Princeton . This was Samuel Hynes, WWII veteran fighter pilot and retired Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton University. He was 95. His best known critical work was a trilogy covering British literature bewteen the Edwardian era and the beginning of WWII. The third volume of that work was entitled The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (1977).

Hynes begins his book with a consideration of The Waste Land as a defining book for Auden’s (and Waugh’s) generation. These were the writers who began their careers in the late ’20s-early ’30s.  Vile Bodies was another defining work that period.  As part of that discussion Hynes brings in the scene in Brideshead where Anthony Blanche declaims Eliot’s poem from a Christ Church balcony. While Hynes doesn’t mention Waugh’s use of the poem as the title for his fourth novel, A Handful of Dust, he does compare several passages of Vile Bodies to The Waste Land:

Vile Bodies is a London novel only in the sense that The Waste Land is a London poem; the city itself is an Unreal City, a fantasy of modern life lived in the absence of values. […] the world of Vile Bodies is a Waste Land, only it is a Waste Land inhabited mainly by Bright Young People. […] The word that the Bright Young People use again and again [to describe] the condition in  their lives is “bogus”. […] Bogusness […] is not a simple expression of cynicism. It is a generation’s judgment of a world emptied of significance, and a sign of their ‘almost fatal hunger for permanence’. As in Eliot, the emptiness of modern existence is ironically under-scored by reference to magnificent visions of the past. (pp. 57-59)

Hynes is also impressed that “Waugh was the first English novelist to see his own time as a period entre deux guerres.”  (p. 60) The past war is described in photos of its participants displayed on the walls of Lottie Crump’s hotel, Adam Symes’ witnessing of an Armistice Day observation on his way to Marylebone Station, and the description of the guests’ attire at Lady Anchorage’s party. The next war is foreseen in Fr Rothschild’s discussion of the meaning of history with Prime Minister Outrage and, of course, in the book’s last chapter. Hynes concludes the “interwar” discussion with this:

Waugh’s novel stands, in many important way, as a precursor of later writing of the decade: in its prophecy of war, in its consciousness of the separateness of the younger generation, in its contemptuous hostility to the politics of the establishment, in its irony, in its bitter, farcical wit, and perhaps most importantly in the way Waugh has gone beyond probability and beyond realism to build a parabolic world, a comical Unreal City of sad, yearning Bright Young People. (p. 63)

Later in his book Hynes takes up travel writing of the ’30s in which writers “turned their travels into interior journeys and parables of their times, making landscape and incident–the factual narrative of reportage–do the work of symbol and myth–the materials of fable.” (p. 228) As examples of this he cites, inter aliaWaugh in Abyssinia and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps. He goes on to cite Waugh’s earlier travel books as “witty” and “popular” but distinguishes them from the more “striking” books of the later years of the decade that included Waugh in Abyssinia, a little-read book that is frequently dismissed by Waugh’s other critics.

According to Hynes’s obituary in the New York Times:

Enraptured by airplanes from childhood, Professor Hynes flew 78 combat missions over the Pacific. He once described flying as “a life, like a sex life, that no normal guy would give up if he didn’t absolutely have to.” But the dozens of books he wrote, contributed to and edited were not all drenched in blood and guts. Among the more composed were his dissections of Thomas Hardy’s poetry, Edwardian novels and the work of W.H. Auden and his contemporaries.


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