Modernism’s Centenary Marked: Essay and Lecture

There have been several stories in the papers recently about the major events in the history of modern literature that occurred in 1922. A recent article by John Self in The Critic magazine does an excellent job of bringing them together:

One hundred years ago, in 1922, the world changed. Not the real world, of course — that had happened a few years before, with the war — but the literary world, which is always a few ticks behind.[…] The year of 1922 was indelibly marked by the publication of two great, still-standing, monuments to modernism: James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. These two, bookending the year, are the great granddaddies of the show, but other titles, as we shall see, were just as important.[…]

The key connecting figure in literature’s year zero was the young poet Ezra Pound, whose impatient desire for a new Renaissance (“make it new!”) saw him find a publisher for Joyce’s first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and read draft pages of Ulysses. It was to Pound that Eliot dedicated The Waste Land (“il miglior fabbro” — the greater craftsman). Literature, after all, is a human story, and the web of relationships that informed the new literature tell us much about its development and purpose…

After a discussion of Joyce’s 1922 meeting with Marcel Proust and the impact of Proust’s death later in the year, Self returns to London. A discussion follows about how English writers reacted to Ulysses and The Waste Land and how Virginia Woolf contributed to modernism, notably with the 1922 publication of her novel Jacob’s Room. The article closes with this.

Where are the modernists now? Joyce, Eliot and Woolf are all still read, though attention tends to be focused on one or two major works by each (similarly, volume one of Proust’s epic has an Amazon sales rank ten times better than the next five volumes). At times Eliot’s influence seems to be less in poetry than in providing sonorous phrases with which other writers may title their books, from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas to Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, and many, many, many others. […]

The year of 1922 also gave birth to two writers, later lifelong friends, who would embody not just an absence of modernist experiment but opposition to it: Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin.

Quietly, three days after the first publication of Ulysses, the world received the first issue of a magazine that would dictate library and bookshop choices more than the modernists ever could: on 5 February 1922, Reader’s Digest was born. Its unashamedly populist anthologies of abridged novels — four per volume — would at their peak sell 10 million copies per year. And they have never included Ulysses, The Waste Land or Jacob’s Room.

Waugh seems to have admired Eliot’s work and injected in not only into A Handful of Dust but has Anthony Blanche declaim The Waste Land from Sebastian Flyte’s Christ Church balcony in Brideshead Revisited. As far as Ulysses’ contribution to modernism is concerned, Waugh offered these comments in a 1962 BBC TV interview. This is in answer to the question were writers trying to shock the public in the 1920s when Waugh was starting out?:

…What Cyril Connolly called The Break Through actually became the break-up. In painting, architecture and poetry, in which the common man has a certain feeling of awe so he’s prepared to be bamboozled–they accepted what was offered. But when it came to prose, the English common man knows what prose is, he talks it all the time himself and he wasn’t going to be taken in. And there were a lot of Americans, headed up by one called Gertrude Stein, who wrote absolute gibberish. They hired a poor, dotty Irishman called James Joyce–he was thought to be a great influence in my youth–and he wrote absolute rot, you know. He began writing quite well and you can see him going mad as he wrote, and his last books–only fit to be set for examinations at Cambridge. […] If you read Ulysses it’s perfectly sane for a little bit, and then it goes madder and madder–but that was before the Americans hired him […] to write Finnegan’s Wake, which is gibberish…(Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, v. 25: A Little Learning, pp 580-81).

Waugh added to the humor by consistently pronouncing “gibberish” with a hard G.

Those interested in how Waugh’s works relate to modernism may wish to know about this lecture: “The Waste Land (1922): A Mad Poem in a ‘Fallen’ World”. This will be delivered at the University of Leicester in Ogden Lewis Seminar Room 3 at 13:00p on 23 March 2022. Here are the details:

This centennial talk looks at the literary legacies of T. S. Eliot’s modernist poem. We will focus on novels by three Catholic authors – Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, and Muriel Spark – that respond, in similar and different ways, to Eliot’s apocalypticism.

Dr Scott Freer is the editor for ‘The Journal of the T. S. Eliot Society (UK)’, author of Modernist Mythopoeia: The Twilight of the Gods (2015), and co-editor of Religion and Myth in T. S. Eliot’s Poetry (2016).

*While we welcome non-ticket holders to all our Literary Leicester 2022 events, we do recommend booking your free tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.*

Tickets are free. Booking information is available at this link.


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