Modernism on Fleet Street

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "Modernism on Fleet Street", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 6, pp. 461-463.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Modernism is associated with Enlightenment rationalism, notions of the public sphere and civil society, and with a sustained critique of mass communication and popular culture. With postmodernism it has gone through several more incarnations since the 1940s and 1950s, and now the debate about culture, commercialism and consumerism has become (depending on your point of view) more relativistic, tolerant, or confused. Back in the period between 1900 and 1945, things seem to have been clearer (or at least rather more contrasted).

This is the period on which Patrick Collier (Ball State University) concentrates for his examination of the modernism of the writers T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Rose Macaulay and Rebecca West. What they had in common, though in different ways, was a scepticism about the popular press, above all that represented by Northcliffe's Daily Mail. The emergence of this mass newspaper seemed to take communication into a new and dangerous area after the conventions of the nineteenth‐century, an area of sensationalism and prurience, of emotional and linguistic decay, that undermined class and education, culture and literature. Collier's task is to explore how these writers expressed their ideas about these things and how they managed what clearly emerges for Collier, and for them, as a contradiction or a compromise.

The contradiction was to be a “high culture” author (to use Eliot's words) while at the same time earning a living from commercial activities like publishing essays and reviews, many of them in the very newspapers they criticised. Some, like Rebecca West, can be regarded now as more of a journalist than a novelist, while others, like Joyce, was an enthusiastic participant in journalism (particularly political journalism) for only part of their working lives (in Joyce's case until 1912). In Rose Macaulay's case, issues about new journalism and commercial compromise come through her fiction, while Virginia Woolf's famous essay on “The Common Reader” is a locus classicus for that debate about who readers were and what kind of relationship they had, and should have, with novelists and literature.

West argued that literary people not only depended on commercial channels like the press but also were intermediaries between literary ideas and the general public. The concept of the “public” in itself was a constant matter of analysis by such writers and others at the time, and Collier brings out some interesting evidence on what they thought (for instance how Woolf differed from Frank Swinnerton). For West there was not just one public but numerous publics, and as a result the apparent cultural divide between art and commerce was a highly complex issue – based more on economics and history than simply on class.

Even so, the modernist position we remember from the period is usually that represented by T.S. Eliot with his concept of “high culture”, picked up later by Leavis in Scrutiny but appearing in many places, above all the small literary magazines like The Egoist and The Criterion: that popular journalism not only pandered to a sensationalist mass market but that it actively and insidiously degraded language and meaning. It followed that civil society and rational debate were under threat, something that took on added resonance with the rise of fascism.

Many small magazines folded for lack of money, a story of its own brought out well elsewhere by Miller and Price. Collier looks closely at Eliot's work and picks out the poet's now‐familiar arguments about cultural and linguistic degradation, the growing role of advertising and consumerism. At the same time, Collier is right to highlight the seeming‐paradox that only with this context could poems like The Waste Land have been written. Eliot's stance, of course, reprises Arnold's famous arguments about culture and anarchy, and that (and Raymond Williams through to Hoggart, with a leavening of Adorno) informs the intellectual thread of the book.

With Woolf the paradox develops further: she was a keen and competent reviewer yet someone who believed that reviews could and should be far better than they were, and that selection of books for review, and reviews themselves, that appeared in the newspapers, tended to deal with “stars, coteries and a saturated market”. Collier allows Woolf herself to express her views on coterie reviewing and “log‐rolling” (where you praise a book of someone you know). Wider issues of intellectual prostitution (the high‐falutin' angle) and needing to earn a living play like a refrain about this discussion, and Woolf's comments on contemporaries like Nicolson and Swinnerton are well‐known but worth revisiting.

Turning to Joyce, his early interest in journalism was based on a belief that nationalist politics were well‐served by journalists. Later he lost interest and it is only through his novels that we see, very refractedly, what Joyce thought about the modernist debate (if we can call it one). Collier interprets episodes like Circe and Eumaeus from Ulysses, and, while readers familiar with the book will say “oh, yes!”, students of the press will learn a lot. In a similar vein, Collier lets Rose Macaulay's views come through her fiction (works like Non‐Combatants and Potterism), and the evidence he brings is clear and convincing. He does not lose sight of the paradox, either, or nor does Macaulay herself: her critique exudes through plot and characterization but her very engagement with journalism allows her to position herself as the writer she was. This was also a way of positioning herself as a female writer.

Modernism on Fleet Street is a book likely to attract several different readerships – students of the literature of the period interested in what journalism such writers did (it is a nice thematic survey picking up on what has been covered so far mainly by individual studies of the writers themselves), students of journalism and the media (above all those interested in history), and readers (including teachers) interested to tie the two fields together coherently.

Most negatively the book has all the signs of a university course turned into a book, most positively it is a well‐researched clearly‐presented (and well‐annotated) introduction to an area of authorship and commercial activity that have increasing interest for the hybrid courses on media and the like that are on offer from universities good and bad around the world. Librarians considering the work might explore the Ashgate list further for other things in period and in the idiom of this work.

Further reading

Chinitz, D. (2003), T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

McDonald, G. (1993), Learning to be Modern: Pound, Eliot, and the American University, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Miller, D. and Price, R. (2006), British Poetry Magazines 1914‐2000: A History and Bibliography of Little Magazines, British Library Publications/New Castle, DE, Oak Knoll Press, London.

Morrisson, M. (2000), The Public Face of Modernism, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI.

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