Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity

Ideologues by Max Beckmann, 1919

Edited by Santanu Das and Kate McLoughlin. Proceedings of the British Academy
Oxford University Press.2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

This collection of eleven essays by British and American scholars presents a modernist analysis of an international range of writers including Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, David Jones, and Robert Service. Also included are Mary Borden and Enid Bagnold and a variety of civilian authors such as H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and others. The visual arts are also engaged through some film and the work of Käthe Kollwitz.

Since these writers and artists are considered in the light of modernism, the editors are heedful of explaining what they mean by the term. They admit that "a single, exhaustive definition of modernity [is] impossible," and so "have chosen to focus on three fundamental areas where it intersects most powerfully with the war" and its literature (p 6). They identify these areas as uncertainty, intensification, and cosmopolitanism. The three sections of the book fall under these subheadings and each section contains three or four scholarly essays analyzing WWI writers and artists in light of these terms.

The viewpoints of the essayists are varied and complex, as the editors admit in their lengthy introduction:

Modernity, as understood in this volume, is no fixed or homogenous category: it occurs at different levels, at different points in time, affects different groups in different ways. For some, it is a collapsing line of Enlightenment thinking; for others it is new terrors in the skies and in the mind. For still others it is unprecedently heightened battle experience arising from the sheer scale and industrialized nature of the conflict; for yet others it is a first encounter with technological modernity as well as with foreign lands and different races (p. 11).

The first section of essays deals with uncertainty but is titled "Unfathomable." The connection soon becomes clear: the writers discussed all reveal one thing—that the war was "incomprehensible, unassimilable and (hence) unshareable" (p 40). Wordsworth's 1798 poem "The Discharged Soldier" is the starting point here but then follow analyses of work by Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, and David Jones. How can we possibly fathom, let alone share, the experiences and losses of what was at the time an unthinkable cataclysm? Or as Vincent Sherry, in the final essay in this section states:

I am recovering one formal sense of the original horrors of the war, where an older notion of the value of human life, as reckoned in the cultural understanding of sacrifice, is undergoing a massive and shattering change. The record of its undoing offers one of the most telling narratives of the difference the war made in the history of modernity (p 83).

Part 2 ("Scoping the War") deals with the different kinds of intensity captured in film and literature of the time. How did the arts capture and attempt to transmit the various kinds of intensity experienced in the war? A big drawback was that those who were in the war were often unwilling to talk about it—or found the effort futile. Civilians were unable to truly understand. Thus the first essay, "Civilians Writing the War: Metaphor, Proximity, Action," studies passages from H. G. Wells's Mr. Britling Sees it Through, Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, and Mary Borden's The Forbidden Zone. Following is an essay on a group of films, including The Battle of the Somme (1916) and J'Accuse (1919), in which the author points out that:

The complex relations between distance and proximity in film-at once a detached world in which the spectator cannot intervene and at the same time one which produces the most powerful identification between seer and seen-are an important source of this characteristic intensification of experience (p 127).

Also in this section is an essay on what the zeppelin raids on Britain meant in terms of the intensification of the war in civilian experience, followed by an interesting comparison of the dissent found in significant writings by Wyndham Lewis and Henry Williamson.

Part 3, "Cosmopolitan Sympathies?" is, as the editors point out, "political in character, with essays examining cultural encounters and exchanges across the boundaries of nationality and race" (p 6). Here we find the war scrutinized through a quite different lens than we're used to. We tend to forget that during the war several million people of various ethnic groups traveled to all theaters to fight or labor for the British and French armies. They were "soldiers and labourers, officers and privates, Indian sepoys, Senegalese tirailleurs, Maori pioneers, doctors, nurses, writers..." (p 25).

The essays here look at what this global upheaval meant to many people. How did it influence the work of artists like Käthe Kollwitz, especially her seven woodcuts titled Krieg (War), and the 50 etchings, aquatints, and drypoints of Otto Dix? What can we unearth of cosmopolitanism in poets such as Isaac Rosenberg, Thomas Hardy, Robert Service, Wilfred Owen, and Mary Borden? A final essay by Santanu Das explores the extent to which this cosmopolitanism caused eruptions and frictions of racism and anti-colonialism, sometimes in a "climate of anxiety and fear" (p 240). Less known but also important figures come to light in this essay, such as Kris Manjapra, Mulk Raj Anand, Rabindranath Tagore, and the memoirist Sisir Prasad Sarbadhikari.

This is a scholarly book which includes several intriguing black-and-white photos and artwork. All bibliographic references are included in the copious footnotes on each page, and an index concludes the text. A fascinating study for those interested in uncovering some overlooked aspects of the Great War through the eyes of modernism.

David F. Beer


  1. This sounds excellent.
    Glad to see the wide range of voices represented.
    Thank you, David.

  2. This is a Finely composed review. The work sounds much like Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory.