British Fiction in the 1930s: The Dispiriting Decade

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Author: Neil Nehring
Date: Summer 1995
From: Studies in the Novel(Vol. 27, Issue 2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,645 words

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In one of his last lectures (transcribed in The Politics of Modernism [New York: Routledge, 1989]), Raymond Williams implored literary scholars to search out "the neglected works left in the wide margin of the [twentieth] century" (p. 35), a task for which the late James Gindin was ideally suited. His capacious reading - taking on an extraordinary range of authors, including the noncanonical, by reading virtually everything each one wrote - astonished and shamed me, as I know it did others, when I studied with him at Michigan. That comprehensiveness reflects a sense of personal commitment, generosity, and responsibility to his subjects, a set of values that Gindin sums up in British Fiction in the 1930s, using Storm Jameson's terms, as "liberal humanism" (pp. 208,218). At its best, particularly in the chapter on Henry Green, British Fiction in the 1930s also exemplifies Gindin's deft, illuminating use of biographical material, if in far more abbreviated fashion that his masterwork, John Galsworthy's Life and Art: An Alien's Fortress.

The liberal humanism of his subjects - the evident basis on which he assembled Richard Aldington, Elizabeth Bowen, Green, L. P. Hartley, Rosamond Lehmann, J. B. Priestley, and others - lies more precisely in the refusal of all dogmas both left and right. In general, in the work of middle-class writers slightly older than the so-called Auden Generation, "the decade's language of social concern [represented] an individual defense against the tyranny of totality" (p. 11). Every chapter reiterates this position: Priestley was skeptical about "abstract or unnatural importations of doctrine" (p. 52), much as Lewis Grassic Gibbon realized that "the language and ideas of international communism were unsatisfactory" (p. 72), Lehmann objected "to judgments of art by the values of 'class war or political consciousness'" (p. 101), and Cecil Day Lewis (under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) saw British society "threatened by raging continental abstractions and forms of universal order" (p. 174). If there is often a tilt, revealingly, against the left, Gindin is not necessarily satisfied in each instance with his subjects' conclusions, pointing out quite candidly, for example, that if not for its cruelty, violence, and vulgarity, Nazism could have "represented a return to forms of social and racial order that Bowen implicitly respected" (p. 129).

But on the whole, the liberal humanism extolled in British Fiction in the 1930s, if it faced the genuine dual terror of Hitler and Stalin, nonetheless bears a distressing resemblance to the position of those contemporary liberal pundits,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A17363047