Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939

Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939

by Richard Begam

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This collection of essays by renowned literary scholars offers a sustained and comprehensive account of the relation of British and Irish literary modernism to colonialism. Bringing postcolonial studies into dialogue with modernist studies, the contributors move beyond depoliticized appreciations of modernist aesthetics as well as the dismissal of literary modernism


This collection of essays by renowned literary scholars offers a sustained and comprehensive account of the relation of British and Irish literary modernism to colonialism. Bringing postcolonial studies into dialogue with modernist studies, the contributors move beyond depoliticized appreciations of modernist aesthetics as well as the dismissal of literary modernism as irredeemably complicit in the evils of colonialism. They demonstrate that the modernists were not unapologetic supporters of empire. Many were avowedly and vociferously opposed to colonialism, and all of the writers considered in this volume were concerned with the political and cultural significance of colonialism, including its negative consequences for both the colonizer and the colonized.

Ranging over poetry, fiction, and criticism, the essays provide fresh appraisals of Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, E. M. Forster, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Evelyn Waugh, as well as Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard. The essays that bookend the collection connect the modernists to their Victorian precursors, to postwar literary critics, and to postcolonial poets. The rest treat major works written or published between 1899 and 1939, the boom years of literary modernism and the period during which the British empire reached its greatest geographic expanse. Among the essays are explorations of how primitivism figured in the fiction of Lawrence and Lewis; how, in Ulysses, Joyce used modernist techniques toward anticolonial ends; and how British imperialism inspired Conrad, Woolf, and Eliot to seek new aesthetic forms appropriate to the sense of dislocation they associated with empire.

Contributors. Nicholas Allen, Rita Barnard, Richard Begam, Nicholas Daly, Maria DiBattista, Ian Duncan, Jed Esty, Andrzej Gąsiorek, Declan Kiberd, Brian May, Michael Valdez Moses, Jahan Ramazani, Vincent Sherry

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Modernism and Colonialism is a terrific book—timely, intelligent, capacious, and a pleasure to read.”—Douglas Mao, coeditor of Bad Modernisms

Modernism and Colonialism will have a real impact on the fields of postcolonial studies and British modernism. It succeeds in treating colonialism as a condition of possibility for a vibrant British-transnational modernism.”—Simon During, author of Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic

“The subject of this collection—the relation between modernism, understood especially in terms of formal innovation and self-reflexivity, and the historical phenomenon of British colonialism and of resistance to colonialism—is an important and timely one that has received remarkably little attention.”—Derek Attridge, author of The Singularity of Literature

Paige Reynolds
“The editors are to be commended not only for persuading such an exciting and well-regarded group of scholars to contribute to this collection but also for structuring the collection so wisely. The essays range widely enough among topics of study to underscore the diverse ways in which modernists and modernist texts engaged with colonial questions, but a genuine, seemingly effortless dialogue unfolds among the essays.”

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Modernism and Colonialism

British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939


Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4038-6

Chapter One

Colonialism and Popular Literature at the Fin de Siècle

Stark walls and crumbling crucible, Straight gates, and graves, and ruined well, Abide, dumb monuments of old. We know but that men fought and fell Like us-like us-for love of gold. ANDREW LANG, "Zimbabwe"

Once upon a time there was a thing called modernism that disdained the mass market, and made its way in the world by appealing to a small but discerning clientele; poor but honest, it eventually triumphed over the shoddy cultural goods that surrounded it, saved from commodification by its formal difficulty. Or so the story went. It was a moving story, with even a certain amount of suspense and melodrama, almost as if the very narrative qualities that modernism was supposed to have rejected in its practice had returned with a vengeance in its literary history. These days, of course, we have grown somewhat skeptical of such tales. The work of Lawrence Rainey, among others, has alerted us to the extent to which modernism ambivalently courted the market; if it appeared bashful about commercial success, this sometimes worked all the better to attract it. A once monolithically conceived Modernism has been replaced by a more modest lowercase modernism, or by a variety of modernisms. But if we have begun to rethink modernism, we have also begun to consider the extent to which those shoddy cultural goods that once seemed just the opposite of the gleaming artifacts of modernism may in fact not have been so very different after all. It has become a good deal easier to argue that far from being polar opposites, modernism and mass culture enjoyed a variety of more complex relations. At a very basic level it has become clearer that, forged in the same historical moment, modernism and the popular are often concerned with the same things: for example, new conceptions of gender, new technologies, ideas of professionalism and expert culture, the coming of the mass market, and an increasingly globalized world.

Here I want to look at a small slice of British literary history, not the "high modern" 1920s, but the late nineteenth century, when modernism and modern mass culture were growing up together. The contemporaneous growth of the popular and modernist novel in these years can in part be ascribed to developments in the publishing industry. The demise of the three-volume novel was one such development. In 1828 the Athenaeum declared that "no Englishman in the middle class of life buys a book," and this remained true for most of the century, at least as far as new fiction was concerned. Artificially high prices, sustained by a comfortable arrangement among authors, publishers, and the circulating libraries, meant that novels, priced at a standard 31s 6d, were more often rented from Mudie's, or one of the other circulating libraries, or were read in part-published form (a mode popularized by the success of Dickens's Pickwick Papers in 1836-37), or as serials in periodicals ranging from the Cornhill to the Graphic. When the circulating libraries forsook the three-volume novel toward the century's end, their immense power over the market weakened, and the homogenizing power that for much of the century they had exercised on the public's reading habits weakened too. Reading patterns became increasingly "niched" as people began to buy the books they wanted to read rather than those that the libraries wanted to rent them. As bookrenting yielded to bookbuying, what developed was not, then, an opposition of a homogeneous mass market and a more rarefied market for elite cultural goods, but rather an increasingly fragmented market in which modernism would come to be another niche, albeit a more prestigious one.

In terms of British modernism, these were the years of such protomodernists as Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and the young W. B. Yeats (though none of these was actually British); in terms of popular literature-or more accurately middle-brow literature-people were reading a wide variety of subgenres: historical novels, regional novels, "New Woman" novels, "slum novels," and novels of religious doubt, to name a few. But they were also reading a new type of adventure fiction that was the fruit of the "revival of romance" launched by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883). While one can detect the pressure of empire in early and mid-Victorian fiction, it has become a critical commonplace that these late-nineteenth-century adventure novels, the so-called imperial romance, constituted a more or less explicit part of the propaganda of empire, leading a whole generation of schoolboys-but also soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and business-men-to believe that Britain's colonies promised exciting adventures and limitless wealth for those who were bold enough. Even the very titles of such novels as Treasure Island and King Solomon's Mines seem to equate exotic territory and fabulous wealth before the narratives themselves do. Of course this equation was one that was being made far more forcefully in other places: in these same years the European powers were-not always amicably-carving up Africa among themselves, though the treaties of the Berlin Conference (1884-85) were to put a more diplomatic gloss on their rapacious scramble for the spoils. It is tempting then to see the adventure romances as providing a series of celebratory myths of empire for a mass audience, in counterpoint to the more complex, ironic, and demystifying protomodernism of, say, Conrad, aimed at a smaller and more discerning audience suspicious of the enthusiasms of empire and jingoism. Such a polar model does not, however, adequately describe the terrain of late Victorian literary production. For one thing, Conrad was very much part of the mainstream literary culture of the time, and his work appeared in serial form in such journals as Blackwood's Magazine and T. P.'s Weekly, not in "little magazines" of the kind that would later facilitate the circulation of the work of Joyce, Pound, and others. Moreover, as Peter D. MacDonald has shown, Conrad was extremely anxious to secure the approval of W. E. Henley, that formidable late Victorian editor, reviewer, poet, and literary promoter, who had helped to establish the reputations of Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and H. Rider Haggard, among others. Here, though, I want to focus not on the complexities of Conrad's position but on those popular writers whose work has largely been placed outside the history of modernism (Stevenson is a partial exception in this respect). While assessing their creation of a popular adventure literature consonant with Britain's imperial phase, I want to complicate our view of their work by considering the extent to which their myths of empire are complexly intertwined with other, more self-referential features that recall the place of the popular writer as well as the modernist within the mass market. More precisely, I want to indicate how fantasies about colonial space often appear to function simultaneously as fantasies about literary production; how the treasure-hunt novels of Stevenson and Haggard connect the imperial project of competing for plunder abroad with the mass-market project of competing for profit at home. The marketplace is, in other words, crucial in helping us to understand the movement from a Victorian romanticization of empire to modernism's more complicated and critical response to it.

* * *

The two novels that seem most clearly to suggest a new alignment of popular fiction and the imperial project are Robert Louis Stevenson's historical tale of swashbuckling on the Spanish Main, Treasure Island (1883), and the novel that follows closely on its heels, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885). Stevenson more or less invents the formula of the search for treasure in exotic overseas space, and Haggard refines it. The key ingredients are all there in Stevenson's novel: the male expedition team, the hand-scrawled treasure map, the circumscribed exotic space, and importantly in marketing terms, the one-volume format. Stevenson's novel is oblique in its narrativization of colonial profitmaking. The treasure that is sought by young Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney, and Dr. Livesey, together with their largely pirate crew, does not derive originally from the ground of the island but rather has been left there by pirates, who presumably plundered it from Spanish ships carrying silver and gold from South America. Any native presence is rigorously excluded from the novel, though we are told that the wife whom chief pirate Long John Silver has left behind is a "woman of colour."

By updating Stevenson's eighteenth-century adventure to a contemporary setting, and using the African interior rather than a nonspecific island location, Haggard makes a closer fit between fictional expedition and real empire. Allan Quatermain's first-person account of an expedition to the legendary lost diamond mines of King Solomon in the fictional Kukuanaland might be seen to resonate with the exploitation of the actual mineral wealth of South Africa, after the diamond rush in West Griqualand in 1870, the creation of Kimberley in 1871, and the excavation of the Big Hole, the world's largest man-made hole. Haggard, though, is circumspect in his own way about the sources of colonial wealth: the diamonds that are recovered have not been mined by the present inhabitants of Kukuanaland; they are part of the fabulous treasury of a biblical king, and thus the men are happily restoring to Europe wealth that is perceived to be part of its Judeo-Christian heritage. But of course excavation is not confined to the search for mineral wealth. Both Stevenson and Haggard are also mounting a different kind of dig, one into the literary-historical past. If Stevenson seeks to revitalize the novel by mining the work of Sir Walter Scott, Haggard is prepared to dig deeper still. As his supporter, promoter, and sometime collaborator Andrew Lang explained in his essay "Realism and Romance" in 1887, Haggard was also trying to reach some very deep-lying seams in the reader-nothing less than "the natural man within ... the survival of some blue-painted Briton." The romance, then, was to put the modern reader back in touch with the inner savage by reviving the very roots of narrative in epic storytelling. Kukuanaland has been so isolated from history that in it heroic society still flourishes. As the choice of Africa as setting would allow that later primitivist, Ernest Hemingway, to write a certain kind of pared-down modernist sentence, here it underpins Haggard's attempts to write a more basic-and violent-kind of narrative, and to present as his heroes such bloodthirsty modern savages as that man's man, Sir Henry Curtis, described variously in the novel as an "ancient Dane" or "white Zulu."

But for whose benefit was this work of literary and narratological excavation being effected? Why did Lang and others think that the English novel needed to be reinvigorated anyway? Was the three-volume domestic novel to be eschewed because it was inappropriate reading matter for empire boys? Up to a point, perhaps, but there is another reason why these short and involving yarns of lucrative adventure should appear when they do. It was not just the empire that was facing a phase of expansion in the 1880s: so was the publishing industry. There had for some time, of course, been a more or less indifferent awareness of that "unknown public," a readership "beyond the pale of literary civilization" to whom Wilkie Collins referred in 1858, but by the 1880s authors began to reimagine this unknown public as a veritable virgin continent of readers, an enormous untapped resource. While many other factors contributed, the Education Act of 1870 and its sequels played a particular role in fostering this vision of a mass of literate but not literary readers who were at once a new territory to be profitably conquered, and a hostile mob whose low appetites threatened to overwhelm literature.

That unknown public was itself fragmented, and one of the exemplary instances of the literate but not literary reader was the child. Stevenson conceived of Treasure Island as a "story for boys," at a time when he was also working on a number of what he hoped would be lucrative ghost stories. In August 1881, he writes to W. E. Henley, editor of the National Observer, and his sometime collaborator:

See here-nobody, not you, nor Lang, nor the devil will hurry me with our crawlers. They are coming. Four of them are as good as done, and the rest will come when ripe; but I am now on another lay for the moment, purely owing to Lloyd, this one; but I believe there's more coin in it than any amount of crawlers: now, see here, "The Sea Cook, or Treasure Island: A Story for Boys."

He signs the letter "R. L. S.-Author of Boys' Stories." Thanks to the intervention of Stevenson's acquaintance Dr. Alexander H. Japp, "The Sea Cook" was serialized in Young Folks, one of the less prestigious magazines then targeting the younger reader. It appeared there from October 1881 to January 1882, now rechristened Treasure Island; or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola, by Captain George North. The pseudonym suggests that Stevenson felt that no critical benefit would accrue to him by his association with Young Folks. He was at some pains, however, to convince Henley that what might appear to be a whimsical venture into children's literature was a sound commercial venture for "coin." A subsequent letter to Henley reasserts the commercial point: "I'll make this boy's business pay; but I have to make a beginning. When I'm done with Young Folks I'll try Routledge or some one. I feel pretty sure the Sea Cook will do to reprint, and bring something decent at that." This tale of buccaneers, then, was to be treated as a commercial property, to be rendered as profitable as possible by publication in different formats. Although he was paid less than he had hoped by Young Folks (u37. 7s .6d), he was able to hold onto his copyright, and the novel was published by Cassell and Co. (not Routledge) on November 14, 1883, in an edition of two thousand copies priced at five shillings. In the same letter Stevenson confesses his ambition to be the "Harrison Ainsworth of the future," a reference to the incredibly prolific author of Rookwood (1834), Jack Sheppard (1839), and other swashbuckling tales in the early and mid-nineteenth century, and he boasts that Treasure Island will be a better tale than Captain Marryat's Pirate (1836). He adds that this sort of work is a "D-sight gayer than Mudie-ing, you bet." Not only, then, was Treasure Island to generate profits, and provide a break from writing for the genteel audience of the circulating libraries, but it was also to achieve the rather less commercial task of placing him among the great children's authors of his own youth: "coining it" is to take place in conjunction with a more complicated act that is half nostalgia, half Oedipal displacement, Stevenson's own effort to make it new.


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Meet the Author

Richard Begam is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity.

Michael Valdez Moses is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. He is the author of The Novel and the Globalization of Culture.

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