Henry Green at the Limits of Modernism

Henry Green at the Limits of Modernism

by Marius Hentea


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ISBN-13: 9781845195755
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Publication date: 01/01/2014
Pages: 167
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Marius Hentea is an assistant professor of literary studies at Ghent University.

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Henry Green at the Limits of Modernism

By Marius Hentea

Sussex Academic Press

Copyright © 2014 Marius Hentea
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84519-575-5


'Young and Old': Generations and Belonging

The two working titles of Green's first novel, 'Young and Old' and 'Progression', uncannily foreshadow how his fiction came to track a generation's development. Born in 1905, Green was part of the generation that had been in school during the First World War and came to maturity in the 1920s. His protagonists age alongside their author: there is the public school boy in Blindness (1926), published when Green was twenty; the young scion Dick Dupret in Living (1929), in his mid-twenties like Green; Caught's (1943) Richard Roe, in his late thirties, just as Green had been during the war; and finally John Pomfret in Nothing (1950) and Arthur Middleton in Doting (1952), both in their mid to late forties like their author. But rather than charting the fortunes of a specific generation, Green's novels complicate any straightforward understanding of generational belonging.

The difficulty of positioning Green within modernism or late modernism is partly a result of his own ambivalent posture towards his own generation and to generational thinking in general. While his contemporaries in the 1930s immersed themselves in politics and a literature of engagement, Green spent the decade writing about the fog of the Bright Young Things. In Michael North's Henry Green and the Writing of His Generation, the ambiguity of 'his' in the title (is Green the leader of that generation, or just one member among many?) is not cleared up when North speaks of the social and political reality for 'the novelists of Green's age', where 'age' could mean either biological age or an epoch. Coming to grips with generational thinking in Green's fiction allows for a clearer understanding of how Blindness was ensconced within a publishing context that had grave implications for the contours of late modernist writing, helps explain the opaque self-presentation that characterizes Pack My Bag, sheds light on the generational conflicts present in his late fiction, and also allows for an entryway into thinking about Green's obsessive concern with false or unrecognized paternity.

The Emergence of Modernist Generations

Although comparatively little scholarship in modernist studies exists on the subject, generational conflict was a pressing social concern in the 1920s when Green began writing, largely because the First World War 'dug a chasm between generations.' Charles Adam, the rector of the Nancy Academy, told his students at the rentrée in October 1914: 'You are, in effect, our principal reason to live. But I have never understood as well as now that it is for your sake that people are dying.' The 1915 Times editorial 'The Next Generation' demanded reforms to better the health and education of British children because they were the ones who would inherit the nation after the war. After the war, the phrase the 'younger generation' became a catchword like 'the proletariat' or 'the public', and as the New Statesman observed in 1920, '[m]ore fiction has been written during the last two decades, and continues to be written, on the theme of the conflict between young and old, than on any other subject.' If Green's first novel was embedded in a publishing climate seeking to capitalize on the currency that the 'younger generation' represented, as I shall argue, other writers were also taken up by generational thinking. Brian Howard blamed the 'parcel of damned old men' for the First World War, while the guiding idea of Christopher Isherwood's All the Conspirators (1928) was couched in generational terms:

Our youthful author is so emotionally involved in 'the great war between the old and young' that he keeps forgetting his lesser loyalties and antagonisms. His motto is: My Generation — right or wrong! Any member of it is automatically privileged to look at the world through his eyes. Non-members are automatically excluded from this privilege. Their inward eye, the author seems to imply, is permanently closed. They are already something less than human — in fact, old.

Elizabeth Bowen observed that '[m]akes of men date, like makes of car; Major Brutt was a 1914-18 model: there was now no market for that make.' A master at Eton College when Green was a schoolboy there, Aldous Huxley confided to his father that Antic Hay (1923) was

written by a member of what I call the war generation for others of his kind & ... is intended to reflect ... the life and opinions of an age which has seen the violent disruptions of almost all the standards, conventions and values.

Popular fiction presented The Rebel Generation, The Education of Peter: A Novel of the Younger Generation, and This Evil Generation. Even the elderly caught the drift: the president emeritus of Dartmouth, aged eighty, called his 1919 memoir My Generation: An AutobiographicalInterpretation, a title that could just as well have been given to Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise (1938) or Isherwood's Lions and Shadows (1938), two influential memoirs which cast their authors as representative products of their generation.

The twenties was also a high-water mark for generational theory, with such works as François Mentré's Les Générations sociales (1920), José Ortega y Gasset's The Modern Theme (1923), Karl Mannheim's 'The Problem of Generations' (1928), Wilhelm Pinder's Das Problem der Generation in der Kuntgeschichte Europas (1928), and Julius Petersen's Die Literarischen Generationen (1930). Mentré, whose Sorbonne dissertation was read by Émile Durkheim and dedicated to 'la jeunesse nouvelle', claimed that generational theory was entering a new age. Mentrè dismissed any quantitative precision in defining a generation ('[e]vents seem to be rebels against mathematical frames') while insisting on the brute reality of generational life ('the generation is a reality for every single individual'). This dismissal of what Mannheim called the 'chronological table' of nineteenth-century positivist generational thought was widespread among 1920s generational theorists. A generation can only be defined, Mentrè argued, through 'beliefs and desires', as a generation is 'un état d'âme collectif', a notion similar to Ortega y Gasset's idea of it as 'an integrated manner of existence.' In his application of generational thinking to literature and art, Mentré insisted that 'spiritual generations succeed each other through opposition', terms that echoed the idea, prevalent since Goethe and since taken up by T.E. Hulme, of literature swinging between periods of classicism and romanticism. Not only did this provide a framework for understanding literary change, but through it one could, albeit in a circular fashion, define generations: 'It is literary history which provides us the tableaux of social generations.'

This generational thinking had a deep impact on the literary culture of the interwar period. The Futurists and Dadaists proclaimed their intention to kill their elders, to extinguish the past for a new word of their own making. Arthur Quiller-Couch saw the basic law of literary change as the agon between generations: 'The inventions of one age are always in process of becoming the conventions, the tyrants, of the next.' In 1927 Chatto & Windus published a two-volume history of England for the years 1900-26 entitled This Generation, a title also used for an American anthology in 1939 that promised 'to show the dominant moods, manners, and content of British and American literature from 1914 to the present.' The Second International Congress on Literary History, hosted in Amsterdam in 1935, was devoted to the question of whether generations were 'at the root of changing social life.' A year later Albert Thibaudet's posthumous two-volume Histoire de la littérature française de 1789 à nos jours made the case for a scientific literary history structured through literary generations (it was unfinished because Thibaudet was always fiddling around with the generational yardsticks). Modernist innovators like T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf positioned their accomplishments against their Edwardian elders and the claims of the new generation, a move that theorists of late modernism have largely followed in casting late modernism as the 'second-generation' praxis of the 'Auden Generation' or the 'children of the sun', to use two popular terms. Yet the historical specificity of generational thinking in both sociological and literary terms has largely been unexamined by scholars who subscribe to this generational-evolutionary account of modernism.

Blindness: The Generation of a Young Author

The Eton Society of Arts was created by 'a small band of enthusiasts, "for the purpose of creating a centre for the discussion of Art at Eton."' Its formation, Green recalls, was 'a watershed, after this there was no turning back. I determined to be a writer ...' (PMB, 159). Being elected its secretary 'gave me confidence even if there was nothing in it so that, like everyone else, I began to write a novel' (169). That seemingly throwaway phrase, 'like everyone else', is rather telling. Publishers in the 1920s rushed the younger generation into print because its products had become, as Wyndham Lewis acerbically noted in Doom of Youth (1932), 'profitable.' Situating Blindness in this publishing context makes it difficult to read Green's debut as a Bildungsroman, and the professionalization of young authors can help us understand the aesthetic timidity of second-generation modernism.

Publishing Youth

When Ronald Firbank discovered in 1925 a novel he had written when he was ten, he jokingly related his pleasure at having had 'the tact as a child not to rush headlong into print.' While he was thinking of Daisy Ashford, whose The Young Visiters (1919) sold over 230,000 copies in two years, netting Ashford £3,600 in royalties, there were many other young authors around. Between 1920 and 1933, a staggering number of British authors were younger than twenty-five when their first novel appeared in print: Harold Acton, Michael Arlen, H.E. Bates, Barbara Cartland, Leslie Charteris, Noel Coward, Daphne du Maurier, Pamela Frankau, Louis Golding, Henry Green, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Georgette Heyer, James Hilton, R.C. Hutchinson, Christopher Isherwood, Malcolm Lowry, Ethel Mannin, Beverley Nichols, Mary Panter-Downes, William Plomer, Goronwy Rees, Edward Sackville-West and Evelyn Waugh. While there are always isolated cases of young authors getting published, the institutional apparatus encouraging the process in the 1920s was unique: publishers targeted youth, advertisements sold it and a whole series of efforts encouraged the writing of young authors.

As Wyndham Lewis polemically noted, young authors had become 'profitable.' The young novelist who opened up the British book industry to young authors was Alec Waugh, whose The Loom of Youth was published in 1917 by Grant Richards (in the same week as Conrad's Youth). Although Waugh's father was the managing director of Chapman & Hall, the manuscript made the full round of the London publishers in 1916 and was uniformly rejected. The manuscript was put away until Alec's professor of history at Sandhurst, Thomas Seccombe, put in a word to publishers. Seccombe's introduction spared no invective in blaming the Little England ethos of public schools for the 'furnace' in which youth were dying. He called the novel the song of the youth generation: 'They feel the most positive conviction that their elders have made a consummate muddle of things.' He predicted that '[t]hey are going to do wonders, the new generation, by the Divine Right of Youth — that is to say, superior genius.' The nation's cultural identity, in other words, needed youth to revitalize it, and Waugh's novel was expected to be the first of a new movement. After the war, youth culture came to play a major role in the post-war redefinition of national identity, which pitted the need for cultural continuity against the new – the very topic of T. S. Eliot's 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1919). As national culture began to assume greater commercial value, it became a duty to support the younger generation, whose vitality was essential to continued cultural growth.

As a literary effort Waugh's novel is not overwhelming (that he was so pleased to relate that it was written in 'seven and a half weeks, which included a week off half-way' says it all), but its polemical views on education were topical. Lord Desborough's 1917 report urging wholesale public school reforms used terms like 'gross stupidity', 'blindness' and 'arrogance and stupidity'. The Loom of Youth became part of that debate and was called the 'Uncle Tom's Cabin of the public school system.' H.W. Massingham devoted a column to it in The Nation, the Spectator published correspondence on it for ten weeks, and a line-by-line refutation, A Dream of Youth: An Etonian's Reply to 'The Loom of Youth' (1918), appeared. In short, the novel was a success, reprinted five times in the first three months after publication and eight times that first year.

After Waugh's example, other young authors found themselves better placed to break into print, and, as his brother Evelyn put it in 1920, '[t]he very young have gained an almost complete monopoly of book, press and picture gallery. Youth is coming into its own.' Andrew Nash describes how Alec Waugh's success influenced publisher's reader Frank Swinnerton into recommending publication of Prelude (1920) by Beverley Nichols, who was twenty-one when it reached Chatto & Windus. Having rejected The Loom of Youth, Swinnerton once again had to judge a public-school novel written by a public schoolboy. Even though he had doubts about Prelude's merit, his report notes that 'we must not pass a money-earner with careless sangfroid.' Swinnerton then lobbied for Chatto & Windus to publish Aldous Huxley's Limbo (1920) because 'it would unquestionably help to establish us among the younger writers as a house of distinction and enterprise.' Swinnerton's desire to 'brand' Chatto & Windus is one aspect of the increasingly institutionalized promotion of young novelists. Fisher & Unwin's 'First Novel' series was advertised as '[g]iving the young authors a chance!' James Hilton, then a twenty-year old university student, was launched in that series with Catherine Herself (1920). John Long in 1920 began a £500 first novel competition; twenty-two year old Viola Bankes saw her Shadow Show (1922) published by the firm even though it did not win that year's competition. F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise was published in Britain in Collins's 'First Novel Library' series. Ethel Mannin was twenty-three when Martha (1923) won a first-novel competition run by publisher Leonard Parsons.

These contests unearthed young talent but also generated publicity. While Q.D. Leavis overstated the case when speaking about the 'dangerous level of efficiency' in book advertising, she was not mistaken in highlighting its growing importance. If publicity is, as Lawrence Rainey argues, 'the surest commodity of the modernist economy', a young author was marketable sui generis. The French publisher Bernard Grassett, whose doctoral degree was in economics and who prided himself on being a 'theorist' of the book market, paid for a Gaumont news reel of 'the youngest novelist in France', Raymond Radiguet, signing a contract for Le Diable au corps (1923). Grasset later explained: 'I didn't say, "I have found a great novelist." I simply said, "I've discovered a seventeen year-old writer".' Mary Panter-Downes's The Shoreless Sea (1923), written when she was sixteen, was serialized in the Daily Mail, and her youth was the major selling point of advertisements for the book on the side of London buses. When Blindness appeared, Dent's advertisement stressed Henry Green's youth: 'A very remarkable first novel written by a very young man.' Since Green was twenty-one at the time, his age was not specified, as it hardly raised eyebrows compared to cases like Ashford, Panter-Downes or Radiguet!


Excerpted from Henry Green at the Limits of Modernism by Marius Hentea. Copyright © 2014 Marius Hentea. Excerpted by permission of Sussex Academic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Works by Henry Green,
One 'Young and Old': Generations and Belonging,
Two Class Representations,
Three Sites of Authority,
Four Sensing the Whole,

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