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One Hundred Years On

The birth of modernism

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, Ulysses by James Joyce and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot were all first published in 1922. It seems obvious to us now that these are monumental works that embody the birth of modernism in literature, but how obvious was it at the time? Did those writers and first readers feel, like us, exhausted by war and a pandemic? Was it clear that one era had died and another was being born? In January 1922, Ezra Pound dated a letter to T. S. Eliot ‘An 1,’ or year one of a new calendar, just as people did after the French Revolution. Recently, I’ve felt that we are also at the beginning of a new era, although it doesn’t yet have a name. So, I want to look very briefly at that year when modernism invented itself.

None of those books was conventionally published. Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard ran the Hogarth Press, which published her work as well as books by many other authors. She did not, of course, fight in the First World War, but many of her friends were killed and others became conscientious objectors. Her immensely sensitive portrayal of Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway shows how deeply she sympathised with ex-soldiers suffering from shell shock, or post traumatic stress disorder as we call it now. In Jacob’s Room, Woolf’s titular protagonist, who dies in the war, was probably based on Woolf’s older brother Thoby, who died of typhoid in 1906.

Woolf became ill in the flu pandemic that raged in England from 1918–19, which is estimated to have killed up to a hundred million people around the world. When Jacob’s Room was published, she wrote to her friends claiming that her novel was just an experiment. Many reviewers criticised her attempts to write about people and their inner lives in a new way: ‘Never was anything more unkindly, unsentimental, ungenial,’ said the Guardian in November 1922. She had often written contemptuously of the hugely successful realist novels by Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells. Bennett got his revenge in his review by attacking the ‘unreal’ characterisation of her novel. ‘But the characters do not vitally survive in the mind because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness.’ T. S. Eliot, more generously, called the novel ‘a remarkable success’.

James Joyce finished the first chapter of Ulysses in June 1915 when he was living in Trieste. The Berlitz school where he taught closed down, so he was unemployed with a wife and two small children. He and his family moved to Zurich and eventually to Paris. He remained politically neutral during the First World War and in 1918 Joyce wrote of Odysseus (another name for Ulysses), ‘Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness.’

Throughout all the trauma and upheavals of the war he continued to write his novel, set in Dublin on a June day in 1904. Ulysses was first serialised in The Little Review, an American periodical, from March 1918. A few instalments of Ulysses also appeared in the London-based literary magazine The Egoist in 1919. This resulted in a trial for obscenity; in February 1921 both publishers of The Little Review were found guilty, the novel was banned in the United States (and in Britain from 1929) and the serial publication of Ulysses in America ‘came to an abrupt and sensational end’.

Joyce did not suffer from influenza in the pandemic but a friend of his, one of a group of amateur actors he was involved with in Zurich, died. Sylvia Beach, whose Shakespeare and Company bravely published Ulysses in Paris, was far more than just a publisher: she was a friend, passionate advocate of his work and banker, who gave him an astonishing sixty-six per cent of the net profits on the first edition of Ulysses when it was published on February 2, 1922, Joyce’s fortieth birthday. For many years this novel was considered dangerous and pornographic; copies were confiscated and burned.

Many first readers of Ulysses were bewildered by it. Yet, as Edmund Wilson wrote in his review, ‘for all its appalling longueurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius.’ T. S. Eliot, in the November 1923 issue of The Dial, wrote that Ulysses was ‘the most important expression which the present age has found’, ‘from which none of us can escape.’ He insisted that his friend Virginia Woolf read it, and wanted the Hogarth Press to publish it, but she didn’t share his enthusiasm. She resented it as a distraction from Proust, whose À La Recherche du Temps Perdu she had been reading. Her response revealed her snobbery when she wrote in her diary that after two hundred pages, she found Ulysses ‘An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.’

In 1917 T. S. Eliot tried to join the U.S. navy but was rejected because of a hernia. He had moved to England in 1914, when he first had the idea for his poem. In London he taught at Highgate School and later worked for Lloyds Bank. He finished writing The Waste Land after a breakdown that was probably triggered by his father’s death. The manuscript draft of The Waste Land features the poem’s original title, He Do the Police in Different Voices, a quotation from the Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend.

The Waste Land first appeared in print in The Criterion, a quarterly British literary magazine founded and edited by Eliot himself. The first UK book edition was published by the Hogarth Press in a run of 460 copies, with the type set by Virginia Woolf. The poem is usually read as a response to the devastation of Europe by the war that had just finished. Eliot and his wife, Vivien, both caught the influenza virus in December 1918. Eliot’s attack was comparatively mild, but Vivien became very ill and, as he wrote to his mother (December 8, 1918), the illness affected her nerves and prevented her from sleeping. Eliot’s great visionary poem spoke directly and personally to an exhausted and disillusioned generation. The Waste Land is full of images of the war he did not fight in and of death, for example: ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.’

As with Jacob’s Room and Ulysses, some critics detested The Waste Land. F. L. Lucas in the New Statesman in November 1923 attacked it for being obscure. He complained that the poet seemed to be obsessed with squalor and that Eliot was one of those writers who imagined himself to be a philosopher, ‘sacrificing their artistic powers on the altar of some fantastic Mumbo-Jumbo.’ His review concluded that ‘Perhaps this unhappy composition should have been left to sink itself.’

Modernism refused to sink. Out of a disintegrating Europe writers and artists found the energy to confront the world in a fresh and innovative way. Modernism has dominated the literary landscape for the last century and is now actually quite old. A hundred years later, we also live at time when, once again, war rages in Europe and we feel exhausted by a global pandemic. I’ve been wondering what new and surprising voices will be heard now, as we try to make sense of a rapidly changing world. How can we use language to bring energy and hope? I would like to think that we’ve overcome some of the sexism, racism and snobbery that limited writers in the past. Let’s hope that some exciting, inclusive novels and poems come out of our troubled decade.

Miranda Miller has published a book of short stories about Saudi Arabia, a book of interviews with homeless women and politicians, and eight novels, most recently Angelica: Paintress of Minds (Barbican Press 2020), about the eighteenth-century artist Angelica Kauffman.

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