© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

As the twentieth century began, dramatic changes were afoot in both British and American literature and culture, just as dramatic changes were underway in British and American societies in general. These changes were driven first and foremost by a transformation within capitalism itself, as the capitalist system responded to the economic difficulties of the late nineteenth century by radically transforming itself. The capitalists of the nineteenth century had to build an entirely new system for producing and distributing goods, and their main concern was the find ways to produce and distribute more and more goods to meet the pre-existing demand. Eventually, they were so successful at this project that they were able to produce and distribute far more goods than they could sell, leading to surpluses that were the primary reason for the collapse of Western capitalist economies in the late nineteenth century. Many strategies were tried in the attempt to save the system—including a vast expansion of the great European colonial empires—but the one that ultimately succeeded was the transformation of production-oriented capitalism into a new, consumer-oriented form. This new system was driven by a simple idea: in order to succeed when you are producing more than people need, then you must find a way to get people to buy things they don’t need. This idea gave rise to an entirely new system of advertising and marketing that eventually grew into the global consumer capitalism of today.

Given that modernity had, from the beginning, been driven by capitalism, then of course a fundamental change in the philosophy behind capitalism led to widespread changes in the modern world as a whole. Indeed, the first three decades of the twentieth century were a period of unprecedented, revolutionary transformation in virtually every field of human  endeavor. The women’s movement gained the right to vote for women in both Britain and the United States at the beginning of the 1920s.Discoveries such as relativity and quantum mechanics completely changed the way scientists understood the nature of reality. Fundamental advances in science were accompanied by dramatic developments in technology during these decades, including the extension of late-nineteenth-century technologies such as electricity and telephones to a mass scale. Other technological advances—such as air conditioning—promised to make life far more pleasant, especially in warmer climates, while still others—such as advances in automobiles and airplanes—made it far easier for both people and goods to travel long distances, enabling the further growth of the capitalist system. Some new technologies, however, led to the development of weapons with unprecedented destructive power, which was unleashed in two world wars in the periods 1914–1918 and 1939–1945.

Britain and America at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century

The triumph of scientific rationalism in the eighteenth century was informed by a utopian optimism concerning the ability of human beings to understand (and eventually change) their world. In Britain, especially, this intellectual optimism was quickly reinforced by technological advances that led to a nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution that seemed to offer almost unlimited potential for the creation of wealth and for the practical realization of the utopian dreams of the previous century. And all of this occurred within a framework of a new form of bourgeois historiography that envisioned history as a rational process leading to continual progress. The future, indeed, seemed bright. The social and intellectual climate of Victorian British at the end of the nineteenth century, however, was strongly informed by a sense that something had gone wrong and that the utopian visions that drove the evolution of British society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not being matched by actual reality. The new system of industrial capitalism had created great wealth for the select few who owned the factories and other key resources, but it had also created a large urban proletariat[1] who worked long hours under grueling conditions and found themselves mired in poverty regardless of how hard they worked. The conditions under which the working class lived and worked were so harsh that, by many measures, health, nutrition, and other measures of quality of living had actually declined over the course of the nineteenth century. And, to make matters worse, overproduction had driven the capitalist economic system into a deep and lengthy depression in the last decades of the century, leading to massive unemployment and to widespread concerns among the upper classes that revolution might be imminent.

For its own part, the working class responded to these harsh conditions through participation in an increasingly organized labor movement in England, a key marker of which was the London Dock Workers strike of 1889. Subsequently, the labor and socialist movements in Britain gained considerable power through the 1890s, providing a source of hope for a better life among workers but also causing increased anxieties for the upper classes. Britain’s rulers responded to these anxieties with a variety of strategies designed to alleviate them, though time and again attempts to the crisis in British society only produced new sources of anxiety.

One way in which the ruling class in Britain responded to this crisis was to ramp up expansion of the empire, especially in Africa, beginning with the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, in which Britain and the other major European imperial powers (France, Germany, and Belgium) were joined by a number of other European nations (and the United States) to discuss ways of peacefully dividing up the African content so that competition for territory there would not lead to conflict. The resultant map gave Britain the rights to huge portions of the continent, while the French and Germans got their shares as well. The Congo Free State, a large region in central Africa, was declared the private property of the Belgian Congo Society, to be ruled personally by King Leopold II of Belgium. Lesser powers gained a certain amount of access to trade routes and other resources, and countries such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain were also granted the rights to smaller colonial territories in Africa.

The Berlin Conference was successful in heading off violent conflicts as the various European powers scrambled for footholds in Africa. However, it essentially ignored the fact that the fading Ottoman Empire still claimed the rights to large portions of North Africa, an omission that would become a factor in World War I as the Ottomans joined that conflict in the hope of re-establishing their African territories. Perhaps more importantly, the Berlin Conference often ignored the realities of existing social and political structures in Africa, while paying little or no attention to the rights and wishes of the indigenous populations of the continent. As a result, Britain, in particular, discovered that the subjugation of Africa was to be a difficult one, often requiring extensive military campaigns and brutal forms of political oppression.

Their former confidence in British invincibility and in the inevitability of a global British Empire already shaken by the bloody events surrounding the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British nevertheless seemed to expect relatively little local resistance almost everywhere they attempted to establish their colonial rule in Africa. In fact, however, the last decades of the nineteenth century were fraught with difficulties for the British conquest of Africa. By the end of the 1870s, Egypt was nominally still a semi-autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire; in practice, however, the regime in Egypt was already a British puppet. In 1881, a charismatic Islamic leader called the Mahdi (essentially the Muslim messiah) was building enough support to cause the British formally to occupy Egypt, making it formally a British protectorate in 1882. The British then moved south to try to quash the Mahdist uprising, only to be met with fierce resistance that culminated in the fall of Khartoum, the most important city in Sudan, to the Mahdi in 1885. The British commander in Khartoum, the celebrated colonial campaigner General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, was killed in the siege.[2] A long struggle ensued, and the British (via forces commanded by Herbert Kitchener) would not retake Khartoum until the defeat of the Mahdist rebels at the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898.

In the meantime, British colonial forces had met with significant resistance across the continent, from present-day Kenya to present-day Nigeria. Then, just as Sudan had been re-secured, the British found themselves embroiled in another major African colonial campaign as growing hostilities between the British Empire and the Boer settlers in South Africa erupted into all-out war in 1880, resulting in defeat for the British Empire and independence for the Boer Republics of southern Africa. In the Second Boer war, which began in October 1899, the British would finally exert control over South Africa, but at great cost. The overconfident British suffered several initial reversals, then brought Kitchener in to command their forces in 1900. Kitchener was able to defeat the Boers by the end of May in 1902, but only by employing extremely harsh measures, such as destroying Boer farms and crops and confining Boer women and children (over 26,000 of whom died) in the first modern concentration camps in order to put pressure on the Boer guerilla fighters who were hiding out in remote areas. Over 100,000 black Africans who sympathized with the Boers were also imprisoned in camps, where over 20,000 died.

Among other things, the British forces in the Boer War were hampered by the fact that a large percentage of British working-class men were in such bad health from their poor nutrition and squalid living and working conditions that they could not meet the minimum physical standards for service in the British military. As a result, the British army in South Africa had to be supplemented with conscripts from the longtime British colony of Ireland, just as anticolonial sentiment in Ireland was already reaching an all-time high. Indeed, many Irish volunteers fought on the side of the Boers in the war. The conscription of Irish men to serve in a war designed to extend the reach of British colonial domination was understandably treated with considerable resentment in Ireland, all the more so because Irish troops were routinely employed in the most hazardous positions and essentially used as cannon fodder during the war. The British had initially sought to justify their colonization of Africa with a version of what Rudyard Kipling, in a poem written in 1899 (and actually addressed to the United States), called the “white man’s burden,” arguing that more civilized and advanced white Christian nations had not just a right, but a responsibility to colonize the less developed regions of the world in order to bring civilization, enlightenment, and Christianity to the nonwhite peoples of those regions. But this strategy did not serve in the Boer War: the Boers were white Christians, and it was abundantly clear that the British wanted to colonize South Africa for purely economic reasons.

Kipling’s call for America to join the club of imperial powers came at a time when the United States was seriously considering such a move. The U.S. was becoming more and more interventionist in Latin America, as when the United Fruit Company, a U.S. corporation, came to control large areas of Latin America for the use in the production of tropical fruits (especially bananas) for export to the U.S. and elsewhere. The U.S. military often provide support for such operations. Meanwhile, the U.S. became involved in a major military intervention when American attempts to aid Cuban rebels in their quest to win independence from Spain led to an all-out war between Spain and the U.S., fought in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Spanish-American War of 1898 led to American domination of Cuba for more than sixty years, until the Fidel Castro–led insurgency of 1959 drove the Americans off the island. The 1898 war also left the U.S. with semi-colonial control of Puerto Rico and Guam, which it maintains to this day. U.S. control over the Philippines, also gained as a result of this war lasted until the Japanese invasion of the islands during World War II. After the war, the Philippines finally became an independent nation.

Enthusiasm for colonial expansion never ran all that high in the U.S., however, especially after competition between rival colonial powers became a key cause of World War I. Instead, the Americans concentrated more on gaining financial control of international commerce rather than political control of physical colonies. Meanwhile, the flurry of colonial expansionism related to the Spanish-American War was largely supplanted by internal expansionism as the Americans sought to build their growing consumer capitalist system, largely with the help of large numbers of immigrant workers from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe. Large numbers of African American workers also migrated from the American South to the industrial north in search of both economic freedom and political freedom from the repressive Jim Crow laws that had been enacted across the South beginning in the 1870s in an attempt to ensure ongoing white domination of that region.

If the United States entered the twentieth century with many of the rifts related to the Civil War unhealed and with many questions remaining about its national identity, the collapsing economy, falling quality of life, and a never-ending string of crises in the colonies contributed to a growing sense of anxiety in Britain as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Perhaps, some began to wonder, the Enlightenment vision of uninterrupted progress toward a better and better world was not as pre-ordained as the people of most Western European nations had originally thought. In many ways, the frantic pace of progress over the next few decades, while solving some of the problems of the late nineteenth century, created an even greater sense of instability and insecurity, while events such as the first world war seem to demonstrate that modernity was leading, not to utopia, but to disaster. In the Britain of the 1920s, a major response to this sense of crisis was a wave of nostalgia for an older, pastoral Britain of a kind whose destruction had been documented by writers such as Hardy and Housman.

Meanwhile, in America, consumer capitalism took hold more firmly than anywhere else,[3] partly because the country had been relatively unaffected by World War I, which involved no fighting on American soil and in which the United States played a secondary role in comparison with Britain and Germany. But this fact led to a runaway quest for wealth (with virtually no government regulation) in the 1920s that ultimately contributed to the collapse of the American economy by the end of the 1920s, leading to a Great Depression that was made worse by a drought-induced reduction in American agricultural production in the early 1930s. This depression soon spread over the entire capitalist world, leading (among other things) to the rise of fascism in Europe. The depression would not, in fact, truly be ended until the American entry into World War II kicked the American industrial economy back into high gear. By the end of the war, in 1945, much of Europe was in ruins, Britain was exhausted (and no longer interested in colonial expansion), and the United States and the Soviet Union (which had also become energized and industrialized in the fight against fascism) had emerged as the world’s two great powers, leading to the subsequent era of the Cold War[4].

The Special Case of Ireland

Ireland found itself in an odd position as the nineteenth century approached its end and Europe prepared to move into the new century with its leading powers the colonial masters of vast stretches of the rest of the world. While many parts of Eastern Europe found themselves in secondary positions relative to the still largely medieval reigning powers of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian Empires, and even Ottoman Empires, they were not truly colonies—and in any case those empires were all historical relics that were about to be swept away by World War I. Ireland, on the other hand, was the only European political entity that was genuinely a colony in the modern sense. It was, in fact, England’s oldest colony—and the place where Britain had learned to be a colonial power, beginning all the way back in the thirteenth century, when Pope Adrian IV granted overlordship of Ireland to Henry II of England, followed by a period of roughly a century during which the English solidified their rule.

The English-Irish relationship later became caught up in the battle between Protestantism and Catholicism in England. With Protestantism triumphant in England and with a Catholic majority in Ireland, this conflict naturally led to considerably tensions between the Irish and their English rulers. Three Irish rebellions were brutally suppressed during the reign of Elizabeth I. Another rebellion, begun in 1641, led to the Irish Confederate Wars, part of a larger conflict that involved Scotland as well. Here, upstart Irish Catholic forces were eventually crushed with special brutality in 1649-1650 by English armies under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, fresh off of his leading role in the English Civil Wars. Hundreds of thousands were killed in Ireland during this conflict, in which some historians have described Cromwell’s anti-Catholic tactics as near-genocidal.

Ireland periodically rebelled against British rule going forward, but always failed. For example, in 1798, an Irish uprising was undertaken with the expectation that the French, already an enemy of the British, would come to the aid of the rebels as a way of weakening Britain. The French did, in fact, send a fleet of ships to Ireland to support this uprising, but this invasion was mostly aborted due to bad weather at sea, with only one ship actually reaching Ireland. The uprising subsequently collapsed, contributing to the long legacy of Irish military defeats at the hands of the British.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Irish opposition to British colonial rule had mostly shifted from military to political and (especially) cultural strategies, though it would ultimately be armed conflict that would lead to Irish independence. At the beginning of the century, however, the Irish Nationalist movement sought to move toward independence by producing a distinctively Irish culture that might help the Irish develop a national sense of identity apart from the British. One of the greatest figures to emerge from this effort was the poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), an active participant in the Irish Literary Revival who became one of the greatest poets of world literature in the twentieth century. Yeats wrote a wide variety of poems, but his poetry often addressed specifically political topics, as in the poem “Easter 1916” (1920), about the armed anticolonial insurrection in Dublin , an insurrection that failed but stirred significant anti-British sentiment, leading to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 and ultimately to full Irish independence—but only after an anti-British war and a subsequent civil war.

The other greatest Irish literary figure—and probably the greatest figure in world literature in the twentieth century—was James Joyce (1882–1941). Joyce himself was rather suspicious of the Irish Literary Revival, partly because of his suspicion of nationalism in general and partly because he felt that this particular movement was too dominated by a Catholic Church that Joyce felt to be at least as oppressive an influence in Ireland as was the British Empire. But he clearly profited from the energies of the Revival, which was gaining momentum just as he reached adulthood. Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) is widely regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and it is primarily on the basis of this book that Joyce is so widely regarded as the ultimate modernist writer. However, one can already see the beginnings of Joyce’s greatness in Dubliners (1914), a collection of short stories that he began writing when he was only twenty-two years old.

Works Cited

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Empire, 1875–1914. Pantheon, 1987.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. New York: Pantheon, 1994.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage-Random House, 1993.


[1] The “proletariat” is the name given by Karl Marx to the new working-class that arose in conjunction with capitalism and that generated the labor that made capitalism possible.

[2] The American film Khartoum (1966) heroizes and sentimentalizes the defense of the city by Gordon, who is played in the film by Charlton Heston, then a major star probably best known for playing Moses in the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956). The Mahdist forces are depicted largely as bloodthirsty killers in the film, though the Mahdi himself (played by the distinguished British actor Sir Laurence Olivier) is depicted as a surprisingly dignified figure.

[3] See William Leach for an account of the rise of consumer capitalism in the early twentieth century, including an emphasis on the ways in which America took the lead in this development.

[4] For a detailed account of crucial events from 1875 to the late twentieth century, see Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes.