© 2019 by M. Keith Booker
The story of world culture and society since the beginning of the twentieth century is a story of the completion of the process of capitalist modernization in the advanced countries of the West, as well as a story of the spread of capitalist modernization to the rest of the globe. This process has proceeded in different ways and at different speeds in different parts of the world, but it has gradually come to impact all parts of the world in one way or another. This volume will focus on the ways in which British culture since 1900 has reflected—and, at the same time, contributed to—the larger process of capitalist modernization. Because the global spread of capitalism is such an important part of that process, the volume will also look at different parts of the globe that have been affected by capitalist modernization in ways that also reflect the dialogue of global culture with British culture. After all, the rapid expansion of the great European colonial empires in the nineteenth century—with the British Empire at the forefront of that expansion—paved the way for capitalist globalization in the twentieth century and beyond. As a result, the story of British culture after 1900 cannot be separated from the story of the British Empire and of the dialogue of British culture with cultures in other parts of the world, just as the cultural histories of many parts of the world since the late nineteenth century are inseparable from the impact of the British Empire on those histories.
If the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British culture is inextricable from the history of the completion of the process of capitalist modernization, it is obviously valuable to understand the earlier development of this process as well. This process dates back at least to the fifteenth century, but (especially in terms of culture) the bulk of the cultural revolution that led to the emergence of today’s globalized world occurred in the nineteenth century. The culture of the nineteenth century thus provides crucial background to an understanding of culture beyond 1900, especially in the case of Great Britain, which remained the world’s pacesetter for the process of modernization throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, this volume will begin with a brief overview of British literature and culture in the nineteenth century, emphasizing the ways in which the nineteenth century paved the way for the twentieth and beyond.
Chapter 2 focuses on British literature in the first three decades of the twentieth century, a period of rapid and thoroughly innovation in science, technology, business, and virtually every aspect of daily life. This chapter notes the ways in which British literature responded to this context with a period of dramatic innovation of its own, placing British writers at the forefront of the phenomenon of literary modernism—even as the realism of the nineteenth century remained the dominant paradigm that the sometimes-radical experimental efforts of modernist writers and artists were intended to challenge. Chapter 2 acknowledges the ongoing importance of realism as a mode in modern British literature but focuses especially on the phenomenon of modernism. It also notes the emergence of important new trends in literature produced for popular audiences and in proletarian literature produced specifically by and for the working class. It includes both a survey of these phenomena and four separate sections discussing the ways in which exemplary texts illustrate this phenomenon. These texts include the classic proletarian novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914), by Robert Tressell. The other exemplary texts are oriented toward modernism. They begin with the Polish-born Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), a sort of proto-modernist text that is particularly involved with the topic of colonialism. The third exemplary “text” in this chapter is the poetry of T. S. Eliot, an American-born naturalized British poet who was one of the key figures in the phenomenon of literary modernism. Particular attention will be paid to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) and The Waste Land (1922), both crucial texts of the modernist movement. As immigrant writers, Conrad and Eliot also both illustrate the ways in which British culture was becoming inherently international at the beginning of the twentieth century. The third exemplary text in this chapter is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), one of the landmarks of British (and feminist) modernist literature. Woolf’s career illustrates the crucial role played by the fight for women’s rights in the overall process of modernization.
Chapter 3 turns to a consideration of the major role played by Irish literature in the evolution of modern literature as a whole. Ireland was a particularly important part of the story of twentieth-century literature both because it produced such important writers as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett and because—as Britain’s first and nearest colony—Ireland played a particularly important part in the development of colonialism (and anti-colonial resistance). Exemplary texts discussed at length in this section include the poetry of Yeats (who was extensively involved in the Irish Literary Revival) and the story collection Dubliners (1914), the first book-length work of fiction by Joyce—who is now widely regarded as the greatest literary genius of the twentieth century. Another exemplary text in this chapter is the first chapter of Joyce’s monumental modernist masterpiece Ulysses (1922); included in this section is the full text of Joyce’s first chapter, as well as a significant number of annotations to aid in the reading process. This chapter ends with a fourth exemplary text, Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).
Chapter 4 turns to a consideration of the rise of British film in the first half of the twentieth century and to the ways in which British film came, during this period, to serve many of the functions served by literature in earlier times. This chapter will note the groundbreaking work of Alfred Hitchcock, who would eventually move to America to direct his best-known films there. The primary focus, however, will be on the three directors who came, in the 1940s, to be thought of as the central figures in British film: David Lean, Michael Powell, and Carol Reed, still widely regarded as the greatest directors in British film history. The exemplary texts discussed to accompany this chapter include The Thief of Bagdad (1940), co-directed by Powell and several others, and Reed’s The Third Man (1949), often considered the greatest of all British films.
Chapter 5 shifts attention to the important role played by literature from the former British colonies after the dismantling of the British Empire in the middle of the twentieth century. This chapter will focus on a brief survey of the African postcolonial novel in English, including a discussion of the historical background to the modern African novel, as well as a consideration of some of the basic issues facing postcolonial writers that are not, in general, faced by British writers. The exemplary text discussed in conjunction with this chapter will be Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), often considered the founding text of the modern African novel and a work that served as an inspiration for many subsequent African novelists. Chapter 6 then does many of the same things for the Indian postcolonial novel in English, using Arundhati Roy’s much-acclaimed 1997 novel The God of Small Things as an exemplary text. Chapter 7 returns to the topic of British literature, picking up where Chapter 2 left off to consider British literature published since the end of World War II. The chapter itself presents a survey of this literature, including an introduction to the topic of postmodernism, followed by a discussion of Zadie Smith’s 2000 novel White Teeth as an exemplary text. Chapter 8 then surveys British film since 1980, followed by a discussion of several exemplary texts, including The Commitments (1991) and Trainspotting (1996), which were adapted from important novels, the first Irish and the second Scottish. The final exemplary text is the zombie comedy film Shaun of the Dead (2004).