Twentieth-Century English Literature

Modernism: 1901–1922

English Literary modernism developed in the early twentieth-century out of a general sense of disillusionment with Victorian era attitudes of certainty, conservatism, and belief in the idea of objective truth.The movement was influenced by the ideas of Charles Darwin (1809–82), Ernst Mach (1838–1916), Henri Bergson (1859–1941), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), James G. Frazer (1854–1941), Karl Marx (1818–83)and the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). The continental art movements of Impressionism, and later Cubism, were also important.Important literary precursors of modernism were Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81), Walt Whitman (1819–92), Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), Rimbaud (1854–91), and August Strindberg (1849–1912).

A major British lyric poet of the first decades of the twentieth-century was Thomas Hardy (1840–1928). Though not a modernist, Hardy was an important transitional figure between the Victorian era and the twentieth-century. A major novelist of the late nineteenth-century, Hardy lived well into the third decade of the twentieth-century, though he only published poetry in this period. Another significant transitional figure between Victorians and modernists, the late nineteenth-century novelist, Henry James (1843–1916), continued to publish major novels into the twentieth-century, including The Golden Bowl (1904). Polish-born modernist novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) published his first important works, Heart of Darkness, in 1899 and Lord Jim in 1900. However, the Victorian Gerard Manley Hopkins’s (1844–89) highly original poetry was not published until 1918, long after his death, while the career of another major modernist poet, Irishman W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), began late in the Victorian era. Yeats was one of the foremost figures of twentieth-century English literature.

But while modernism was to become an important literary movement in the early decades of the new century, there were also many fine writers who, like Thomas Hardy, were not modernists. During the early decades of the twentieth-century the Georgian poets like Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), and Walter de la Mare (1873–1956), maintained a conservative approach to poetry by combining romanticism, sentimentality, and hedonism. Another Georgian poet, Edward Thomas (1878–1917) is one of the First World War poets along with Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1917), and Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). Irish playwrights George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), J.M. Synge (1871–1909) and Seán O’Casey were influential in British drama. Shaw’s career began in the last decade of the nineteenth-century, while Synge’s plays belong to the first decade of the twentieth-century. Synge’s most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World, “caused outrage and riots when it was first performed” in Dublin in 1907. George Bernard Shaw turned the Edwardian theatre into an arena for debate about important political and social issues.

Novelists who are not considered modernists include H. G. Wells (1866–1946), John Galsworthy (1867–1933) and E.M. Forster.Forster’s work is “frequently regarded as containing both modernist and Victorian elements”. Forster’s most famous work, A Passage to India (1924), reflected challenges to imperialism, while his earlier novels examined the restrictions and hypocrisy of Edwardian society in England. The most popular British writer of the early years of the twentieth-century was arguably Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) a highly versatile writer of novels, short stories, and poems.

In addition to W. B. Yeats, other important early modernist poets were the American-born poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Eliot became a British citizen in 1927 but was born and educated in America. His most famous works are: “Prufrock” (1915), The Wasteland (1921) and Four Quartets (1935–42).

Amongst the novelists, after Joseph Conrad, other important early modernist including Dorothy Richardson (1873–1957), whose novel Pointed Roof (1915), is one of the earliest examples of the stream of consciousness technique. D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), published The Rainbow in 1915, but it was immediately seized by the police. Then in 1922, Irishman James Joyce’s important modernist novel Ulysses appeared. Ulysses has been called “a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”.

Modernism in the 1920s and the 1930s

Important British writers between the World Wars, include the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978), who began publishing in the 1920s, and novelist Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), who was an influential feminist, and a major stylistic innovator associated with the stream-of-consciousness technique in novels like Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). T. S. Eliot had begun this attempt to revive poetic drama with Sweeney Agonistes in 1932, and this was followed by others including three further plays after the war. In Parenthesis, a modernist epic poem based on author David Jones’s (1895–1974) experience of World War I, was published in 1937.

An important development, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s was a tradition of working class novels actually written by working-class background writers. Among these were coal miner Jack Jones, James Hanley, whose father was a stoker and who also went to sea as a young man, and coal miners Lewis Jones from South Wales and Harold Heslop from County Durham.

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) published his famous dystopia, Brave New World in 1932, the same year as John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance.Samuel Beckett (1906–89) published his first major work, the novel Murphy in 1938. This same year Graham Greene’s (1904–91) first major novel Brighton Rock was published. Then in 1939, James Joyce published Finnegans Wake, in which he creates a special language to express the consciousness of a dreaming character.It was also in 1939 that another Irish modernist poet, W. B. Yeats, died. British poet W. H. Auden (1907–1973) was another significant modernist in the 1930s.

After modernism: 1940 to 2000

Though some have seen modernism ending by around 1939, with regard to English literature, “When (if) modernism petered out and postmodernism began has been contested almost as hotly as when the transition from Victorianism to modernism occurred”. In fact, a number of modernists were still living and publishing in the 1950s and 1960, including T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Richardson, and Ezra Pound. Furthermore, Basil Bunting, born in 1901, published little until Briggflatts in 1965 and Samuel Beckett, born in Ireland in 1906, continued to produce significant works until the 1980s, though some view him as a post-modernist.Among British writers in the 1940s and 1950s were poet Dylan Thomas and novelist Graham Greene whose works span the 1930s to the 1980s, while Evelyn Waugh; W.H. Auden continued publishing into the 1960s.

Postmodern literature is both a continuation of the experimentation championed by writers of the modernist period (relying heavily, for example, on fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, etc.) and a reaction against Enlightenment ideas implicit in Modernist literature. Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is difficult to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodern literature. Among postmodern writers are the Americans Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and Thomas Pynchon.

Novel

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, are set in dystopian Britain.In 1947, Malcolm Lowry published Under the Volcano, while George Orwell’s satire of totalitarianism, 1984, was published in 1949. Other novelists writing in the 1950s and later were: Anthony Powell whose twelve-volume cycle of novels A Dance to the Music of Time, is a comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid-20th century; Nobel Prize laureate William Golding’s allegorical novel Lord of the Flies (1954), explores how culture created by man fails, using as an example a group of British schoolboys marooned on a deserted island. Philosopher Iris Murdoch was a prolific writer of novels throughout the second half of the 20th century that deal especially with sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious.

Scottish writer Muriel Spark pushed the boundaries of realism in her novels. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), at times, takes the reader briefly into the distant future, to see the various fates that befall its characters. Anthony Burgess is especially remembered for his dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), set in the not-too-distant future. During the 1960s and 1970s, Paul Scott wrote his monumental series in the last decade of British rule in India, The Raj Quartet (1966–1975). Scotland has in the late 20th century produced several important novelists, including the writer of How Late it Was, How Late, James Kelman, who like Samuel Beckett can create humour out of the grimmest situations and Alasdair Gray, whose Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981) is a dystopian fantasy set in a surreal version of Glasgow called Unthank.Two other significant Irish novelists are John Banville (born 1945) and Colm Tóibín (born 1955). Martin Amis (1949), Pat Barker (born 1943), Ian McEwan (born 1948) and Julian Barnes (born 1946) are other prominent late twentieth-century British novelists.

Drama

An important cultural movement in the British theatre which developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s was Kitchen sink realism (or “kitchen sink drama”), a term coined to describe art, novels, film, and television plays. The term “angry young men” was often applied to members of this artistic movement. It used a style of social realism which depicts the domestic lives of the working class, to explore social issues and political issues. The drawing room plays of the post war period, typical of dramatists like Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward were challenged in the 1950s by these Angry Young Men, in plays like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956).

Again, in the 1950s, the absurdist play Waiting for Godot (1955), by Irish writer Samuel Beckett profoundly affected British drama. The Theatre of the Absurd influenced Harold Pinter (born 1930) whose works like The Birthday Party(1958) are often characterized by menace or claustrophobia. Beckett also influenced Tom Stoppard (born 1937). Stoppard’s works like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) are however also notable for their high-spirited wit and the great range of intellectual issues which he tackles in different plays.

An important new element in the world of British drama, from the beginnings of radio in the 1920s, was the commissioning of plays, or the adaption of existing plays, by BBC radio. This was especially important in the 1950s and 1960s (and from the 1960s for television). Many major British playwrights in fact, either effectively began their careers with the BBC, or had works adapted for radio, including Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard whose “first professional production was in the fifteen-minute Just Before Midnight programme on BBC Radio, which showcased new dramatists”. John Mortimer made his radio debut as a dramatist in 1955, with his adaptation of his own novel Like Men Betrayed for the BBC Light Programme. Other notable radio dramatists included Brendan Behan, and novelist Angela Carter.Among the most famous works created for radio, are Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954), Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall (1957), Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache (1959) and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1954).

Poetry

Major poets like T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas were still publishing in this period. Though W. H. Auden’s (1907–1973) career began in the 1930s and 1940s he published several volumes in the 1950s and 1960s. His stature in modern literature has been contested, but probably the most common critical view from the 1930s onward ranked him as one of the three major twentieth-century British poets and heir to Yeats and Eliot.

New poets starting their careers in the 1950s and 1960s include Philip Larkin (1922–85) (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964), Ted Hughes (1930–98) (The Hawk in the Rain, 1957) and Irishman (born Northern Ireland) Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) (Death of a Naturalist, 1966). Northern Ireland has also produced a number of other significant poets, including Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon. In the 1960s and 1970s Martian poetry aimed to break the grip of ‘the familiar’, by describing ordinary things in unfamiliar ways, as though, for example, through the eyes of a Martian. Poets most closely associated with it are Craig Raine and Christopher Reid.

Another literary movement in this period was the British Poetry Revival. It was a wide-reaching collection of groupings and subgroupings that embrace performance, sound and concrete poetry. The Mersey Beat poets were Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Roger McGough. Their work was a self-conscious attempt at creating an English equivalent to the American Beats. Other noteworthy later twentieth-century poets are Welshman R. S. Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, Charles Tomlinson and Carol Ann Duffy. Geoffrey Hill (born 1932) is considered one of the most distinguished English poets of his generation, Charles Tomlinson (born 1927) is another important English poet of an older generation, though “since his first publication in 1951, has built a career that has seen more notice in the international scene than in his native England.

Commonwealth Writers

From 1950, a significant number of major writers came from countries that had over the centuries been settled by the British, other than America which had been producing significant writers from at least the Victorian period. There had of course been a few important works in English prior to 1950 from the then British Empire. The South African writer Olive Schreiner’s famous novel The Story of an African Farm was published in 1883 and New Zealander Katherine Mansfield published her first collection of short stories, In a German Pension, in 1911. The first major novelist, writing in English, from the Indian sub-continent, R. K. Narayan, began publishing in England in the 1930s. Caribbean writer Jean Rhys’s writing career began as early as 1928, though her most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea, was not published until 1966. South Africa’s Alan Paton’s famous Cry, the Beloved Country dates from 1948. Doris Lessing from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was a dominant presence in the English literary scene, frequently publishing from 1950 on throughout the 20th century, and she won the Nobel prize for literature in 2007.

Salman Rushdie is another post Second World War writer from the former British colonies who permanently settled in Britain. Rushdie achieved fame with Midnight’s Children 1981. His most controversial novel The Satanic Verses (1989) was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. V. S. Naipaul (born 1932), born in Trinidad, was another immigrant, who wrote among other things A Bend in the River (1979). Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

From Nigeria, a number of writers have achieved an international reputation for works in English, including novelist Chinua Achebe, as well as playwright Wole Soyinka. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, as did South African novelist Nadine Gordimer in 1995. Other South African writers in English are novelist J.M. Coetzee (Nobel Prize 2003) and playwright Athol Fugard. Kenya’s most internationally renowned author is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who has written novels, plays and short stories in English. Poet Derek Walcott, from St Lucia in the Caribbean, was another Nobel Prize winner in 1992. An Australian Patrick White, a major novelist in this period, whose first work was published in 1939, won in 1973. Other noteworthy Australian writers at the end of this period are poet Les Murray, and novelist Peter Carey (born 1943), who is one of only four writers to have won the Booker Prize twice.

American Writers

From 1940 into the 21st century, American playwrights, poets, and novelists have continued to be internationally prominent.

Genre fiction in the twentieth-century

Many works published in the twentieth-century were examples of genre fiction. This designation includes the crime novels, spy novel, historical romance, fantasy, graphic novel, and science fiction.Agatha Christie (1890–1976) was an important crime writer of novels, short stories, and plays who is best remembered for her 80 detective novels as well as her successful plays for the West End theatre. Another popular writer during the Golden Age of detective fiction was Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957). Other recent noteworthy writers in this genre are Ruth Rendell, P. D. James and Scot Ian Rankin. Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) is an early example of spy fiction. Another noted writer in the spy novel genre was John le Carré, while in thriller writing, Ian Fleming created the character James Bond 007.

The novelist Georgette Heyer created the historical romance genre. The Hungarian-born Emma Orczy (1865–1947) also wrote in this genre. Her original play, The Scarlet Pimpernel, ‘ became a favourite of London audiences, playing more than 2,000 performances and becoming one of the most popular shows staged in England to that date.

Among significant writers in the fantasy genre were Tolkien the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling who wrote the highly successful Harry Potter series. Philip Pullman is famous for his His Dark Materials trilogy are other significant authors of fantasy novels for younger readers. Like fantasy, in the later decades of the 20th century, the genre of science fiction began to be taken more seriously, and this was because of the work of writers such as Arthur C. Clarke’s (2001: A Space Odyssey), and Michael Moorcock. Another prominent writer in this genre, Douglas Adams, is particularly associated with the comic science fiction work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Mainstream novelists such Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood also wrote works in this genre.Noted writers in the field of comic books are Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore, while Gaiman also produces graphic novels.

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