Skip to main content

Cakes and Ale and English Letters

ISSUE:  Summer 1988
A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers. By Hugh Kenner. Knopf. $22. 95.

That Kenner’s latest high-wire act in literary criticism and cultural commentary completes a trilogy that includes A Homemade World (1975) and A Colder Eye (1983) is cause enough for celebration on this side of the Atlantic, but I suspect it will be seen as one more piece of bad news on the “sinking island” we call England. A travel book such as Paul Theroux’s A Kingdom by the Sea (1983) makes it clear why one would not want to ride the British rails; A Sinking Island surveys the landscape of British literature from 1895 to the present and makes it clear why one would not want to read most of their books.

Kenner is, of course, literary modernism’s liveliest commentator. To call him a “Poundean,” a “Joycean,” is both to identify the figures who loom largest in his critical imagination, the objects of earlier books such as The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951) and Dublin’s Joyce (1956), The Pound Era (1971) and Joyce’s Voices (1978); and to characterize what is wonderfully quirky in Kenner himself. For, like Joyce, Kenner convinces us—indeed, dazzles us—with the impression that his brows are as much at home among the Low and Middle as they are among the High; and moreover, that he can extract fascinating nuggets no matter where his eyes happen to land. Consider, for example, this tightly packed parenthetical unit, one that tells us more in three sentences than many lesser books do in a pound of pages:

(The English think they’re literary; they’re technologists. Though Americans think they’re technologists, technology scares them; cherishing the disembodied abstract, they find fulfillment in the themes of law. And Ireland, said to be dreamland, breeds logicians, fierce ones.)

In this regard, Kenner is akin to Ezra Pound. His is a radically independent mind, one that throws off judgments the way a wet puppy saturates a rug. The result is a critical style that always threatens to overload the capacities of the individual sentence, that packs so much playfulness, so much evidence collected from the ear and eye, so many odd asides and parenthetical inserts, we want to catch our breath after a typical paragraph:

Hooted at by Evelyn Waugh as Parsnip and Pimpernel, Auden and Isherwood had removed themselves to the U.S., where Auden’s first busywork was the elegy to Yeats, notable for its breathtaking condescension, “You were silly like us.” (Yeats was never silly like that.). Their absence cleared the way for the New Apocalypse. The Movement (I’ll forbear copying its list of names), which stood for something lower-keyed, less disheveled. Poets were grouping in response to countergroups, as though thinking they’d be read chiefly by other poets. Apart from the freakish popularity of Thomas, that was going to be true. (What did Everyman read? Everyman read novels. And after the war the great Library itself commenced to disintegrate. There’s little of Dent’s dream now save in pious name. The Tit-Bits public? It would soon have the telly. The enlightened public? Split seven ways as usual, and part of it dreaming that the TLS guarded its interests.)

The result is a book in which moving a thesis along matters a good deal less than its grand cultural leaps and occasional stops to sniff closely at language. At the same time, however, this is a thesis in Kenner’s house of mirrors: namely, that the British fondness for what they call “a good read” works against the grain of literary modernism’s insistence on rereading, and that the result makes Britain the least interesting of international Modernism’s “three provinces”—Ireland and America being the other two. Indeed, Kenner argues that the sun had long ago set on English literature, and that if the last decades have made anything clear, it is that “there’s no longer an English literature.”

How did this sad sinking come to pass? Kenner posits two broad avenues worth strolling as we make our way from the England of Conrad’s first novel (Almayer’s Folly, 1895) to the England of not-much-happening-now. The first concerns the cunning of history, English style:

If England was the command post of the language, it was also, as the first to be industrialized, the country that, ahead of all the world, saw reading publics fragmented and reading become a drug. England has had long experience with the principle that whole classes can be marked by what they consume—sugar, tobacco, tea. Likewise, what did you read?—by that you were known; so whoever had the power to enforce a literary “value” defined major special norms.

The second road is replete with personalities, and the very British habit of dealing with threats to the status quo by dismissing them as the stuff of eccentrics:

To cope with the multiple shocks of modernism, this personalizing faculty had to be put into high gear, with such success that James, Ford, Yeats, Lawrence, Pound, Wells, Woolf—the list goes on—now hardly seem to be characters in the same story, but simply occupants of more or less adjacent cells in a well-regulated Bedlam. Ford was a bounder, a liar. Yeats conjured spooks. Mrs. Woolf was found in the Ouse, three weeks dead, and what about that? Poor Lawrence, he was sex-mad. Pound—so American he was ineducable (“hare-brained,” says a recent book). And Eliot; was he not really, ah, hiding something? His sexual orientation, perhaps?

But knowing where one is going is only half the fun (perhaps not even that much) in a Kenner book; if some of the ground seems familiar—that Britannia did, indeed, rule the waves in 1895 and, moreover, had planted its flag on all manner of foreign soils; or that its solid countrymen read, read, read: magazines like Tit-Bits and The Strand; thruppenny excerpts of Dickens; and dead writers by the score and readily available in cheap Everyman editions—it takes a Kenner to connect all this to the figure in A Sinking Island’s carpet. Namely, that

The word “literature” itself was sliding toward the Oxford English Dictionary’s sense 3c, “Printed matter of any kind,” not excluding handbills and jokes printed on matchbox covers. The first instance of that usage it records is dated, by coincidence, 1895.

Indeed, Kenner’s study is energized by “coincidences” of precisely this sort. In a writer less skilled, less comfortable with the quick sketch and the telling anecdote, the technique would surely topple from its own accumulated weight. To return for a moment to that fateful year, 1895: we remember the date because it marked the respective debuts of Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells (The Time Machine), and the end of Oscar Wilde’s theatrical career (The Ideal Husband), but I dare say that most of us have forgotten, or never knew, that 1895 was also the year of Marie Coreli’s The Sorrows of Satan, a three-decker potboiler that went through 32 printings in its first 12 months. Even more mind-boggling, it remained on the best-seller lists for the next two decades. What could possibly account for such a phenomenon, and what, if anything, does it tell us about the prognosis for the genuinely literary in England? Kenner apparently blames the Everyman list for the former; there is no doubt that he feels it bodes ill for the latter:

. . . the reader whose tastes were guided by the Everyman list . . . led to a new self-understanding. He was a proper bookman, impervious to novelty. That could be made explicit. Ernest Rhys, Everyman’s editor, in an essay many times replicated—he appended versions for years to every copy of every volume of the Library—encouraged Everyman to know himself as follows: “Everyman is distinctly proverbial in his tastes. He likes best of all an old author who has worn well, or a comparatively new author who has gained something like newspaper notoriety.”

. . . . That being the case, you’d read them if you liked them, making no real claims for them save that they diverted you. We may be near an answer to a dark question: who were all those buyers, at 6s., of Marie Coreli? Not Tit-Bits browsers; her demands on sheer attention are too sustained. No, it seems likely that she found her six-shilling public among folk who spent many a dutiful shilling too on the Everyman Dickens, the Everyman Bulwer-Lytton, even the Everyman Homer.

Woman, I too take thought for this; but then I bethink me. . . .

—so a line of Homer as rendered by Matthew Arnold, enshrined in Everyman’s Library, No. 115, p. 271. If you could accept that as English—as sanctioned English—you might think Miss Coreli positively idiomatic.

This stolid, quasi-official national stand against the innovative, the experimental, in a word, the new is nowhere more evident than in the generation of Oxbridge dons who prefered P.G. Wodehouse to anyone they might profess about from behind the lectern. One can imagine Kenner fairly smacking his lips when he points out that “in 1939 Oxford conferred on Psmith’s creator the honorary doctorate it’d not have dreamed of offering Leopold Bloom’s.” The point, of course, is that cakes-and-ale Englishmen read “for enjoyment,”

brooking no damned pretensions like interior monologue. That was for people who affected superiority; that was for highbrows.

To be sure, Kenner gives D. H. Lawrence and, somewhat more reluctantly, Virginia Woolf, their due, but the question that keeps breaking into his discussions of an advance here, a triumph there, is precisely this: what chance could literary modernism have in England, given all that was stacked against it? One might look, as Kenner does, at lowbrow magazines like Tit-Bits (and, indeed, he goes so far as to reproduce a representative, and dreadful, story [entitled “For Vera’s Sake”] and then, his close-reading juices flowing, he shows us not only why it simply won’t do as literature, but also why “payment at the rate of one guinea per column had been sent to . . . Mr. Philip Beaufoy, Playgoers Club, Strand, W.C.” Readers of Ulysses will, of course, relish the joke, or in this case, Kenner’s clever adaptation.

At the same time, however, Kenner is well aware that literary models alone do not the whole game make. The Great War devastated Europe and tilted our century irrevocably toward nightmare; but in England, the costs in voices forever stilled were particularly crushing:

. . . by November 1918, of every ten Englishmen under 45, one had died and two more had suffered wounds: two million English casualties alone. The system that chose officers from the educated classes, then sent officers ahead over the top, ensured that those groups suffered the heaviest losses; the toll of intelligentsia was disproportionate. At random: T.E. Hulme died; the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska died— . . . the poet Wilfrid Owen died— . . .the painter-poet Isaac Rosenberg died— . . . .

One day, 1 July 1916, saw sixty thousand British casualties, a record till 21 March 1918, when they lost 150,000 in “the largest engagement fought since the beginnings of civilization.” By the time it was ending, half the British infantry were younger than 19. The gas, the high explosives, the Mausers, the tanks, decimated a generation. How much art they killed, how much literature, there is no guessing. Eliot’s hernia kept him in London; Pound, his astigmatism. We’re fortunate.

In the arc of this paragraph, from its recitation of grim statistics to its concern with rarefied aesthetics, one can see both the glories and the deeply troubling aspects of Kenner’s perspective. That the English literary establishment virtually ignores Charles Tomlinson and, instead, chooses to think of Philip Larkin as a major poet is the final link in a long, long chain. “Books are a load of crap,” one Larkin persona tells us (how far British poetry has fallen since the days when Eliot’s The Waste Land sent its readers scurrying to the libraries!), and Kenner makes it clear that, in important ways, Larkin is speaking for himself. “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?” Larkin once asked an interviewer, and as for reading:

. . . he didn’t, he said, reach much: “Novels I’ve read before. Detective stories: Gladys Mitchell, Michael Innes, Dick Francis. . . . Nothing difficult.”

Nothing difficult. . . nothing that need detain us, nothing that begs to be fussed about, much less reread—that is the literature that English bookmen have always prefered. As Eliot’s The Waste Land says of the “Shakespeherian” rag: “It’s so elegant/so intelligent.” It’s also safe, middle-class, thoroughly genteel. The short-lived days of its literary rebels were precisely that: short-lived, and now all we have left is the curiously flat note on which The Sinking Island ends: “Underneath, a deep doubt runs: has anything made any sense, Everyman will ask, since the time of Conrad and Wells and the rattling good stories?”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading