Skip to main content

The Great War and the Modern Imagination

ISSUE:  Winter 1992
A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. By Samuel Hynes. Atheneum. $29.95.
Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars—A Group Portrait. By Noel Annan. Random House. $30.00.

In an era when diet culture has extended even to books, publishers often demanding the lean and trim look, Samuel Hynes (formerly of Princeton University) and Noel Annan (formerly of Cambridge University) flaunt the fatness of their hefty tomes without embarrassment. A massive subject requires massive representation, or so their portly volumes seem to suggest. Indeed, on a scale of presumed greatness, few subjects could outweigh the Great War and its cultural aftermath. Though Hynes and Annan sacrifice analytic muscle, they gain comprehensiveness, and though they surrender tightness and intensity of argument, they gain discursive breadth. While neither book radically revises our received picture of English culture after the First World War, both books fill in that picture with innumerable new facts and insights, shadings and crosshatchings. Moreover, the two works complement one another, Hynes’ study offering a survey of cultural production during and soon after the war, and Annan’s book extending this overview into the 30’s, 40’s, and beyond. They constitute an epochal portrait that has few rivals in its range and descriptive density.

Samuel Hynes’ book fills in the historical gap left by his two earlier works, The Edwardian Turn of Mind and The Auden Generation. The Auden Generation had already traced the attempts of 30’s writers to absorb the aftershocks of the war, but this new volume examines the war’s more immediate cultural reverberations. A War Imagined is really two books: roughly half of it covers the wartime depictions of the great cataclysm and the other half discusses representations of the war through the 20’s. Hynes centers his study on what he, like scholars before him, calls “the myth of the war.” This is his thumbnail sketch of the Myth:

a generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory, and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them. They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.

The protagonist of Hynes’ study, the Myth of the War, is well known, as we can see from his brief character sketch. But Hynes narrates the birth, growth, and later adventures of his central character with unusual care. According to Hynes, the Myth was born in the trenches of the Somme during the middle of 1916. But the Myth did not reach maturity all at once. Not until the 20’s did the Myth take its permanent shape. This is the story that Hynes describes in unprecedented detail, marshaling a wealth of poems, memoirs, plays, paintings, films, histories, and novels. According to Hynes, the Myth remains largely the same in its various permutations. Hynes minutely traces the gradual formation of the Myth out of a vast array of texts and representations—a Myth that appears immortal and unassailable even today.

Hynes locates the Myth in its original setting—the complex mesh of political debates and aesthetic movements from 1914 through the 20’s. From this intricate and crowded pattern, Hynes isolates each strand for meticulous description. Before the war, as he reminds us, the rhetoric of cultural war suffused such avant-garde movements as Futurism and Vorticism—movements that were accused of being European imports. Critics of modernism and decadence hoped the war might help England to purge itself of these supposedly foreign, supposedly homosexual “diseases.” But in more ways than one, the war returned the sceptered isle to its customary insularity. Efforts were made to keep German music off performance programs and to expunge German influences in scholarship. Meanwhile, many English poets and novelists broke into patriotic and propagandistic effusions. For those artists and intellectuals who opposed the war, censorship became increasingly onerous; they could not, for example, publish pictures of the war dead (unless, of course, the corpses were merely German). Even so, the gruesome details of documentary reports of atrocities made their way to the horrified attention of many artists and civilians at home.

For Hynes as for earlier scholars, the war severed literature and art from their inherited traditions, since it made creative artists feel estranged from the unusable cultural past. At the midpoint of the war, writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and artists like C.R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash stopped drawing on conventional codes of representation. After 1916, when Georgian conventions suddenly began to seem irrelevant, poets wrote the enduring poems of the war. The old abstractions—Holiness, Honour, Heroism—now seemed rotted names. Hynes rehearses the claim that reality triumphed over rhetoric, that the old style was proved wrong by the grotesque realities of the battlefield. As a wartime critic wrote, “all the tinsel and gaud of tradition” was “stripped away” from the war. But Hynes, almost in spite of himself, complicates this simple dichotomy between “rhetoric” and “reality,” suggesting that the Western Front created not so much a new style as a new receptiveness to an already available style—the modernism that, even before the war, was imbued with violence, detail, and distortion. Modernism and war literature “interpenetrated each another,” Hynes concludes, since modernism, having anticipated the fragmentation and violence of war literature, later confirmed and perpetuated this aesthetic.

As Hynes persuasively shows, soldier-creators felt alienated not only from past traditions but also from their civilian audience, which they often represented as old or female. After the battle of the Somme, visual and prose representations of the war became fragmentary, focused on the small-scale and random, as if the sustaining meaning had been drained out of historical reality. Even works that did not mention the war, such as D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, evoked it in their obsession with apocalypse, destruction, the void. The bitter voice of satire came to seem the appropriate mode for a multitude of postwar writers, such as T.S. Eliot and the Sitwells. Many dedicated themselves to building what Hynes calls “anti-monuments,” memorials in prose, poetry, and painting that revealed the war’s gruesome reality. But not all postwar intellectuals were satirists. Much postwar cultural energy was put into making old-fashioned monuments—a conservative activity that Hynes sees as suppressing the uniqueness of this ghastly war.

The last part of Hynes’ book details what might be called the early “reception history” of the war—the mythologization of the war by historians like Wells, poets like Pound, and novelists like Woolf. Having abstained from empirical history in the early part of the book, where Hynes barely mentions specific battles or losses, he plunges in the latter part of the book into social history, tracing the war’s effects on the conflicts between generations, classes, and the sexes. Against the commonplace view that the war was an unequivocal blessing to the women’s movement, Hynes reveals that it disrupted and dissipated this political struggle among others.

Faced with the enormous scale of the war and its representations, Hynes adopts a humble voice. He demonstrates that the Myth is refracted everywhere, but beyond this thesis, he is unwilling to impose much abstract argument on the welter of historical and literary materials. This reluctance accounts both for the book’s expansiveness—little is excluded from its generous attention—and its familiarity—we learn few new ways of conceptualizing the war or its literature. The two key terms of Hynes’s title leave the reader wondering whether the imagination passively responds to the war, as the author himself often seems to suggest, or whether the imagination also contributes to the construction of the war. And how do different kinds of imaginings (poetry, prose, film) by different kinds of people (men, women, aristocrats, the middle class) produce different kinds of war? While Hynes describes a homogeneous imagination as reacting passively to the war, Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) exposed how metaphors from gamesmanship, theater, and romance helped to forge perceptions of the war. Since Hynes’ study is more capacious than Fussell’s in its accumulation of materials yet less forceful in its interpretation of them, A War Imagined and The Great War and Modern Memory should be read together as books that correct each other—perhaps the two least dispensable books on the First World War and modern English culture.

If the Myth of the War is the protagonist of Hynes’ book, a character named “Our Age” is the picaresque hero of Annan’s study of the interwar period. Belonging to another age, I will have to rename “Our Age” for the purposes of this review as “His Age.” His Age was born before the war, went to the university in the period between the Great War and 1949, and dominated literary, artistic, academic, and political life until the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher. Hailing from the upper middle classes, he attended first public school and then university (Oxford, Cambridge, or the London School of Economics). Annan’s book narrates the rise and fall of His Age, a character perhaps snobbish and condescending, but condemned to live in the shadow of his greater, older brother—the Modernist Age. Because of the unnecessary carnage and waste of the Great War, His Age always felt suspicious of the Establishment, even once he came to dominate it. He was liberal and collectivist, compassionate and pluralist, and a devoted reader of poetry.

Annan admits that His Age is a fictive character but still thinks that this generational construct is useful in defining the period’s collective assumptions and beliefs. Although the method would be hopelessly misguided as a description of America’s more heterogeneous élite, it works as a character sketch of “the educated classes” in England—a group with a common educational, socioeconomic, and cultural experience (though Annan somewhat overstates this commonality). “Our Age” is not the only name Annan uses for his protagonist; in this name-packed book, “Our Age” is also called W.H. Auden, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Bloomsbury, Maurice Bowra, Kenneth Clark, Cyril Connolly, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Isherwood, Roy Jenkins, John Maynard Keynes, F.R. Leavis, Michael Oakeshott, George Orwell, the Oxford Wits, Stephen Spender, Lytton Strachey, Evelyn Waugh, and, of course, Lord Annan himself. Indeed, in describing His Age, Annan is often obliquely describing himself; he wrestles with the shadow-self he sees in the history, morality, and politics of his time. Part history, part criticism, part autobiography, Annan’s book is a dazzling, many-faceted chronicle of an intellectual era.

Early in life, His Age was taught to admire the ideal of the English gentleman. However much he chafed at this ideal, he continued to eschew self-promotion and displays of originality—fortunately, one might say, since originality was not his strength, at least by comparison with such immediate predecessors as Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence. At public school, he learned the gentlemanly ideal; as Auden wrote, “the only emotion that is fully developed in a boy of fourteen is the emotion of loyalty and honour. For that very reason it is so dangerous.” But, as Auden implies, His Age also first learned resistance to institutions and ideals at public school: “The best reason I have for opposing Fascism,” Auden mocks, “is that at school I lived in a Fascist state.”

His Age came to maturity when modernism was pervading advanced literature and when pacifism was dominating advanced political thinking. His Age revolutionized sexual mores by making homosexuality a cult and by pressing for fewer restrictions on erotic literature and art. Although the homosexuality of many cultural figures was long hidden from public view, it became undeniable by the 60’s, when “the best known English-born poet, the outstanding composer, the most famous choreographer, and the most prestigious painter— Auden, Britten, Ashton and Bacon—were all known to be homosexuals.” Nor did His Age succeed in reforming ludicrous censorship laws until the late 50’s and early 60’s, when, for example, Penguin Books was finally allowed to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

With swiftness and deftness, Annan narrates this and many other successes, as well as failures, of His Age. Moving rapidly from critics to scientists and Marxists to Catholics, from historians to politicians and novelists to philosophers, Annan offers a lucid and engaging description of His Age. Annan ends his description of His Age with a eulogy, since His Age was killed off by Thatcherism. Not that all of his qualities are worthy of nostalgia or recuperation—His Age sometimes sounds like the erudite, garrulous member of a sexist, often racist, and class-bound men’s club. As Britain begins to admit into its political and cultural elite more than merely token women and minorities, the liberal views of His Age will survive only if Our Age can reincarnate them, can wrest them from their narrow sociocultural provenance, and can adapt them to the new multicultural realities facing England today.

A War Imagined and Our Age are grand cultural maps, the intellectual bequests of two fine scholars late in their careers. Embodying much accumulated wisdom, they will facilitate the cultural transaction of learning from one “Age” to another—two impressive books that members of the “New Age” should read, reread, and relish.


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

Recommended Reading