Mary Grover and Chris Hopkins

Criticism of the Nineteen Thirties as a self-contained literary period with a characteristic aesthetic began almost before the decade had ended, with John Lehmann's book length study New Writing in Europe of 1940. With the professionalisation of literary criticism in the university during the 1960s, a number of editors of anthologies and critics continued the construction of the Thirties as a literary period, producing seminal books such as Poetry of the Thirties (Robin Skelton, 1964), Poets of the Thirties (D.E.S Maxwell, 1969), The Poetry of the Thirties (A.T. Tolley, 1975) and, perhaps most importantly, The Auden Generation - Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (Samuel Hynes, 1976).

At a time when literature was more commonly studied as a field with (allegedly) clear boundaries, thirties criticism almost inevitably related literary issues to questions about politics, history, modern popular culture, mass media, and the function of literature. It was, also, from the beginning, interested in texts which were not firmly canonical or even markedly 'high cultural' (especially since thirties aesthetics often appeared to be opposed to the Modernism which then dominated the academy). Nevertheless, during the explosion of theory in the later 1970s and 1980s in Britain and the US, these approaches began to look less radical and innovative than many of the newer arrivals. Though the debates arising from various strands of theory had considerable impact on the kinds of texts studied at undergraduate level, there was no obvious or compelling place for the thirties in the new English. This was perhaps particularly because some concerns of Thirties criticism - class and specific historical and literary historical detail - became less valued than new focuses such as gender, race, and new philosophical ideas about language and identity.

These new developments in the discipline certainly did not spell the end of the characteristic concerns of thirties critics, and new critical books about the period continued to appear in the 1970s and 80s (written or edited by critics such as Bernard Bergonzi, John Clarke, Frank Gloversmith, Richard Johnstone and John Lucas). However, the relation of the thirties to current critical modes and concerns may have given it a curious status - it had never been widely established as an area (in the same way that Modernism had, for example), yet it now looked old-fashioned and outside the scope of modern theoretical debates.

However, (and perhaps partly because historicism became a dominant critical mode), there was a renewal of interest during the eighties and nineties. A number of important new studies appeared, including Valentine Cunningham's British Writers of the Thirties,(1988), Randall Stevenson's The British Novel Since the Thirties (1989), Adrian Caesar's Dividing Lines - Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s (1991), Alison Light's Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (1991). Janice Rossen and Rosemary Coltman’s Writers of the Old School: British Novelists of the 1930s (1992), Andy Croft's Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (1992), Jan Montefiore's Men and Women Writers of the 1930s (1996), Jane Dowson's Women’s Poetry of the 1930s (1996), John Baxendale and Christopher Pawling's Narrating the Thirties (1996), Patrick Quinn's Recharting the Thirties (1997) and Keith Williams's British Writers and the Media 1930-45 (1996). Some of these adopted relatively traditional thirties approaches (including an interest in rediscovering neglected authors and genres), but all were written in the new environment of the final decade of the twentieth century, and reflect to some degree new approaches and interests, especially in terms of notions of canonicity. Some book-length studies, for example those by Baxendale and Pawling, and Keith Williams, began to place the thirties into larger historical contexts, and to see the period as having important bearings on ideas of postmodernism and history.

This issue of Working Papers on the Web invited scholars of the period to contribute essays responding to one or more of the following set of related questions:

  • How might the writing of the thirties fit into longer perspectives? (e.g. relation to modernity and postmodernity / the whole of the twentieth century?)
  • What do the patterns of taste or value formed during this period tell us about the sociology of canon formation? How important was the 'lowbrow/middlebrow/highbrow' schema? How peculiar were these kinds of cultural classifications (are they extinct in a post-modern culture?)
  • How is the gendering of authorship at this period affected by the cultural classifications of the period? How should we historicise the period's discourses of class and gender, art and politics?
  • Did thirties writing found any enduring genealogies? Which genres of the period were most significant? Are some of its writers or writings still neglected? What might be the reasons for their neglect? Who should be remembered?
  • How are the thirties being read now? How might they be read differently? Given the excitements of postmodernism, is it still worth reading and studying thirties neo-realism? Is the period still important? Has its significance changed in recent years? How do you teach the thirties now?

These prompts were designed to elicit responses to the question, what does the thirties mean now or how do we treat the period now? The title 'The Thirties Now!' reflects our awareness that the thirties is a decade frequently revisioned. Some critics, like Alison Light, have been successful in recovering the voices of authors previously dismissed by revealing that these authors can be aligned with positions that are more politically attractive than they first appear, or at least more complex. This has been an immensely empowering tool for feminists in attempts to recuperate texts by female authors who produced fiction in genres that conferred little cultural capital upon those authors. To some extent this is the thrust of Claire Tylee's discussion of Naomi Jacobs in this issue.

However in addition to the efforts made to recuperate texts by aligning them with values already endorsed by the academic community, increasingly, in the last decade, critics have begun to focus on the complexities of the ways in which cultural hierarchies, inflected, as they are, by highly nuanced political, moral and aesthetic allegiances, have shaped the generation and consumption of texts.

Of the six authors writing for this edition, two, John Baxendale and Graham Barnfield, reflect upon the process of renarration, Baxendale in Britain and Barnfield in the USA. Barnfield's is the only discussion not to focus on a particular text or author. His detailed examination of a wide range of sources deals both with the extent to which the thirties in America might or might not to be accurately described as 'red', but also why that characterisation might have served the interests of those who so described it. The distortions created by layers of political revisioning and renarration add a useful dimension to our understanding of the cultural postionings which are the backdrop to the discussions by Chris Vials and Stephen Brauer of the equivocal cultural status of American texts popular during the thirties.

Chris Pawling and John Baxendale's groundbreaking book, Narrating the Thirties (1996), explored the reasons why this decade has been so frequently used as a present-day resource in British cultural and political life. In his article here, John Baxendale revisits the current resonances of the thirties. By focussing on J. B. Priestley's ambivalent engagement with modernity in English Journey (1934) Baxendale explores the way in which changing patterns of domestic consumption reflected and forged new identities in the 1930s. The difficulty of fitting English Journey into any of the existing ideological or genre categories reflects Priestley's own desire to blur the boundaries that have been too rigidly drawn between the provincial and the metropolitan, or between liberal and left. Baxendale also gives the reader an overview of the way that, since 1996, new methodologies have constructed new themes in our study of the thirties.

Some of the most fruitful of these new methodologies have derived from the work done by Pierre Bourdieu on the way cultural products are shaped by negotiations of the hierarchies of taste that determine cultural capital (or by approaches that parallel his). His approach has produced a range of work in which the endgame is not to place a text in a particular cultural hierarchy but instead to take that text as a locus in which to scrutinise how the nature of those hierarchies affects the generation and the marketing of texts. The very hybridity of a number of thirties texts make them useful grounds for such scrutiny. Kristin Bluemel's analysis of Mulk Raj Anand is governed by her awareness that new analytical tools are required to account for the work of an author whose work has suffered critical neglect partly because of its stylistic hybridity. Anand's modernist novels were praised by contemporary writers, such as E. M. Forster, Leonard and Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, but when, in his opinion, he found a more appropriate vehicle for his Marxist and anti-imperialist beliefs in his later non-fiction, these admirers fell silent. Bluemel argues that the inability of Anand's previous admirers to align themselves with his radical politics once their vehicle was unfashionable and their radical content more explicit, justifies the appellation of this decade as 'dishonest'. She also suggests that we read Anand, not or not only as a writer on the margins of the modernist movement or British radicalism but as part "of one intermodern movement . . . sustained, in various forms and with differing social-political effects, throughout the 1930s and 1940s". It will be interesting to discover whether Stephen Brauer and Chris Vials find the notion of 'intermodernism' helpful to their project of describing texts which have been tainted, not explicitly by their non-modernist characteristics but by their mass readership.

Their discussions introduce that characteristic dimension of the debate about literary value in the thirties: the extent to which a text was the product of minority or mass culture. Like Bluemel, Vials examines a writer whose literary reputation suffered from the extent to which he was seen to fall away from contemporary orthodoxy amongst literary establishments. At the beginning of the 1930s Erskine Caldwell was regarded as the literary peer of Faulkner and Hemingway. However the way in which the boundaries between cultural categories and between different levels within cultural hierarchies were being blurred during the thirties is revealed by the decline on the value put on Caldwell's texts during this period. In particular Vial investigates the marketing of God's Little Acre (1933), a novel about Southern sharecroppers which sold more copies than any work of fiction in the US between 1895 and 1965. In the light of the failure of most proletarian novels of the period to achieve wide sales, Vials asks whether "the popularity of God's Little Acre [was] attributable to a compromised political agenda". Unlike Anand, who was measured in the modernist balance and found wanting, Caldwell was scrutinized by intellectuals on the left as a realist who had compromised the purity of his beliefs by writing a species of fiction which not only lacks the characteristics of classic realism but has elements of the surreal and the magical. Vials uses Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project to free the debate about false consciousness and popular culture from the terms of the Frankfurt theorists. Instead Vials seeks, in the context of his discussion of the way Caldwell's text was filmed and marketed, to "theorize emancipatory aesthetics deeply lodged in the logic of mass culture".

Many of the features of Caldwell's novels that were dismissed by the high priests of realism are shared by the subject of Claire Tylee's enquiry, Naomi Jacobs. Jacobs, like Caldwell, was a radical and Tylee, like Vials, deals with the transformative powers of popular culture. Jacobs' novel, Barren Metal (1936) was part of the author's imaginative resistance to racism. Yet it is often misrepresented as expressive of the 'false consciousness' which is the supposed fate of any popular text. Tylee's analysis of the discourse of the novel shows again the inadequacy of our present definitions of realism. Tylee reverses the rhetoric of the left which often casts the popular as the pusillanimous collaborator with the dominant social hegemony. Instead Jacobs emerges from Tylee's account as morally courageous and "boldly transgressive". Tylee's discussion of Jacob's representations of the idiom of her Jewish characters parallels Vials' discussion in some ways. Both make us aware of the critical issues raised by the representation of the speech of characters who are not usually the subject of 'high' art: the extent to which such voices, in themselves, compromise the cultural status of a text; the problem of representing such discourse in a narrative without reducing the speaker to a comic or picturesque turn and the possibility that such discourse might be associated with 'false consciousness'.

Bluemel, Tylee and Vials all deal with culturally compromised texts. Their analyses explore the ways in which cultural hierarchies intersect with political or modernist orthodoxies. Stephen Brauer deals not with a single text or author but with the genre of detective fiction, a genre very much identified with the thirties and which encompasses texts which, however elegant, rarely escape their categorisation as middlebrow. Taking Edmund Wilson as his representative patrician, disdaining to take seriously the artistic pretensions of any writer is such a debased genre, Brauer engages with Wilson's critique by counterpoising Chandler's defence of Dashiel Hammett. Brauer, like Chandler, argues that a key way of bridging the distinctions insisted upon by critics like Wilson is to "perceive the high, middle, and low through the same lens".

If we abandon this ambition, we are in danger of making the errors of judgement that Jane Dowson's examination of the poetry coverage of Britain's BBC reveals. The BBC was simultaneously accused of incompatible vices. On the one hand it was identified by some as homogeneously elitist, adopting the prosing tone of a superior parent to its supposedly ill-educated listeners. At the same time, Virginia Woolf characterised the BBC as the 'Betwixt and Between Company' aiming to please both high and lowbrows and lamentably achieving the grisly status of the merely middlebrow. However, as is shown by Dowson's meticulous examination of the kind of poetry that was published in The Listener, this judgement of Woolf's fails to recognise"its progressive outlook and the ability of the journal to explain modernist principles to the ordinary person". Such recognition requires "a reworking of the intersecting concepts of radio culture, modernism and 'middlebrow'". Cultural frameworks are not simply distorting lenses through which we read now, but are part of the meanings of the original texts, essentials orientations on which they drew.

The essays in this edition of Working Papers on the Web are, of course, not systematically representative of work on the thirties; individual scholars chose to respond in their own way to the call for papers. Not all the questions we asked were addressed (no one, for example, talked about how they teach the thirties now). Nevertheless, there is a certain unity to their interests. The 'Auden generation', in Samuel Hynes's terms, is wholly absent; only one essay discussed poetry of the period, and there was little interest in established authors. Instead, there is a stress on the ways in which the thirties have been told and retold, and on the recovery of authors and texts which may have spoken powerfully, but which have not been canonised. Most notably, the essays tend to share a strong interest in how cultural hierarchies were formed and how these continue to act: the investigation of the hierarchical terminologies of lowbrow / middlebrow/ highbrow are the commonest shared features in these essays. Attention has shifted from the texts alone to a focus on the cultural frameworks which underpinned the ways in which they were or were not read. This focus seems to represent not so much a turn away from the traditional interest in something wider than the simply 'literary', but a following up of the ideas of cultural history which stemmed from the thirties itself (for example in Orwell's essays, the work of leftist critics like Christopher Caudwell, commentators like Q.D. Leavis or the Mass Observation project). If the essays in this edition of Working Papers on the Web are at all representative, it may be that current work on the thirties is not so much inventing new ways of approaching the decade as fulfilling the project begun by many thirties writers of examining all aspects of their own history and cultural values through a common lens.



We would like to thank Steven Earnshaw and Matthew Steggle for their invaluable technical assistance.

We are also grateful to Mark Harden of The Artchive ( for use of Charles Sheeler's Classic Landscape 1931 for our title page.