Books‎ > ‎

Colletta review of Modernism, History and the First World War

Modernism & World War I

Lisa Colletta

English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 42, 2 (1999), 184-8 

Review of Trudi Tate, Modernism, History, and the First World War (Manchester University Press, 1998). vii + 196 pp. Cloth £40.00 Paper £11.99


AT FIRST GLANCE, a critical work examining the connections between literary modernism and the first world war would seem to have little new to say, the territory being fairly well mined in the last few years. However, Trudi Tate's new study of the relationship between modernist fiction, cultural history, and World War I offers fresh and engaging insights into the ways in which the experience of the war and the cultural output of the period interact and are inextricably bound together. Her concern is with the difficulties of bearing witness to an event that was at once profoundly traumatic and only partially seen, and she investigates how both civilians and combatants struggled to make sense of the violence they experienced but only understood "through a fog of ignorance, fear, confusion, and lies." Examining various forms of writing produced during and after the war, Tate revisits the work of modernists such as Woolf, HD, Lawrence, Ford, and Faulkner, and places them along- side the war writings of Blunden, Graves, Barbusse, and Remarque. Reading them beside each other, the categories of 'modernism' and 'war writing' begin to elide, and after the war the fictions of literary modernism begin 'to look like a peculiar but significant form of war writing'.

Indeed, Tate seems interested in complicating the convenient categories that have become regarded as axiomatic when examining works of the period, whether those categories are 'modernist' and 'non-modernist' or 'women's writing' and 'men's writing', for she argues that 'this kind of catergorising obscures more than it illuminates'. The emphasis here is on how individuals saw themselves in relation to the historical events they were engulfed in and how the awareness of 'total war' impacted ideas of personal autonomy, attitudes toward government, and perceptions of the human body, so vulnerable to the force of modern technology and weaponry. In the period during and just after the war, Tate argues that these concerns far outweigh the more frequently asked questions about gender or aesthetic difference.

Part I of the work examines the difficulty of bearing witness to an event that was deliberately obfuscated by official information sources yet the effects of which were powerfully felt by all segments of society.

Through the lens of the HD's poetry and fiction and Kipling's disturbing 'Mary Postgate', Tate reveals the trauma suffered by civilians during the war, as violent public events, such as the sinking of the Lusitania and the drowning of 1200 civilians on board, penetrated their private lives. There has been a substantial amount of work done on the war neuroses of soldiers, but here Tate argues that the trauma of war had similar effects on civilians. HD purportedly miscarried her baby upon hearing the news of the attack on the Lusitania, and Tate uses this incident as her point of entry into an examination of the ways in which civilians too were casualties of the war, despite the indirectness of their experience with the war's violence. In Tate's view, this kind of physical trauma connects the experiences of soldiers and civilians in complicated ways that do not fit easily into reductive divisions of gendered difference. Tate thoroughly researches the medical writings of the period to support the claim that the medical community was aware of the 'nervous effects of war strain on civilians', and her reading of these texts alongside numerous works of fiction suggests that the anxieties which haunt modernist writings can be seen as responses to being an indirect witness to war.

The stories that circulate in a society can do real damage, both psychologically and physically, to the people who hear them, and Tate further examines in Part I the effects of propaganda on a society consistently fed lies in order to construct and to control its responses. The fact that the British government targeted its own citizens in its war of words was much criticized after the hostilities ended and led to increasing suspicion of those in authority and indeed of the nature of truth itself. As Tate argues, 'In Britain, almost no one who was touched by the Great War had any reliable information about it', and the misrepresentation of defeats, casualty figures, and opposition to the war can be seen as influencing the dramatic changes in literary and cultural history that characterize the modern period. The anxiety with knowing and the preoccupations with individual subjectivity which mark modern texts speak directly to the trauma of bearing witness to an event when one's knowledge of it is imperfect and is constructed by those who can no longer be trusted to tell the truth. Tate's comparison of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End—and that work's concern with the power of gossip and propaganda to construct reality—with the atrocity stories that were circulated during the war shed new light on Ford's frequently overlooked novel series.

In Part II, Tate focuses on the dead and injured body of the soldier as the site of modern anxieties about identity. For most, the horror of viewing the war's victims creates complex reactions, which involve fear, disgust, and the desire to look, and simultaneously involves an identification with and a rejection of the condition of being dead or wounded. In her discussion of various war novels by both men and women, she again claims that 'sexual difference disappears in the face of modern weaponry; all human bodies become mangled flesh and blood', and she suggests that ideas of difference which focus on issues not only of gender but on wholeness complicate the ways identity was constructed in the period following the war.

One of the most intriguing ideas presented in Tate's study involves Freud's theories of sexual difference as a fundamental organizing category of identity. Awareness of difference focuses on a moment of seeing with the observation that boys have a penis and girls do not. The girl's perception of her lack creates a narcissistic wound, and the boy's perception of her lack creates feelings of anxiety and fears of castration. Though these ideas are primarily discussed in Freud's work on fetishism, he does posit that 'probably all male human beings'—not just fetishists—suffer some fear of castration at the sight of female genitalia.

Tate suggests the historical context in which Freud was writing has been given little attention and argues that the presence of so many men who were literally castrated, mutilated, and scarred created complicated anxious responses in those who saw them, and their presence as physical reminders of the collective insanity of the war has direct bearing on psychoanalytic theories of identity that were conceived during the twenties. This is a fascinating discussion, and, clearly, Tate's argument that the presence of injured soldiers and the distress their existence generated challenges the idea of the woman's body as the basis of all significant difference has substantial merit. However, the fact that anxieties about maiming and wounding were displaced onto the woman's body in these fundamental works of psychology also says much about historical attitudes of sexual difference, and Tate stops short of thoroughly discussing the cultural attitudes which allowed for the ease and acceptance of this displacement. 

Additionally, she does not discuss war literature that specifically engages gender difference, and an examination of war writings in which women's bodies not only define difference but come to represent the ignorance, apathy, and opportunism of the home front would have been welcome. For instance, Graves very decidedly equates women with the society that has packed him off to die on the battlefields of France, and in Good-bye to All That the suffering and death of French civilian women is frequently diminished in comparison to the bodily sacrifices of the fighting men. And in the war poetry— Owen's 'Greater Love' most readily springs to mind—women's bodies, their 'red lips' and 'slender limbs', are presented in direct and generally unflattering contrast to the blood and 'knife-skewed' bodies of dead English soldiers. This oversight does not do serious damage to Tate's argument, though, and her focus on the cultural and historical context in which early psychoanalytical theories of identity were engendered remains compelling.


Part III looks at the political consequences of the war, and her discussion of the tank and its role as cultural metaphor reveals much about modernism's infatuation and suspicion of technology, its optimism that life will be improved by technological advancement and its fear that humanity will be crushed in the process.

The work ends with a discussion of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the most 'aesthetic' of modernist novels. Her reading of the work as a satire of Britain's role in international, post-war settlements, caustically parodied in Clarissa Dalloway's confusion and apathy with regard to Albanians and Armenians, and of the domestic politics of the early twenties is elegantly informed by historical documents from the era. In Woolf 's ambivalent presentation of Clarissa, a privileged but traumatized witness to the horrors of war, Tate sees questions being raised about the future of Europe, how the war will be remembered, and by whom. Woolf was already concerned that the complacency of the ruling classes that had prolonged the war was also setting the stage for future suffering, violence, and bloodshed.

Tate's presentation of the various ways literary and non-literary writings of the period interact is compelling, and readers who share her desire to rethink the way modernism is read, to examine the diverse ways witnesses to this traumatic period responded to their historical moment, will appreciate her original insights and her efforts to avoid easy generalizations. Her nuanced argument, which is always attentive to the complexity of the period, is a welcome addition to much recent scholarship that examines modernism through the sometimes distorting lens of post-structuralist theory. Tate's book is engagingly written, thoroughly researched, and alive to the importance of historical detail. Students and scholars interested in the literary and cultural history of modernism will find her work to be a valuable contribution to the criticism of the period.


© Lisa Colletta

Claremont Graduate University