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Jed Esty, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004, $21.95, 285 pages, ISBN 0-691-11548-6)—Marylin Mell, University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh


Jed Esty offers an intellectual feast in A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture. In a courageous move paralleling the Seinfeld Show—a hilarious TV show about nothing—Esty has written a dense book about scarcity. With abundant detail, he suggests how the correlation between England’s contraction of power in the twentieth century and a steady decline in its literature is a false assumption. Esty observes that elsewhere literature thrived during tough times. Revivalist Ireland, Cold-War Latin America, avant-garde Russia and Italian Futurism are cited as counter-examples to support this argument. To envision post-imperial Great Britain as “provincial and ex-centric” and its literature as “stale and wan” is shown to be too simplistic. Instead, A Shrinking Island stakes as its project a reframing of the complexities involved in the intricate relationship between modernism’s decline and the collapse of colonialism. Esty dismisses causality and coincidence, claiming they are inappropriate interpretative frameworks. A better critique of late modernism needs to incorporate an analysis of how indirect and mediated representations of imperial contraction appear in cultural doctrine and literary style. Economics and politics provide more information about the neglected materialist base underlying modernism’s evolution. A penumbra is etched which interjects new complexities inside a field of study labeled by many outsiders as exhausted. Meditations then begin in this space of anti-argument, that is, a negation of standing myths and false assumptions. Something previously neglected, a concept as seemingly arcane as scarcity, proves to be a bull’s eye in helping modernist scholars better decode this dynamic period. Repeatedly, A Shrinking Island catalogues how cultural scholars’ magnetic focus on the collapse of the British Empire led to facile pronouncements about the disappearance of literary giants. No less a literary lion than Anthony Burgess is attacked for sloppily claiming that literary change can be seen as a metaphorical equivalent for national decline. Scarcity is show to be a radicalizing influence upon the arc of modernism in a theoretical move which neatly parallels how powerful and long-lasting the effects of depression-era economics were upon the psyche.

Esty locates the anthropological turn as the process by which English intellectuals translated the decline of empire into a resurgent concept of national culture. To analyze the end of modernism in this way permits a deeper understanding of the rise of culturalism within its ethnographic and anti-elitist contexts. The Birmingham School of Cultural Studies exemplifies a breakthrough process by which symbols could be analyzed within a full context rather than in isolation, and is cited here as pivotal.  A Shrinking Island seeks to show that modernists like T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster participated in the rise of this new Anglocentric cultural paradigm rather than resisted it. The diminishing status of British power dramatically helped to shape high modernism rather than shrinking its growth and providing it with major obstacles. Scarcity, a systemic concept of insufficiency, or more simply stated, the circumstance where things become quite difficult to obtain, begins to function as a force which swallows everything around it. Esty highlights Raymond Williams’s concept of “metropolitan perception,” and further suggests that the end of modernism cannot be fully understood unless a return to its beginning occurs. To chart how rural life resists but then yields to urban civilization is foundational. Williams’s emphasis upon modernism’s urban roots helps launch this book’s own focus on urban matters. It is seen as necessary to return to touchstones of the 1890-1940 period, including the rise of new mass transportation, the theory of relativity, the antipositivist and antihumanist influence of Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin and Freud. British modernism, especially as articulated by Woolf and Eliot, needs to be understood as incorporating the past rather than completely rejecting it. Key aspects of Victorian realism and Edwardian pastoralism are present in their work. Esty indicates that he has chosen the major figures of Woolf and Eliot since they exhibit layers within their work which illuminate this transition from metropolitan modernism to national culture. The canvas of late British modernism with its emphasis on the city and its grand scale slowly yields to a concern for what binds England together as one. Ironically, Britain’s unity is arguably projected most powerfully on the small scale, regionally and peripherally. This book calls for a shifting of the critical debate away from British decline to an emphasis upon English revival. A Shrinking Island labors to fill a hole in scholarship by attempting to better grasp the “late-imperial dialectic of lost universalism and restored particularity” [5]. Understanding the social, class and ethnic divides within England needs a push away from modernist aesthetics of failure and fragmentation. Far more research has been done to analyze the correlation between Victorian culture and colonialism than modernism and colonialism’s petering out.

Esty highlights the best of other critics to propound his own viewpoint. Fredrick Jameson suggested that E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End demonstrates a sense of placelessness and argued that imperial England may be best described as a “center that no longer possesses full knowledge of itself” [6]. Jameson’s insight dovetails with Perry Anderson’s insight that attention to what he termed “the wholeness of tribal societies in the colonial periphery” pulled focus away for understanding England as a whole. Tom Nairn theorizes this as awareness that historically “the inward lack corresponded to an outward presence” [7]. Esty synthesizes this tension as the irony that imperial modernism tagged itself as achieving synthesis at the periphery but existed as an absent totality at its core. Two claims fuel the core arguments in A Shrinking Island. First, a materialist claim “that imperial contraction changed English writing through a series of symbolic mediations between social conditions and artistic production.” Second, certain English intellectuals can be observed as interpreting contraction as an opportunity for cultural repair. This book spins its insights from the Anderson/Nairn observation of an inner lack/outer presence, a concept which is shown here as slowly being replaced by a growing awareness of the complexity of national life.  

It requires subtlety to map out how a space is influenced by what is missing. Esty does this with his greatest grace in his analysis of T.S. Eliot. As a figure often a bit too simply dismissed as a conservative, Esty does an admirable job of showing how Eliot’s oeuvre reflects his ambivalences and contradictions rather than what can caustically be phrased in platitudes. Eliot is shown to be a figure whose nostalgia pushes him to return to a space which may not only be no longer viable, but may never have actually existed. Here Esty cleverly shows that a substantial portion of Eliot’s strength arises out of this need to create landscapes within his imagination which can serve as spaces to project his peculiar fascination for the abyss and a space where alienation could be contained, possibly stalled. Here Esty’s scholarship offers some of its most productive insights. He has resurfaced Eliot, revealing that it is his essential cragginess which pushed him to create something new. As a modernist, especially as rendered in the exhaustion of its final days, Eliot is shown to be courageous in stubbornly attempting to articulate the rupture he existentially experienced between loss and longing. In beginning his work and the roots of his own scholarship with pageant plays, Esty aligns himself with the primordial presence of how rural life and its civilities was still pivotal to British culture as the twentieth century began. One of the many brilliant insights that Esty’s line of thought delivers is that at the core of modernism’s strength lays an as-of-yet not fully explored agitation and attraction for the intersection of the visual and oral, even spectacle and oracle. Here is where A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England sparkles. Its nimble movement across kaleidoscopic fields alternates between providing delicate filters and the plentitude of light.

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