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Modernist Review #43: Introduction

4 November 2022

Dr Beci Carver, University of Exeter

Take an innocent seeming word like ‘wicked.’ When in 1922, T. S. Eliot used this adjective in The Waste Land to introduce Madam Sosostris’s ‘wicked pack of cards’, he meant, according to Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, ‘Excellent, splendid, remarkable.’[1] This American and distinctively modern meaning, dated to 1920 by the Oxford English Dictionary,[2] is in-keeping with our familiar idea of Eliot as an out-of-place American abroad. But if you flip the word on its back, acknowledging the positive primary sense while recognising too that nothing in The Waste Land is quite what it seems, you will see it wriggle with other possibilities. For the word stems from ‘wretch’, meaning, originally, ‘outcast’,[3] an etymological association that now underlies the dominant meaning of ‘evil’ or ‘mischievous’ like a causal explanation. The word also stands out in the history of the English language in having been confined throughout its early formation to Middle English and Scottish, making no contact with Latin, Greek, Old Norse, Old French, Old German, or any of the usual suspects for linguistic influence. ‘Wicked’ was incubated in the UK for the whole of its life until, in the early 1920s, it was let out to America and promptly positivised. If we read Eliot’s ‘wicked pack of cards’ in English as well as an American way at once, we find ourselves in the company of a highly unpredictable creature.

The year 1922 has a similar capacity to Eliot’s word ‘wicked’ to mean more and imply more contradiction the more we look at it. The essays in this special issue, which all began as papers at the University of Reading’s conference, ‘1922: An Anatomy of Modernism and its Cultures’, each attempts to see more of 1922 than has hitherto met the eye. From Adele Guyton’s essay for this volume, I learnt that, alongside its other notable triumphs, 1922 gave birth to the American crossword puzzle or ‘Word Square’ in England.[4] The English crossword was thus just in time to coincide with the transition from regular to free verse in modernist poetry, so that in the same years that magazines were filling up with little square word puzzles the old stanzaic unit was dying out. When Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, his readers knew to associate its jagged edges with poetry, poems having by then become more and more like Prufrock’s ‘patient etherized upon a table’[5] – with the pun on ‘etherized’ at once suggesting a zonked patient and a body transformed into ether – than squares. Guyton made me wonder what it does to our idea of modernist poetry to know of this geometric coup whereby crossword composers, many of whom were anonymous, repurposed the square as the place where riddling words meet.

Reading Emma West’s essay, I encountered a species of modernism I had not met  before – that of a ‘revolutionised’ village life in the years following the First World War, when state funding was poured into local cultural regeneration.[6] The 1920s are shown here to have marked the proliferation of hundreds of village town halls across the country, miles from the metropolis. What would the zeitgeist of the early 1920s look like if we allowed for its being democratic and decentralised, as well as elite and urban? Another new institution that revealed the entry of popular tastes into modernism is, as Matthew Chambers memorably calls it, ‘the modernist bookshop’[7] – though in contrast to the town hall these establishments were by their nature niche in their clientele and restricted to London. Chambers focuses on the Charing Cross Road, where Londoners interested in the literary avant-garde could head to Beaumont’s, Zwemmer’s or Henderson’s in search of treasure. Chambers, like West, permits us a glimpse of 1922’s populace we would not otherwise see, daydreaming over books in shop aisles. In another essay, Loren Evangelista Agaloos’s, we may peer inside these readers’ stomachs. Agaloos’s  survey of the year’s output from Good Housekeeping reveals housewives of 1922 to have been concocting, among other notably unappetising novelties, ‘Corn-Starch Pudding’[8] – a faint yellow gloop.

This special issue also carries rethinkings of familiar modernist authors. Angela Harris reflects on how scepticism obscures the lens of Virginia Woolf’s narration in her novel of 1922, Jacob’s Room, while Emily Bell offers insight into James Joyce’s reading habits in 1922 – a year which, she reminds us, was marked for him not only by the publication of Ulysses but by his earliest work on Finnegans Wake. Like a contemporary social media junkie checking the news on the eve of his rise to fame, Joyce appears to have become obsessed, with the result that ‘so-called ephemera dominate the 1922 publications.’[9] For Joyce and Woolf, the early 1920s were a time to develop characteristics in their work that would later define their legacies. But the volume also offers thought-provoking examples of prominent modernists who, in 1922, wrote in uncharacteristic ways. D. H. Lawrence, in Charlotte Makepiece’s reading of his story of 1922, ‘The Blind Man’, thinks into the body of a visually impaired yet keenly sensate consciousness, in which scent and tactility unlock alternative forms of knowledge. And in Domonique Davies’s piece on Wallace Stevens in 1922, we encounter an unfamiliar, self-doubting version of the poet, who commits himself to wandering in the dark, becoming ‘as obscure as possible before I have perfected an authentic and fluent speech for myself.’

Not everything that 1922 is shown to have encompassed here has left an imprint upon the present. Raymond Williams once argued that Charles Dickens set out in his fiction to represent the ‘unseeable’ – ‘the physical shape of all the lives that are lived.’[10] And this special issue has a similar ambition to evoke the larger life of a lost time. But in the midst of reassembling the past, it also reflects on losses that have become irrecoverable. Benjamin Bruce’s account of Beverley Nichols’ 1922 novel, Self, at once seconds the low opinion of the text expressed by its first readers and regrets that the devil-may-care silliness of its narrative implausibility have not survived to be laughed at today. Another fragment of the era’s thinking that has now been lost – although this time at significant cost – is the interwar concept of the ‘mandate.’ Jacqui Grainger’s essay records, among the major political events of 1922, the issue of a ‘Mandate for Palestine’ by the League of Nations,[11] which comprised of an official recognition that Palestine had failed at self-government and that the British would need to take over. Mandates meant in effect the confiscation of power from a country deemed incapable of self-rule, and they were mostly extended to Middle-Eastern regions that, in 1918, were released from the collapsed Ottoman Empire. The OED delimits the practical life span of the concept to 1919-1946, tracking how the word then lived on as flotsam until 1992, after which it became ‘historical.’[12] To have forgotten what ‘mandate’ means is to have lost sight of a vivid instance of Western condescension towards the East, made all the more acute in the Palestinian case by Britain’s explicit commission to establish as a Jewish homeland an ethnically diverse and geographically incoherent site. Palestine was independent for four years before, in modernism’s golden year, her freedom ended.


Beci Carver is a lecturer in twentieth-century literature at Exeter. Her first book, Granular Modernism, was published by OUP in 2014, and she is currently finishing a book called Modernism’s Whims. Her next book will be on the theme of starting again. She has published widely on modernism and its anticipators, inheritors, and penumbrae.   


Image Credit: Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Blue Circle’, 1922. Picryl public domain image

Sources

[1] Ricks & McCue, The Poems of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 611.

[2] OED, online edition.

[3] OED, online edition.

[4] Guyton, ‘The Crossword Puzzle and the Information Society’, x.

[5] Eliot, 5.

[6] West, ‘Modernism and the Road: Rural Touring in 1922’, x.

[7] Chambers, ‘The Modernist Bookshops of Charing Cross Road’, x.

[8] Angaloos, ‘Food Innovations: The Conditions of ‘Cookery’ in Good Housekeeping, x.

[9] Bell, ‘Reading Through the Canon: A 1922 Snapshot of James Joyce’s Library’, x.

[10] Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review, ed. Geoff Dyer (London: Verso, 2015; first published, 1979), 171.

[11] Grainger, ‘The RUSI Journal in 1922’, x.

[12] OED, online edition.

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