Kristin Bluemel, George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). 256 pp. £50.00, $69.95 (hbk), ISBN 1-4039-6510-2
In his essay ‘The Art of Donald McGill’ George Orwell imagined that the author was a trade name for a great factory of saucy seaside postcards — ‘it would be mere dilettantism to pretend that they have any real aesthetic value’. In fact Donald McGill painted most of them in his front room, in Blackheath, and then later a few streets away from Orwell, in Belsize Park — just another artist, struggling to meet a deadline.
It was a common fear of writers at the time that their art would be swept aside by the growth of popular culture—best expressed in F. R. Leavis’s Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture (1930). The ‘yellow press’, romantic novels, Titbits and ‘penny dreadfuls’ were all writing that sold to a working-class audience taught to read in the Victorian Board Schools established by the Foster Education Act (1870).
One response to the ubiquity of lowbrow literature was to go pointedly highbrow. The choice between Virginia Woolf or Arnold Kettle, Eliot or Tennyson, was one that sorted the refined few from the common herd. Only recently have critics tended to fall out of love with the formal experimentations of the avant-garde. John Carey makes a strong case that such tricky writing was too often a means of excluding the newly-literate working classes (though they were valuable in their own right, too).
There was another response to the emergence of mass civilisation in the 1930s. Rather than erecting a barrier of difficult writing, some authors thought it better to try to address the mass audience. They made a virtue of plain writing and sought out realistic, working-class subject matter. Some of these attempts were inspired by a commitment to the left.
Social and socialist realism of the time was often dreary and didactic. In the Left Review workers’ literature fictionalised factory conditions and labour unrest. The ‘living newspaper’ acted out the bus-workers’ strike.
In George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics, Monmouth University English professor Kristin Bluemel elevates a group of writers whom she calls not modernist (or postmodernist) but intermodernist. The best known of them all is George Orwell, but Bluemel also makes a case for Orwell’s peers Stevie Smith, the Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand and the least known Inez Holden. Bluemel’s intermodernism is framed as a defence against the charge of being less serious than modernists like Joyce or Pound. Not middlebrow, one imagines Bluemel saying, but intermodernist.
There is a democratic, ecumenical appeal in all these four writers that is indeed productive. Orwell’s essay on clear writing (‘Politics and the English Language’) is rightly celebrated. Bluemel points us to Anand’s good case for Indian English and the foresight that great literature would be written in it. Inez Holden’s investigations of war workers in her two novels Night Shift and There is no Story There show that the documentary novel could be compelling.
Bluemel rightly embraces Stevie Smith’s case for suburbia as a challenge to metropolitan elitism—which I found to be alive and kicking when I helped organise the conference ‘Superbia: the Case for the Suburbs’ at Kingston University last year. ‘When the sun is going down in stormy red clouds the whole suburb is pink, the light is a pink light, high brick walls that are still left standing where once the old estates were hold the pink light and throw it back.’ Smith’s Palmers Green is not a suburb anymore, but a built up London district, a refuge since the 1974 civil war to Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Bluemel’s second argument is more challenging. These writers, she says, are ‘radical eccentrics’ meaning that they are in some sense critics of the existing social order. The problem with such judgements is that the reader does not necessarily share them. Bluemel gets into a complicated dance appealing at once to a common set of beliefs we do not necessarily hold and attacking established views we do not necessarily reject.
George Orwell says that anti-Semitism in T. S. Eliot’s early poems is not so important: ‘who didn’t say such things at that time?’ Bluemel retells this inviting the reader to be appalled. But I agree with it. It is a mistake to project a modern sensibility about race backwards into an era that simply did not share it.
Bluemel discounts Orwell’s argument that it was the experience of Fascism in Germany that made people understand the terrible consequences of anti-Semitism. But he is right. Some on the far left tried to challenge anti-Semitism before 1934, but most people were, in so far as they thought about it, casual or sometimes extreme anti-Semites. They just thought differently than we do.
For that reason, it is difficult to follow the twists and turns that Bluemel takes excusing Smith’s vaguely anti-Semitic asides in her earlier novels. She had some anti-Semitic prejudices that seem to have fallen away — they do not make the whole body of work bad.
Bluemel has a similar difficulty understanding Orwell’s supposed indifference to the Holocaust during the Second World War. But the extermination of European Jewry was one grotesque side of a conflict that had led to sixty million deaths between 1939 and 1945. The habit of singling out this one extreme slaughter from all the other killings that went on, only really happened after the war (see Peter Novick, The Holocaust and Collective Memory, 2000).
Bluemel is shocked by Orwell’s comparison of British imperialism in India with Fascism (‘worse’, he says at one point, but to provoke, I think). But if not a conventional point view, it is still a point of view. After all three and a half million people died in the famine the British engineered in Bengal to withhold grain supplies from the advancing Japanese in 1943. Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army fought against the Allies alongside the Axis powers. Today Bose is a hero, and the Indian government continues to pay INA pensions.
Bluemel is within her rights to object to Orwell’s painting of the Jews in Palestine as the Sahibs and the Palestinians as the Coolies, but not to assume that her readers agree. Certainly Maxime Rodinson agreed with Orwell (Israel: Colonial Settler State, 1967) and most recently ex-president Jimmy Carter wrote Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Younger readers are more likely to think Orwell prescient than perverse.
Bluemel’s eccentric radicals’ ‘unwavering in their support of the British war effort’ is indeed an influential response by radicals to the threat of Fascism. But it is not the only radical response. As a young man I barked coward and traitor on hearing painter Patrick Heron explain that as a conscientious objector he had been forced to work in the mines. Today I think he might have been the bravest, along with the imprisoned composer Michael Tippett or Roy Tearse, who led the Tyneside apprentices’ strike against the war.
Inez Holden is not the only upper-class author to lionise the camaraderie of war workers. But such accounts of the blitz spirit are highly ideological, and arguably Pete Grafton’s oral histories of ‘the people out of step with World War II’ (You, You & You, Pluto Press, 1981) are closer to working-class experience.
Bluemel gives us a great insight into a history of the literary life in the 1930s and 1940s that has been overshadowed by the impact of high modernism, and too inattentive to the dynamic of those writers who tried to speak to a wider audience. Her category of radical eccentric — whilst being close to oxymoron — says a lot about the difficulty of squaring the circle of democratic writing.
To Cite This Article:
James Heartfield, ‘Review: Kristin Bluemel, George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2007/heartfield.html. Accessed on [date of access]