Arnold Bennett and the Origins of Modernism

I notice on Amazon.com that Gregory Tague’s collection, The Origins of English Literary Modernism (Academica) is now out. The collection has several interesting essays on turn-of-the-20thC English literature; it also has my essay, “The Middlebrow Prophet: Reading the Future of the Modernist Novel in Bennett’s Early Criticism.”  This is a bit of a return for me–my first peer-reviewed publication was on The Old Wives’ Tale and Riceyman Steps.  This time, as the title suggests, I re-read Bennett’s criticism, discovering there a critic more sympathetic to modernist aims than we might expect.

Here’s an early paragraph:

Why did Bennett fall out of fashion?  Once again, Bennett’s foresight provides a clue.  Writing in dismay about what he saw as an overly provincial reaction on the part of London’s cultural elite to Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionism exhibit, Bennett imagined his own imminent obsolescence:

Supposing a young writer turned up and forced me, and some of my contemporaries–us who fancy ourselves a bit–to admit that we had been concerning ourselves unduly with inessentials, that we had been worrying ourselves to achieve infantile realisms?  Well, that day would be a great and disturbing day–for us. (“Neo-Impressionism” 285)

As everyone familiar with the modernist novel knows, this is precisely Virginia Woolf’s charge against Arnold Bennett in her widely-anthologized essays, “Modern Fiction” (1919) and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924)  And while Woolf has largely convinced posterity of the justice of her claim, she never was able to force Bennett to admit anything. I’ll take up some details of their argument momentarily; for now it’s worth just underscoring Bennett’s model of artistic progress.  At least in 1910, he is not the bogeyman of tradition, the strawman of Woolf’s manifestos.  Instead, he is an advocate of cultural change, bringing to provincial London the good news of modernism–announcing an art of permanent revolution, one which will ultimately undo his own achievements.

(Footnotes snipped.)  Bennett’s a great read, both as a novelist and a reviewer, and so this essay was enormous fun to write.  Have a look at the whole collection, or, better yet, have your library order it!

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