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English and American Literature
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Chair and Committee
Long before “modernism” achieved currency as a literary term, a striking number of British authors turned to what had already been termed “modernist” in architecture to make sense of the modern movement in literature. In modern architects' ultra-visible ability to destroy the forms of tradition, these authors discovered a public realm in which modern literature's aspirations to “make it new” could find their fullest expression. Thus, for example, a dying D. H. Lawrence exchanged letters with the editor ofThe Architectural Review, a correspondence culminating in what proved his final piece of writing, an article calling for a wholesale clearance of traditional forms: “Pull down my native village to the last brick...Make a new England.” After seeing the new modernist animal housing at the London Zoo, H. G. Wells chose to hire modern architects as consultants when translating to the screen his visions of a utopian world in 1936'sThings to Come. And when Britain's foremost modern architectural group needed a public figure to provide an anti-traditionalist introduction for the opening of their 1938 public exhibition, an aging George Bernard Shaw stepped in. Yet this body of architectural criticism has largely been erased from our understanding of both these authors' careers and modern writing more generally; indeed, critics such as Victoria Rosner have briskly dismissed the impact of modernist architecture on British literature on the grounds that actual modernist buildings did not become commonplace in Britain until after the Second World War. Nonetheless, the wealth of books by Continental architects translated into English in Britain, the groups of architects who found shelter in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the public exhibitions of schemes for remaking the very infrastructure of Britain all created a fertile environment for British authors after the Great War and well into the latter part of the century. This dissertation uncovers an expansive record of their efforts to educate themselves in these new architectural forms as they considered what these developments might mean for literary practice.
In their self-education, however, many authors later developed a fear of what these powerful iconoclastic forms might mean for literature and British culture more generally. To the concern of many, midcentury British citizens were encouraged to associate aesthetic novelty with political novelty once Labour politicians sponsored buildings of a modern style as the symbolic style of political progress. Meanwhile, Conservative novelist Evelyn Waugh used the language of infiltration when considering modern architecture's Continental origins, as he, along with leftist novelist Aldous Huxley, feared that modern architecture's very materials—steel, glass, concrete—were vehicles for communist thought. Artist and writer Wyndham Lewis, who later identified his Vorticist artistic and literary movement as an effort to theorize a new architecture capable of inspiring a new social era, likewise feared that modern architecture had been appropriated by communism and emptied out into propaganda. George Orwell further reflected that architecture's public status made it apt to thrive under collectivist rule, but totalitarianism would bring an end to the conditions of thoughtful, individual reflection needed to produce literature. As the century progressed, the possibility that architecture might not renew literary practice but destroy it loomed large.
Maher, Ashley Kaitlin, "Among the Modernist Ruins: British Writing and the Architecture of the State" (2014). All Theses and Dissertations (ETDs). 1321.
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