Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s
Email this review


"How do you write an elegy for a political movement? How do you grieve for strangers?" Those are the sort of questions that Samuel Hynes asks in this unusually empathetic yet irretrievably academic study of the writers who matured in England in the selfish Twenties--when heroism was dead--and entered the Thirties with newly discovered, political heroes and with the notion that poetry could save the world. Hynes' format--cloddish at first glance but ultimately powerful--is utterly chronological and comprehensive; year by year, almost month by month, he analyzes all of the generation's published poems, fiction, plays, belles lettres, and criticism of importance. With minimal biography, a strong sense of historical happenings, and vast chunks of quoted texts, he demonstrates how public life invaded the "private" lives of Auden, Spender, Isherwood, Day Lewis, Orwell, John Lehmann, Louis MacNeice, and others; how the Communist Party attracted and finally disenchanted; how the war in Spain became the event to write about and dive into; how the activist-artist of struggle became, by decade's end, the lost-cause artist resigned to suffering, aware that the artist's function is not to change the world, but also aware that "if art survives, man survives too." Auden dominates, of course, with his carving out of a deep valley between "Escape-art" and the more urgently needed "Parable-art," but Hynes devotes equal energy to the alternative approaches--reportage, documentary films, outright propaganda--and to the individual dilemmas and fine distinctions of "left" faced by writers who were forced to reorder priorities of message and medium. If Hynes can be seen straining to fit surrealists or Graham Greene into his overview, that's a smaller problem than his consistent de-emphasis of personal motivations. Especially since Isherwood's recent Christopher and His Kind, the Auden-Isherwood quest for the heroism of the "Truly Strong Man," requires more examination of homosexual undercurrents, and Hynes' use of "Isherwood had gone to Berlin" as an unqualified example of expanding writer interest in foreign affairs simply cannot stand. Such tunnel-vision keeps Hynes off-limits for the general reader, but it does nothing to diminish the vigor of his textual illuminations, the elegance of his prose, or the warmth with which he shares the paradox of these writers.

Pub Date: May 20th, 1977
ISBN: 0712652507
Page count: 427pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1977


NonfictionON WAR AND WRITING by Samuel Hynes
by Samuel Hynes
NonfictionTHE UNSUBSTANTIAL AIR by Samuel Hynes
by Samuel Hynes
NonfictionTHE GROWING SEASONS by Samuel Hynes
by Samuel Hynes


NonfictionA HOUSE IN ST JOHN'S WOOD by Matthew Spender
by Matthew Spender