Patrick Collier. Modernism on Fleet Street. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. viii + 257 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-5308-0.
Reviewed by Adrian Bingham (Department of History, University of Sheffield)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2008)
Despairing of the Public?
Between the wars the mass-market newspaper moved right to the center of British culture. A symbolic breakthrough was achieved in 1923 when the combined circulation of the national press finally overtook that of the provincial press, and sales continued to rise despite the severe economic dislocation of the early 1930s. The habit of daily--rather than weekly--newspaper reading spread throughout the working classes, and successful papers like the Daily Herald and the Daily Express achieved the long-desired circulation target of two million copies per day. These developments provoked a fiercely contested public debate. Was this popular journalism spreading information and knowledge throughout society, or was it corrupting and degrading the public sphere? Patrick Collier's fine new monograph explores an important and underresearched dimension of this debate, namely the responses of the modernists who, at precisely this time, were rising to prominence in literary circles. Literary modernism has often been portrayed as involving a wholesale rejection of mass culture--an interpretation made most forcefully in John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992). In recent years, however, scholars such as Mark Morrisson have identified more nuanced and less dismissive--if always somewhat ambivalent--modernist readings of, and interactions with, mass culture. Collier's book forms part of this reassessment of modernism by focusing on the complex relationships that writers had with Fleet Street and its products. Whatever their skepticism about modern journalism, few authors could resist entirely the temptation of the lucrative rewards on offer, especially early on in their careers. Collier skillfully analyzes the varied and often contradictory interventions that modernist writers made in the ongoing "public conversation" about journalism, fashioning them into a series of narratives which make clear how authors' opinions shifted over time according to changing individual and historical circumstances. He argues that "no simple generalization will contain modernist attitudes towards the newspaper press" and instead outlines and evaluates the positions most frequently adopted by the protagonists in the debates (p. 5). The first chapter provides an accomplished introductory discussion of the widely held perception among educated elites that British journalism was in a state of crisis in the interwar period. The fears and anxieties Collier highlights--that sensational, irrational, intrusive, profit-seeking mass newspapers were corrupting public discourse and distracting readers from more substantial writing--will be very familiar to students of the press, but the author's detailed reading of the literary periodicals of the time provides several interesting inflections on these well-worked themes. The subsequent chapters explore different aspects of this perceived crisis by focusing on the reflections of an individual author. Alongside the canonical modernist trio of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, Collier selects two prolific and uncategorizable female writers, Rose Macaulay and Rebecca West. All five of these authors recognized dangers in the increasing consumption of commercialized popular journalism, but reached different conclusions about what this revealed about the public and what the appropriate response of the artist should be. None of them adhered to an entirely consistent position throughout their careers. Eliot frequently accused journalism of corrupting the English language with its imprecision and resort to stereotypes and clichés; he came to view the function of the poet as countering this deterioration by finding new modes of expression and formulating new linguistic connections. At times, however, Eliot showed some sympathy with the content of mass press, even writing to the Daily Mail in 1923 to express his "cordial approval" of the paper's stance on "nearly every public question of present importance" (quoted, p. 56). His periodical, The Criterion, was, moreover, established with the help of finances from Lady Rothermere, the wife of the Mail's owner. Joyce was another who could see the attractions of the Mail, admitting as a young man his fascination with the paper's feature material. Joyce's hopes that nationalist newspapers could have a politically invigorating effect in Ireland gradually faded, however, and he came to see the press as a conservative and socially coercive force invading the private sphere and seeking to dictate personal behavior. Woolf, meanwhile, had the difficulty of reconciling her position as a sought-after book reviewer with her concerns about a crisis in literary evaluation. Her views about the role of intermediaries between the writer and the reader fluctuated, but she feared that as more and more books were published, and reviews in newspapers became increasingly superficial, much of the best writing would not be recognized.
Macaulay and West were, on the whole, rather more optimistic about the state of contemporary culture, and provide a very effective counterpoint to the thoughts of the modernist giants. Macaulay fought against reductive generalizations about the "public," arguing that the public was more diverse and vital than either the press barons or elite critics tended to assume. West shared Macaulay's belief that journalism could be used to critique the excesses of the popular press and to "rehabilitate" the public sphere. Indeed, West adopted the unusual position that modernism could and should be popularized, and that it was the role of the "journalist-critic" to spread the insights of modernism to a wider readership. Collier suggests that while Eliot and Woolf increasingly saw their literary endeavors as an escape from a corrupted culture, and Joyce retreated into an inaccessible commentary on the world, Macaulay and West remained committed to achieving social progress through mainstream commentary.
Collier expertly explains and evaluates the relevant output of these five writers, carefully exposing the gaps, tensions, and inconsistencies in their writing while also highlighting the overall direction of their thinking. He demonstrates an impressive knowledge of interwar literary circles, although there are a few minor slips on the historical and media context. (The first election held after the 1918 Representation of the People Act was in 1918, rather than 1922 [p. 18]; the Labour government fell in 1931, not 1932 [p. 101]; the Mail's circulation in 1927 was significantly below the 2.7 million stated [p.18], and Lord Beaverbrook did not own the Telegraph [p. 84]). More seriously, the author could, at times, do more to differentiate the various types of journalism that his writers were discussing. His suggestion that it "wasn't until the 1930s that commentaries even began to distinguish classes of newspapers" is not sufficiently supported to be convincing (p. 12). Many contemporaries perceived there to be a clear journalistic hierarchy, ranging from the crime-obsessed Sundays and the women-oriented picture papers, through popular dailies such as the Mail and the Express, to the elite newspapers such as the Times, with weekly or monthly journals of opinion at the pinnacle. These publications carried different sorts of content, and were subject to different types of criticism; these nuances are sometimes lost in Collier's more general discussions of "journalism." Given the themes of the book, it is also surprising that there is no mention of the radio. The book begins by featuring the events of 1922, the annus mirabilis of modernism and the year of Lord Northcliffe's death. It was also, of course, the year in which the BBC was established, when John Reith, in particular, started grappling with the questions of what a monopoly broadcaster should provide the public, and whether radio could educate and improve listeners. Modernist views on radio broadcasting might have provided a useful extra dimension to these debates about the state of the public sphere.
It behooves the reviewer to tread carefully when one of the central themes of the book he is discussing is the poor quality of reviewing. The protagonists of Modernism on Fleet Street certainly had little patience with reviewers. Woolf, for example, suggested in 1939 that the typical review is "written by a man who is in a hurry; who is pressed for space; who is expected to cater in that little space for many different interests; who is doubtful what the task is" (quoted, p. 76). Having had sufficient time to read and digest this monograph, and plenty of space to record my views (!), I feel able to commend this book to historians of the press and of twentieth-century British culture, as well as to its more obvious market of scholars of modernism. This is a rich and perceptive study of the heated interwar debates about the consumption of literature and journalism.
. Mark Morrisson, The Public Face of Modernism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).
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