Patrick Deer. Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. x + 329 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-923988-7.
Reviewed by Peter Stansky
Published on H-Albion (July, 2010)
Commissioned by Thomas Hajkowski
Literature and War
Patrick Deer has provided an extremely interesting book to read, full of intelligent discussions of British writers of the First and Second World Wars. It is firmly anchored in the texts of the authors themselves and the extensive critical literature. But it does present certain challenges for the primary readers of H-Albion, historians of Britain. We all believe in the interdisciplinary approach and in recent years there has been more and more crossing of boundaries. This is a study based on a dissertation in the English Department at Columbia University and its author is a member of the English faculty at New York University. Insightful and intriguing as much of the commentary in this study is, it appropriately inhabits the world next door to where most historians find themselves, the world of literary rather than historical analysis. The book, however, does make the convincing point that British writings of the Second World War have been undervalued. It certainly contributes to our understanding of British literature and its relation to the two wars and British society.
Deer argues, perhaps somewhat overstating his case, in the last sentence of his introduction: “We can look to the first half of the twentieth century to understand how war culture came to capture and colonize the national imagination” (p. 14). He begins with a discussion of the literature of the First World War, mostly of the usual suspects, paying some attention, with a bow toward his title, to the use of modernist vorticist designs in camouflage.
Other than the title of his next chapter, “The Empire of the Air,” he does not actually pay much attention to empire in this text. That section picks up from the discussion of the role of airplanes in the First World War and leads the reader to think that the particular contribution of this study will be the growing dominance of the importance of air power and its literary connotations. He does put this in its historical context: in the 1920s and 1930s, the air force, as was true elsewhere in the world, was seen as both a cheaper and more effective way to rearm; and also air raids were viewed as events that would be terrifying, death dealing, and morale destroying in forthcoming wars. These in fact were flawed predictions, accurate for the first two, but not for the third. Particularly striking in this section is his discussion of a somewhat forgotten book, Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome, which, although published in 1941, seems, with its surrealistic style, to be more a text of the late 1930s. The Battle of Britain, the Blitz, and the British bombing of Germany--that deeply controversial topic--are major points of discussion in the three following chapters. Yet the focus on the air is rather diffused in the discussion of other texts, admirably broadly construed, including well-known accomplishments, such as Humphrey Jennings’s films (but there is just a passing mention of his greatest work, Fires Were Started ), Henry Green’s Caught (1943), Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943), Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941), J. B. Priestley’s broadcasts, some of the writings of George Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh’s war trilogy. There is also a well-done section on the general role of radio, particularly ITMA, It’s That Man Again, the creation of Thomas Handley, as well as the Brains Trust and some comparatively ignored texts, such as James Hanley’s No Directions (1943), and Alexander Baron’s From the City, From the Plough (1948). (Baron’s book deals with the Allies’ invasion of France where the Deer’s grandfather, a British lieutenant, was killed.) Comparatively little attention is paid to the British poets of the Second World War. In the discussion of Woolf, particular emphasis is put on her essay, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940). (Deer also provides her diary entry commenting on Duncan Grant watching an air battle and Percy Bartholomew observing wounded soldiers, although neither were “young aesthetes,” with Grant a fifty-five-year-old painter and Bartholomew the Woolfs’ gardener [p. 202].)
Deer certainly does convincingly make a major point that there was significant and impressive British literary work during the Second World War. It did not have the dramatic trajectory from enthusiasm to disillusion found in the First World War and did not play the same complicated role in the story of modernism. But the accomplishments were considerable. He does somewhat exaggerate the difficulties under which the writers labored, even as they triumphed over them. “Saturated by propaganda, pressed into service of an alienating wartime culture industry, forced into the strategic forms of militarized masculinity and femininity, and deprived of any towering vantage point by the privations of life in the war machine, writers suffered during the war the same kind of numbing deprivations of creative ‘unconsciousness’ that afflicted the 1930s poets” (p. 210). I think he underestimates the internal strengths of most British writers. But he does also allow for their ability to survive. “Yes the contradictory mix of dislocation and unprecedented solidarity that characterized the war years also supplied writers of the 1940s with a sense of possibility that allowed many to break out of the ‘leaning tower’ and to imagine a truly radical politics. Part of the radical break was a search for an artistic practice adequate to a situation which made a doctrinaire adherence to any single aesthetic line of literary technique seem quite obsolete” (p. 210).
One wishes there was a more satisfactory conclusion to the work, which is primarily a discussion of Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm (1948) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The “‘big’ social realist novel of the Second World War” that John Lehmann had called for did not happen in Britain, but as Paul Fussell pointed out years ago, did take place in the United States, in his view the fulfillment of what the British Trench poets of the First World War began (p. 210). But I would disagree with Deer’s assessment of what happened in literary terms in Britain itself after the war. He sees the Movement poets and the Angry Young Men as a turning away from and a diminishing of the promise of Second World War writings. As he effectively quotes Waugh that he was fundamentally an aesthete, despite appearances to the contrary, so too, despite what some might see as their tough guy pose, were Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Osborne, and others. And their considerable accomplishments would not have been possible without the liberating aspects of much of the literature, emerging from its camouflage, discussed in this study.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Peter Stansky. Review of Deer, Patrick, Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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