Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Old School Tie: Privilege and the Literature of the 30s

The first thing you notice, when you start reading the canonical literature of the generation of English writers who came of age in the 1930s, is their seeming inability to actually come of age.  Everywhere one finds images of school, schoolboys, school games, school prize days.  And by everywhere, I do mean everywhere.  These images aren't confined to memoirs of childhood, though there are plenty of those: they're used even to describe the most pressing problems of a world entering a state of deep political and economic crisis.  Could any other generation have produced something like Auden's Orators, where the state of the world is just the state of the English public school writ large?

One kind of explanation for the schoolboy poetic comes when we see the remarkable similarity of background of the prominent writers of the generation.  W.H. Auden, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, John Betjeman, Edward Upward, Cecil Day Lewis, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Anthony Powell—the only real difference in their educational background (besides Orwell's refusal to go on to Oxbridge) was the degree of prestige associated with their respective public schools in the subtle hierarchy of English education.  Not one was a grammar school boy.  This, it should be noted, is an unusual state of affairs in English literature, one without precedent, and one not repeated in later generations.  Consider the prominent writers active in England 1915, while the writers named above were still in school.  Yeats, Conrad, Shaw, Joyce, Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot, H.G. Wells, Kipling—a few went to English public schools (Ford, Kipling, Lewis for a time), but some (Conrad, Yeats, Pound, Eliot) were foreigners, others were from humbler backgrounds (notably Wells and Lawrence), some were both (Shaw, Joyce) and Woolf was excluded by gender from the schoolboy experience.  Consider the prominent writers in England today, and the diversity is all the more striking.

Why, one wonders, was there such a concentration of public school old boys in the literary generation of the 1930s?  What drove them to become writers at a higher rate than previous generations from similar backgrounds?  Here we enter the realm of speculation.  My sense of things is that there may be something akin to the nineteenth century Parisian phenomenon at work.  For much of the nineteenth century in France, the social and educational system produced far too much talent for the social system to absorb.  Respectable professions such as the law, the clergy, finance, and politics couldn't take on all of the bright young men seeking places, and this contributed to the enormous growth in the field of culture—writing, the arts, and the bohemia that came along with them.  In the England of the 1930s, the generation of public schoolboys faced a destroyed economy and much-reduced prospects.  They were deprived of the areas of action and fulfillment available to previous generations with similar backgrounds.  Along with this displacement came a sense of alienation from the ideology of leadership and service with which they had been instilled.  They had, then, both motive and opportunity (or, shall we say, lack of opportunity) enough to become writers: critical of their time, needing to rethink the relation of self and society, equipped with exquisite educations, and unable to get traction in fields of social leadership, they took up their pens.

Of course there were many English writers of the time who did not come from the same sorts of school background as the Audens and Isherwoods.  What of them?  What of Julian Symons, Christopher Caudwell, Derek Savage, George Barker, and a host of others?  One could make an argument along the lines of "well, they weren't as good, were they?" but this would be highly contentious.  Read a few George Barker poems side by side with some of Spender's and tell me the case for the superiority of the public schoolboy remains clear.  A more convincing case could be made for the relative lack of social capital among the non-public school set.  That is: even though they may have been denied the easy entry into positions of security and authority that they had thought their birthright, the public schoolboys were still as a whole better connected socially, more financially secure, less burdened by family obligations, and held more impressive academic credentials than their peers from humbler backgrounds.  Moreover, they had formed very close bonds with their peers at school—one of the main functions of prestigious boarding schools, and one that ensured the career-building value of the old school tie.  This gave them a stronger starting position in the race for literary reputation.

Early advantages, as every investor knows, have a tendency to become still greater advantages as time goes by.  If the public schoolboys entered the field of literature at an advantage over others, that advantaged only increased as their concerns and stylistic ticks (such as the prevalence of public school imagery) became identified as the markings of a whole generation of writers—as part became taken for whole.  This happened in the self-mythologizing of the public school writers, in their mutually-admiring critical writing, memoirs, and romans-à-clef, and it has continued to happen in the scholarly writing about the period.  Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of Bernard Bergonzi's excellent study Reading the Thirties, which shows far more self-awareness about the process of taking part for whole than do most similar documents:

This book is not about all of the literature written in England between 1930 and 1940.  In the title, and throughout the book, I use the term 'the thirties' in the same deliberately selective fashion that made it possible for Edward Upward to give the all-embracing title In the Thirties to a retrospective novel about the progress of a young poet and schoolmaster from bourgeois individualism to the Communist Party which restricted itself to a dozen or so characters.  Despite the narrowness of the range, Stephen Spender could still call Upward's novel 'the most truthful picture of life in that decade.'  In the present book I do not intend 'the thirties' to mean just a period, but also to refer generically to a group of writers and the work they produced in that decade, occasionally later.  Indeed, 'the thirties' in this sense largely corresponds to… 'the Auden generation.'

I cherish the works of Auden, I read the works of Isherwood with a hearty appetite, I ransack Spender's journals for gems of gossip and social observation.  But I try not to forget that both the achievement and the prominence of those writers rests on a bedrock of privilege, albeit of privilege displaced from the realm of power to the realm of art.


  1. I guess I realize reading this how incredibly male-dominated this period of English literature was. Modernism at least had Djuna Barnes, Woolf, Edith Sitwell, but the 30s generation seems to be all male (at least from your description of it).

  2. Of course it's not all male -- but the canon is! The public school crowd was so successful in establishing themselves that we've sort of constructed an interpretive paradigm whereby you were a thirties writer only to the degree you resembled Auden and his pals. Which is not to say that Auden wasn't a tremendous writer, only that we've come to look for Audenesque traits as a sign of being an important writer of that time. Here's a pretty good place to get started if you want to see what British women were writing at the time: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=483354 --it's a crazy-expensive book, but it is in a lot of university libraries.

  3. I like the term "crazy-expensive," which I've never heard before.
    The thirties, my favorite decade and the setting for some of my work, also has the dark underside (that keeps popping up unpleasantly when you least expect it) of seeing an otherwise-sane, otherwise-humane writer suddenly making a stunningly skanky comment about African Americans, Jews, etc. Never fails to startle me.

  4. I'm quite sure the same will apply to us. Seventy or a hundred years from now they'll tut-tut at us, saying that otherwise sane writers of the 2010s will suddenly make terrible comments about liking driving cars that burn fossil fuels or enjoying some non lab-grown meat or something. Or maybe it'll all go the other way and they'll look aghast at our tolerance for gay marriage and secularism. The only thing we can know for sure is that they won't believe what we do.

  5. It's the more striking a difference when you consider that Kipling was effectively a bit of a foreigner too, having spent quite a bit of his childhood in India and feeling very alienated in England (he spent some time in a grammar school too, I think, before heading for USC).

    But are you considering only English writers here? There were plenty of Welsh, Irish and Scottish writers about at the same time and I doubt they were all as public-school oriented.

    1. It's a good point about Kipling, and of course Wyndham Lewis was half-American. As to considering other countries -- it's well worth looking into, but I think making this big a claim about an entire generation of English writers is quite a big enough generalization for one blog post -- don't you?