The Dishonest Decade
The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930’s.
by Samuel Hynes.
Viking. 394 pp. $12.50.
W. H. Auden wrote of the 30’s—and of his own participation in them—that it was a low, dishonest decade. George Orwell thought that the 30’s began with the hangover of World War I, and ended with crazy oppositions leading to World War II: “Communists waving Union Jacks, Conservative MP’s cheering the news that British ships have been bombed, the Pope blessing Franco, Anglican dignitaries beaming at the wrecked churches of Barcelona.” Robert Graves did not think much better of the subject; The Auden Generation does, and it has some points to make and lose. It confines itself to a small and, I think, unrepresentative group of fairly privileged people. They were bourgeois, literary, and homosexual; radicals of a sort; and the book’s analysis sometimes seems wasted on their preciosity. Aside from Auden, they wrote little that now seems to matter or that, compared to others like Orwell, mattered at the time. The Auden Generation is thus about one of those many historical movements in politics and culture that never went anywhere. But the book is stronger than its subject, and offers what is probably one of the best available literary studies of radical poetry and criticism. And it is a very useful study of the regnant ideas of the cultural Left.
Most of the figures under discussion went to Oxford, and all seemed to have enough money not to work. Orwell thought of them as wealthy schoolboys who had abandoned the “tragic sense of life” of the 20’s for a more revolutionary sense of “serious purpose” that remained (despite their efforts) self-ascribed. The seriousness of that purpose was attained through Communism or, more precisely, through the anti-fascism that remained a touchstone of intellectual life at that time. C. Day Lewis, Christopher Caudwell, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Charles Madge, Michael Roberts, and Auden himself (at least until the middle of the decade) saw themselves as writers dedicated to a cause greater than writing. Because of this they were self-critical, not to say self-destructive, about the disparity between what they could do and what they believed necessary. One of the best and saddest parts of the book is the section on Marxist cultural criticism, with its unrelenting demand for orthodoxy in art. It was this, among other things, that drove Auden into a different kind of conceptual world. His poetry refused to be sublimated, and “made nothing happen.”
As early as 1934 (he arts had become part of the agenda for the British Communist party. There was a great inquisitorial effort that took many shapes: in reviews, admonishments, public debate, through editorials and even the choices of book clubs. The Left Review methodically took up every competing form of art or ideology: it disliked Surrealism, for example, although Surrealists made a heroic effort to prove that their work was “naturally” Marxian. It rebuked not only those on the Right, but those insufficiently on the Left, including Auden and Isherwood. One useful exercise performed by The Auden Generation is the excavation of this state of mind. What we think of as the lasting works of the decade—poems and plays by Rex Warner, Isherwood, Auden, and Day Lewis—had to run the gauntlet when they first appeared. They were praised and blamed and censored to the degree that any ambiguity native to historical judgment or life had been choked into political conformity. Which is to say that writers were often lambasted and invited to recant, as Spender did.
Yet critical independence took unexpected forms. Travel books, which were a good, minor form of 30’s literature, and which may have outlasted work with more “serious” intentions, had social as well as personal connotations. The Auden group was highly mobile, and it used its cultivated freedom from tradition to examine Europe (and other places, the more remote the better) in new and, I think, highly intelligent ways. A social geography was created by Spender’s Vienna, Isherwood’s Berlin, the London of Auden and that of Graham Greene, even Iceland in the poems and letters of Auden and Louis MacNeice, and, superabundantly, by the moralized landscape of Spain during the civil war. These books are to some extent spiritual journeys which allow for the kind of distancing ordinarily prevented by the formulas of ideology. Hynes calls them “parabolic” forms because reportage, which seems simple, can be a symbolic act of assertion. The literalness of these books says something about the difference between the organizing power of political consciousness and the free play of the mind. To be a “camera,” as one of the great metaphors of the decade implied, was to restore the balance between politics and culture.
Hynes’s characterization of these works seems to me fairly realistic as a critical judgment. The output of books about places, in a decade of ideas, does in fact seem parabolic. And our familiarity with the works of others outside the Auden generation—Graves, Waugh, and D.H. Lawrence—leads to another recognition, that personal experience and historical knowledge were associated with “travel” in the same way they had been in Swift and Voltaire. Greene thought of Africa as a Journey Without Maps, which is to say as an exposition and discovery of things as they are, without the false categories of applied political interpretation. Orwell disliked this genre and disparaged it in “Inside the Whale,” but I think he was wrong.
In a book full of detail and thesis there are yet some things absent from The Auden Generation. It is about political writing, but it does not have an adequate sense of intellectual history. Its characters seem to respond instantaneously to events: a bad year in Germany leads to that much more Communist conversion and anxiety among the intellectuals of the West. But these intellectuals probably were more complex than is suggested by the catalogue of their writings, arguments, and reviews. The Auden Generation has none of the concrete power of Auden’s poetry. It does not seem to grasp the complexities of personal association and family, and it views all things schematically and without reference to appetites normally indulged and then evaluated by biography. It has a great deal to say about the disheartening effects of World War I, but very much needs the intervention of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for a sense of particulars. Its allusions to the immediate past of its own present are textbook allusions. And it suffers from comparison even with some fairly pedestrian material on the life of Auden. For example, Stephen Spender’s tribute, W. H. Auden, is full of information on those years: on the prejudices, eccentricities, relationships amorous, friendly, moral, or immoral, which dominated the life of the central figure of the generation. But none of this has survived Hynes’s orientation. The Auden Generation, which describes itself as a study of literature and politics in England in the 30’s, confines itself to a few people in a delimited way. It is dismissive of Orwell, Cyril Connolly, and others who were outside the group. William Empson is well handled but F. R. Leavis is barely in the index.
Auden’s disciples were very reactive, and did more thinking about the politics of culture than was really enabling. Their attitude was emotionally hesitant, revealed in countless invocations about the difficulty of writing and thinking. Neither is really that hard. MacNeice wrote in 1932 that the new group had revived “the Greek preference for information or statement. The first requirement is to have something to say, and after that you must say it as well as you can.” Toward the end of the decade he changed his mind:
It is going, going among the
flux of words,
Three thousand years of a wordy
Much of the stuff of this period, and of this group, was tactically rhetorical; organized around the problem of adequate statement. I do not think this generation—with the tremendous exception of its leader—had a language for its feelings. They claimed to, just as they claimed to have a “serious purpose.” But their writing is about the difficulty of writing, and it sees both culture and politics as alien regimes. If they had had something to say, they would have said it.