A Sinking Island

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers completes Hugh Kenner’s trilogy of critical books on three countries whose writers call English their native tongue. In this third book, Kenner focuses on England. The previous two books, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975) and A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (1983), treated the United States and Ireland, respectively. As he says in his preface to A Sinking Island, the final book “has more to say than did its sibling books on milieux and contexts.” England, Kenner demonstrates, is typified during the twentieth century by a milieu of defensive reaction to modernism. Not lacking for creative genius—Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot—England’s bookmen, the literary establishment, failed to appropriate this wealth within the national identity. Modernist writers tended to break rules, explore new subject matter, and employ a diction totally different from that used by nineteenth century writers, and, Kenner argues, critics responded with shock rather than comprehension to the new literature. Kenner shows how context, along with this fracturing of the milieu, paralyzed the growth of English literature. For a new and vast reading public that was born during the latter part of the nineteenth century, reading was pleasure and entertainment. Publishers flourished commensurate with their ability to furnish the daily ration of tripe for these neoliterates. Thus, a country whose tradition of great writing seemed threatened by “the new” fostered, through the marvel of the printing press, a more acceptable product, the writers of which excelled at superficiality.

Few critics compare with Kenner in his ability to relate writers to the broader historical situation. In his book on American writers, A Homemade World, he shows the synchronicity of nonliterary inventiveness—the Wright brothers, Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford—and literary experimentation. American writers were busy reinventing their language and genres. The early Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore were fortunate in their lack of an inherited tradition. During the same time in England, Kenner argues, stoppage was the active principle. Literary invention was frowned upon during the era of great international artistic ferment, and the frowning has continued into the 1980’s, when a poem such as The Waste Land (1922), which demands that a reader retrain his perceptions of what a poem is, is still considered unintelligible by some English critics.

What literature is is a peripheral but persistent preoccupation of A Sinking Island, and the reader will sense in Kenner’s impatience with canonized twentieth century English writers (Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, and others) an abiding pessimism about whether England has a twentieth century literature. His title announces this deliberately, a salvo seemingly fired at Kenner’s critical counterparts as much as at the writers themselves.

Kenner anatomizes the fragmented reading public of the early twentieth century in the book’s second chapter, “Three Publics,” one of the most formative and entertaining expositions in Kenner’s repertoire. The humor comes in the account of Tit-Bits, a weekly paper invented by George Newnes in 1881, “about half of which did not require concentration in more than thirty-second bursts.” Items in Tit-Bits ranged from the humorous to the informative and absurd: “Has a duel on bicycles ever taken place? (Not long ago, in Spain, between Señores Moreno and Perez; ’and it ended fatally for the latter.’ The weapons were knives.)” Catering to the mass man, Tit-Bits included short stories, one of which, titled “For Vera’s Sake,” Kenner quotes in its entirety as an emblem of the detritus causing the island called England to sink. The story’s author, Philip Beaufoy, was a master of the approved late nineteenth century English literary style, which Kenner argues is the ability to write dialogues that living persons will never speak and descriptions of events that only characters in stories could be imagined to experience. Writers such as Beaufoy, Kenner says, were the ultimate masters of clichés in the Frenchified style, which readers approved and drank like lager. Literature in late nineteenth century England was a drug and a commodity.

In such a context, the true writer was bound to fare ill. The only thing of his which sold well was a reputation for immorality. Oscar Wilde became a villain for the sake of newspaper circulation, while “in Johnson’s age, in Byron’s, an affair like that would have passed with little remark.” Misled, not informed, the English public adopted philistinism at second and third remove and habitually assumed that artists and writers were reprehensible. Meanwhile, real writers were busy forging modern literature, one tenet of which was the jettisoning of any language which a Philip Beaufoy might use.

Modernists such as Ford, Yeats, and Pound developed styles that eschewed artificiality and conventional poetic language. For Yeats and Pound, this pursuit meant revolutionizing their own language, which in their early poetry used sound more than sense and aimed to hypnotize the reader.Now, it was in 1909, according to his own sense of himself, that one W. B. Yeats died. That was the Yeats of “Innisfree,” the sinuous, otherworldly galoot . . ., the Yeats of Poems (1895) and The Wind Among the Reeds, the author of lyrics to croon and of faery plays like The Land of Heart’s...

(The entire section is 2340 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXIV, December 15, 1987, p. 671.

Chicago Tribune. January 29, 1988, V, p. 3.

Choice. XXV, July, 1988, p. 1694.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, December 1, 1987, p. 1661.

Library Journal. CXIII, January, 1988, p. 87.

London Review of Books. X, November 10, 1988, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 31, 1988, p. 1.

The New Criterion. VI, February, 1988, p. 63.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, February 21, 1988, p. 28.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 9, 1988, p. 981.

The Wall Street Journal. April 6, 1988, p. 22.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, April 3, 1988, p. 9.