The Thirties and After

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

One of the signs that the pace of events in our time is moving ever more rapidly is the phenomenon of shrinking generations. In an attempt to make sense of things, we reach out to look for moments that can be defined, for common experiences, shared values, similar backgrounds which may be said to link groups of human beings together. When we find such moments, we say we have identified a generation. Recently, we have had to define a new generation every ten years. The relatively short time between the two world wars contained two generations, the relatively inward-turning, art-for-art’s sake generation of the 1920’s and the politically involved, socially committed generation of the 1930’s. Stephen Spender is a member of the latter, one of its last survivors; his personal record of his generation’s struggles for artistic integrity and social involvement, coupled with his after-the-fact reflections, provide us with an invaluable sense of a period vital for shaping events of our own day, as well as a deep awareness of how quickly the present in our time becomes past, remote from our present experience. The formative experiences of Spender’s life, separated from us by only forty or fifty years, seem, even in Spender’s eyes, events long past, distant, shrouded from our awareness by the rush of events in the last thirty years.

Thus, the 1920’s and 1930’s are now historical periods for us. Recently, the 1920’s, with the period’s major literary figures—Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald—have been the subject of much literary and historical study. Now, as the major figures of the 1930’s are dead or aging, we are beginning to get a new sense of the importance of that generation of writers for our own sense of how we got where we are, and what we are to make of it. Unlike writers during the 1920’s, when the major artistic concerns were to find ways of expressing a new sense of the world, born in the chaos of World War I, writers of the 1930’s had a new sense of social and political realities, of the economic inequities of industrial society. The major writers of the 1920’s, notably Eliot and Pound, found themselves drawn to traditional institutions and values; Spender and his fellow writers of the 1930’s, on the other hand, sought a new order and flirted, more or less seriously, with socialism and Communism. The center of Spender’s focus in this volume is on that phenomenon, on how it felt to be a poet in the 1930’s, what it was like to find oneself involved with the Communist movement and the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Unlike many writers of that age, such as Auden, who eventually suppressed the Marxist elements in his earlier poetry, Spender is honest about his motives and his actions. As a result, his account will serve as an invaluable eyewitness report of what to many now seems an aberration in the main thrust of twentieth century Western literature.

The longest section of this book, therefore, consists of Spender’s essays and reminiscences from the 1930’s. Included here are discussions of Spender’s fellow poets and writers, both those who form the immediate literary background for his generation and those who, with Spender, make up the 1930’s generation in England. Two themes predominate; first, what the socially committed writers of the 1930’s were to make of the unpolitical or right-wing tendencies of artists whose works they admired. Yeats, for example, or D. H. Lawrence or T. S. Eliot, were felt as influences, but their political inclinations made them suspect to a left-leaning generation; so, their stylistic achievement had to be separated from their vision of society. Spender’s second theme is the relationship between art and politics; against the background of heightened awareness of economic realities and of growing...

(The entire section is 1558 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXV, October 1, 1978, p. 271.

Economist. CCLXIX, October 28, 1978, p. 124.

Nation. CCXXVII, October 21, 1978, p. 416.

New Republic. CLXXIX, September 23, 1978, p. 27.

Saturday Review. V, September 16, 1978, p. 47.

Time. CXII, October 23, 1978, p. 106.