My copy of this book, which I bought in the early 1990s, has managed to stay with me through twelve changes of address and a depressive episode in which I gave all of my books away on Freecycle. It is very creased and battered – it has character, you could say – and is much loved.
I read it again this week, for the first time this decade, and found that I still really enjoyed it, but now have the discernment to pick apart some of its argument.
The premise of Carey’s book is that early twentieth century literature, I suppose what we would call Modernist literature, was a reaction to mass culture. Though more than this: it was an attempt to make literature too difficult for the ordinary person to understand.
He takes the examples of D H Lawrence, H G Wells, Graham Greene, T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf, among others, and shows how they abhorred ‘the masses’, inventing dehumanising terms with which to describe them, such as swarm, herd, beetles and bacteria. The intelligensia, Carey says, objected to a whole host of modern developments, such as democracy, railways, radio, Universal Education, tinned food, newspapers, bicycles, cameras and the suburbs and invented ways to exclude and destroy these symbols of degeneracy in their writing.
However, where I think Carey’s argument becomes a little far fetched, is in seeing the novels and poetry of these writers as part of a genocidal impulse, which found ultimate expression in Hitler’s gas chambers. Perhaps some of them did think this – I’ve read some of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and in one entry she describes seeing some ‘imbeciles’ at Kingston-on-Thames and wonders if they shouldn’t just be killed. I suppose I think Carey’s greatest mistake is in grouping all of these writers together to fit his argument and taking his hypothesis to a wild extreme. Carey even tries to shoehorn Sir John Betjeman into his thesis at one point, though having seen the wonderful Metro-Land many times, I can’t see how anyone could argue that Betjeman disliked the suburbs.
Clerks were particularly despised by twentieth century intellectuals, which being an invoice clerk myself, I found quite amusing. However, Carey fails to mention that T S Eliot was himself a bank clerk. Perhaps some writers did hate the suburbs and find them ugly, but destroying the suburbs in a piece of fiction, doesn’t mean that you would actually like to see millions of people wiped out in reality.
Carey has a couple of chapters on H G Wells, who in The War of the Worlds has a martian spaceship land in Weybridge and then unleash destruction on Shepperton, Woking and Richmond. As Carey says:
Towards the end, the narrator walks through suburban London – Mortlake, Putney, Roehampton, Fulham, Ealing, Kilburn, South Kensington – and finds it quite empty of people. Vegetation is returning. A red weed, introduced from Mars, spreads everywhere, burying the remnants of houses in its rampant growth.
On Putney Hill, the narrator meets an artilleryman, who rejoices in the devastation and exclaims that, “all those damn little clerks” ought to die!
Does this mean that H G Well thought the same? I don’t think so, but Carey seems to suspect him of playing out destructive urges in his stories, because he was upset about urban encroachment into Bromley, the rural hamlet where he grew up:
In fantasy he took – again and again, and with mounting savagery – a terrible revenge on the suburban sprawl that had blighted Bromley.
In his conclusion, Carey also has a pop at post-structuralism (because it’s too difficult) and people who don’t like television (because they’re obviously intellectual snobs). He also says that he admires some late-Twentieth Century poets, such as Ted Hughes, because even a schoolchild could understand them. Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t think that the job of literature or poetry is to be easy to understand, or that accessibility should be used as some sort of benchmark of literary or moral worth. There is still a place for ‘difficult’ fiction and God help us if authors feel they have to cater to the average Sun reader in order to avoid accusations of elitism.
I’m off to open a tin of spam and read The Wasteland.