When Modernity Awoke: 1922 - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

When Modernity Awoke: 1922


Human nature suddenly changed in the year 1922. Or at least the generally accepted idea of a public entertainment, and in particular of popular English literature, underwent a rude shock on February 2 that year, James Joyce’s 40th birthday, when Shakespeare and Company in Paris published Joyce’s Ulysses in book form. Whatever one makes of the nearly 300,000-word, defiantly non-linear text that broadly shadows the episodes in Homer’s Odyssey, it’s a tribute to the enduring appeal of Joyce’s absurdist soap opera that each June 16, the date of the book’s action (if it can fairly be called that), tens of thousands of people around the world dress up as their favorite Ulysses characters and attempt to speak in their voices and recreate their movements around Dublin or whatever location they happen to find themselves in.

There may be no other fictional characters in English literature, not excluding those of P.G. Wodehouse, who continue to excite such fanatical and, at times, slightly dotty devotion. Joyce himself was part of the annual celebration in 1929, and was joined in a charabanc trip out of Paris by none other than the 23-year-old Samuel Beckett, somehow a logical, chronological association. In true Ulysses style, Beckett got spectacularly drunk along the way and was allegedly thrown off the bus for causing a rumpus. “It was a bit of a fiasco,” the future author of Waiting for Godot was forced to admit.

Rash as it generally is to try to assemble random historical facts into a neatly unified pattern that few people would have recognized as such at the time—the 1950s uniformly gray and conformist, the ’60s a nonstop priapic bacchanal—with hindsight perhaps we can say that the period from the publication of Ulysses, followed by that of Eugene O’Neill’s unsparing drama The Hairy Ape, and in turn of the artful derangement of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, up to the appearance of T.S. Eliot’s defining masterpiece The Waste Land just eight months later, signifies one of those transformative shifts in the artistic landscape that tend to occur from time to time in response to events, such as a major war, in any halfway productive society.

It seems to me that there are two basic explanations of how such seismic changes come to pass in our artistic life. The first might be called the wider socio-economic school of thought, and in the case of 1922 it could be said to find expression in the recent words of Michael Levenson in The Atlantic. “One hundred years ago,” he writes, “those rebel modernists were not aiming to make trouble for its own savage sake. Their forbidding work belonged to complicated, unforgiving times. Living without the gods of progress or reason—and without God—they tried this, tried that, reached further, failed, and then—in Beckett’s phrase—failed better.”

Set against this, there’s always the possibility that what happened from February to October 1922 wasn’t a wholesale repudiation of the accepted standards of mainstream creative expression, meaning the sort of realistic art which originated in the Renaissance and that many ordinary consumers still held up as the last word on the subject. The changes were not the result of a coherent or a persuasive theory at all, in fact, so much as a case of the traditional artistic structure being undermined by a small number of restless, discrete figures tunneling along their own separate routes from several different directions to a common goal.

In short, the flight from traditionalism may have been a sign of the fractured cultural times, a symptom of the 1920s’ mix of cynicism and abandon, its coeval obsession with the sordid and the beautiful. Or, just as likely, there was no real overarching connection; nothing developed. The year 1922 just happened to be a creatively fertile one.

That something unusual might have been happening at least towards the upper end of the artistic evolutionary ladder can be glimpsed from even a partial accounting of works published that year. After Ulysses came F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sophomore novel, The Beautiful and Damned, which among other things advertised the “petting party” as youth’s prevalent indoor sport. The whole thing was “abominable,” the scandalized critic at McCall’s wrote of the book. Surely this must be an exaggerated account of some especially degenerate group—nice girls didn’t behave like that. But in short order there was the further shock of Antonio Botto’s poetry collection Cancoes, translated from the original Portuguese, shamelessly singing the praises of same-sex love, and the first English-language appearance of Marcel Proust’s sequence À la recherche du temps perdu, both of which reiterated the scarlet words that led American mothers to lie awake at night asking themselves whether their children were utterly lost.

Then there was Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which took aim at the hypocrisies of Western business life and of polite society in general. The critic Edmund Wilson spoke for many when he wrote that Lewis’s gift was “almost entirely for making people nasty”—he meant it as a compliment—but that taken as a whole the book lacked the polish of previous social satirists such as Dickens or Twain.

In the midst of this effusion of severely unsentimental modernity came E.E. Cummings’s novel The Enormous Room, which set the scene for such later literary highwire acts as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and includes character sketches such as: “By some mistake he had three mustaches, two of them being eyebrows. In speaking to you his kind face is reduced to triangles. His tie buttons on every morning with a Bang! And off he goes; led about by his celluloid collar, gently worried about himself, delicately worried about the world.”  

But all of these offerings, including Joyce’s, pale by comparison to the appearance in October 1922 of the work by that high priest of modernism T.S. Eliot, which he at first proposed to give the title “He do the Police in Different Voices,” but which perhaps wisely he changed in favor of The Waste Land. Eliot may at a stroke have blasted the shackles off the constraints of Victorian-era verse, but like so much else of value in the arts his enduring masterpiece was really a combination of high technique—with timeless moments where eternity intrudes into the world and we catch a glimpse of what the life of man was meant to be and, with God’s grace, may one day be again—and hardheaded opportunism.

While recuperating from a nervous breakdown, the 33-year-old Eliot found himself sitting for days on end in a seaside shelter on England’s spectacularly bleak Margate beach, where he wrote, among other lines: 

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect

Having spent a certain amount of time in off-season Margate myself, I think I know how Eliot felt.

The Times Literary Supplement was perceptive enough to immediately grasp the essence of the thing: “We know of no other modern poet who can more adequately and movingly reveal to us the inextricable tangle of the sordid and the beautiful that make up life,” it wrote. “Life is neither hellish nor heavenly; it has a purgatorial quality. And since it is purgatory, deliverance is possible.” Eliot received $150 for first-publication rights of his poem, a $2,000 literary prize, and a subsequent $580 in royalties on sales of the hardback edition, for a total of $2,730, or $40,000 in today’s money—about what an Amazon warehouse packer makes in a year or two. The impressively decrepit beach shelter in Margate is still there, several of its window panes broken and the words FALSE TEETH daubed across it in vivid green paint.

Still, it wasn’t all a case of literature succumbing overnight to an attack of high modernism, with its telltale symptoms of nonlinear narration, interior monologues, and haphazard punctuation. The Nobel Prize in 1922 went to one Jacinto Benavente, a Spanish romanticist who wrote middlebrow stage comedies in the style of Georges Feydeau or Oscar Wilde. Benavente’s action is always propelled by fully human failings and misunderstandings, and the consequent farce unfolds organically, without the need for metaphysical asides or agonized ruminations on the collective consciousness. His plays are like watching a slightly more mannered version of Fawlty Towers.

Since 1922 also saw the publication of the second installment in E.F. Benson’s wildly popular Mapp and Lucia series, and P.G. Wodehouse’s knockabout The Girl on the Boat, not to mention yet more of the Sherlock Holmes casebook, as well as stoutly conventional novels by Booth Tarkington, Edgar Wallace, and Agatha Christie, it might be fair to say that Western literature as a whole had yet to fully cast off the yoke of the sound, traditional values inherited from the likes of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift some 200 years earlier.

In the visual arts, there was a more eager embrace of the aggressively innovative. The first Bauhaus exhibition took place in 1922, where Paul Klee’s startling abstractions—his “Twittering Machine” pen-and-ink whimsy would later be condemned as “degenerate” by that well-known Viennese watercolorist Adolf Hitler—suggested new possibilities for the acceptable idea of decorative design. Joan Miró produced his playfully Cubist work The Farm (later snapped up by Ernest Hemingway) in 1922, which also saw the teenaged SalvadorDalí, dressed for the occasion in a bottle-green velvet frock-coat and knee-breeches, take up residence at the Royal Academy in Madrid.

Popular music lay similarly suspended between the ancient and modern. America’s concert stages hosted performances by everyone from the shamelessly melodramatic Al Jolson, deep in his “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” phase, to the Chicago Orchestra’s premiere of Arnold Bax’s severely angular First Symphony, of which a critic noted: “Its prevailing tone color is dark, very dark—thick clouds with only here and there a ray of sunlight.” Perhaps all one could say was that it was no longer possible to state with absolute certainty that a particular book or painting or even musical piece was “good” or “bad.” Something which was considered right in Omaha might, according to the new arbiters of taste, be considered wrong in Prague or London or Berlin, and even in Omaha its merits were no more than a matter of highly subjective opinion. The arts themselves may not have changed overnight, but the guardrails defining the limits of what was an acceptable offering from our public performers certainly did.

Joyce’s whimsical monologues and Bax’s jagged rhythms were almost hopelessly nostalgic affairs compared to some of the other, more visual shocks that came the public’s way in 1922.  Thanks to the previous year’s Fatty Arbuckle scandal—a young woman had died in the course of a liquor-logged party in the portly actor’s San Francisco hotel suite, allegedly the victim of a violent rape—President Harding had appointed Will H. Hays, a former U.S. Postmaster-General, to police Hollywood’s morals. “This industry must have,” Hays intoned, “toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean virgin thing, that unmarked slate, the same responsibility, the same care about the impressions made upon it, that the best clergyman or the most inspired teacher would have.”

Hays’s concern on behalf of the unmarked slate somehow failed to prevent the release of such family-friendly fare as Sodom and Gomorrah, which featured a lengthy expressionist dream sequence, or the luridly melodramatic screen version of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, which apart from anything else surely claimed a prize for speed of development, following just seven months after publication of the source novel. Along with the sex and surrealism, American cinemas also featured such old-fashioned swashbucklers as Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, all-but monthly quickies by the likes of Buster Keaton, and a full quota of Charlie Chaplin. Alfred Hitchcock also shot his first film in 1922. It was called Number 13, and the young director had to abandon it halfway through production when the studio’s budget fell apart.

If it’s synchronicity you want, 1922 was the midwife to certain future trends in the arts. The year saw the birth of such later guardrail-rattlers as Jack Kerouac, Philip Larkin, Kurt Vonnegut, Lucien Freud, Carl Reiner, Al Haig (the bebop jazz pioneer, not the secretary of state), and Norman Lear of All in the Family fame, who’s happily still with us as of this time of writing.

It would be fair to say that by 1922 orthodox religion was under siege by the invasion of scientific ideas and the scientific habit of reliance upon proven facts that had steadily taken hold in almost all walks of Western life since the First World War. Among the newly evolving discoveries that purported to question man’s role in the cosmos was Quantum Field theory— on one hand, a structure designed to analyze the creation and annihilation of minute particles such as electrons and photons and, on another, a contemplation of the “non-observable” material world. It was just one of several such “seismic jolts,” as the Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle called them when speaking of an era that also saw the belated confirmation of Einstein’s general theory, as well as the rapid development of the household radio, a dispenser of unseen voices which, in its infancy, struck many consumers with much the same mixture of shock and befuddled awe that characterizes today’s UFO-sightings industry.

But if you were searching for the single incident that best epitomized that turbulent, rackety, often chaotic period when America was kicking up her heels and generally taking things to extremes in a way we seem to do better and more often than anybody else, it came on the warm Sunday afternoon of June 18, 1922, in a darkened hotel room in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The dramatis personae were Conan Doyle, his wife Jean, and the celebrated magician Harry Houdini. The first two of these were advocates of spiritualism, the last of them a skeptic. Surely even the occult can have produced no stranger sight than that of the stout, mustachioed 63-year-old author, the creator of English literature’s most famously rational human calculating machine, seated alongside his equally substantial wife and the “little chap,” as Doyle affectionately called their guest, with their heads bowed over a small table in their candlelit room. They were there in an attempt to bring Houdini news from his sainted mother Cecilia, who had died nine years earlier. In time the three sitters joined hands and said a prayer. For some minutes after that, Lady Doyle, who had recently begun to show a gift for channeling the spirits, sat motionless, poised over the blank writing pad before her. Then, with a jolt, the pencil in her hand began to move.

“It was a singular scene,” Conan Doyle later wrote, “my wife with her hand flying wildly, beating the table while she scribbled at a furious rate, I sitting opposite and tearing sheet after sheet from the block as it was filled up, and tossing each across to Houdini, while he sat silent, looking grimmer and paler every moment.”

Lady Doyle was eventually to produce fifteen pages seemingly full of the late Mrs. Houdini’s expressions of love for her son, including the statements “I am so happy in this life,” and “It is so different over here, so much larger and bigger and more beautiful,” and concluding, “God bless you, Sir Arthur, for what you are doing.” It was “profoundly moving” for all parties, Doyle later wrote, and a “striking affirmation of the soul’s immortality.”

When they met in New York two days later, Houdini gave Conan Doyle the impression that he believed “My mother really ‘came through’ … I have been walking on air ever since.” Over the next few weeks, Conan Doyle spoke effusively of the event in public meetings, and even in a full-length book he called Our American Adventure, while the “little chap” apparently did nothing to contradict him. But perhaps it was all another case of artifice by a master of the craft, because Houdini later marked a newspaper report of the seance with a satirical “Ha! Ha! Ha!”, while coming to wonder why it was that his dear mother should have chosen to communicate with him in fluent English, a language she had never spoken.

Somehow this whole event, not, perhaps, a strictly artistic one, but involving the world’s most commercially successful author and its most feted stage performer, seems to typify the spirit—fervid, volatile, inquisitive but acutely unsentimental—that represents the true zeitgeist of the year 1922. Of course there were exceptions to the rule, and as many individual variants of it as there were working writers, painters, and musicians. But seen in long perspective the storm that broke over the arts as a whole that year consisted in large part of a renovation of standards to best suit the lost certainties of the postwar era. “Make it new,” as Ezra Pound tersely put it.

Modernism appeared in answer to a crisis. The surface aspect of that crisis was the profound turmoil brought about by the cumulative horrors of the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed. Zane Grey’s accomplished but morally uncomplicated frontier yarns and the lapidary drawing-room sagas of innocence in a corrupting world of the Henry James school suddenly seemed hopelessly inadequate at a time when an estimated 80-100 million men, women, and children around the world had recently fallen in combat or agonizingly succumbed to disease.

If any single work can be said to stand as a dismally complete statement of the philosophical malaise of the era, it’s surely The Waste Land, with its bleakly evocative lines on the dark and the light that is human existence:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.

Christopher Sandford’s most recent book is Keith Richards: Satisfaction.


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