Bill Goldstein looks back at the intersecting lives and works of the esteemed authors who wrote during the 1920s—Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence—in his new book The World Broke in Two.
What happened in 1922 that makes it the “birth year” of modernism? And what, in your view, is “modernism,” anyway?
The title of my book comes from a line of Willa Cather’s—she wrote in the late 1930s about changes in literary fashion that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” She was thinking of the fact that James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land were both published that year—a watershed year “bookended” by the appearance of Ulysses in February and The Waste Land in October. These works broke dramatically with the style and substance of most literary works, novels or poems, that had been published before and during World War I, which ended in 1918. Cather’s remark is a melancholy one about an irrevocable change. It was also a sly, literary comment about how we misread and misunderstand history: after all, most people would have said that the World War—there had then been only one—had done more to break the world in two than the publication a few years later of a book or poem. But a writer’s world is a unique one, and a writer looks at the world in her own way.
What drew you to the year 1922?
A number of years ago, I took a two-semester class on Proust—in English—because I thought there would be no other way to read all six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Once I began reading it, I started to wonder whether Virginia Woolf had read Proust, and what she thought of the book. I discovered in reading her diaries that she began to read Proust in early 1922, not long after she turned forty. She had been in great creative despair, and reading Proust inspired her. It turned out that Woolf wrote a letter about her birthday, and reading Proust, to her friend E. M. Forster. He was in even greater despair than Woolf was. He had not published a novel in more than a decade and didn’t think he would ever write another. But he also began to read Proust in spring 1922, and it had the same effect on him that it had on Woolf. He had abandoned the novel that was to become A Passage to India almost a decade before. He had not written a word of fiction in all that time. Soon he was at work on his “Indian fragment” again. A Passage to India was published in 1924. I thought there might be a good story in being able to trace the influence that reading a writer has on other writers.
What surprised you in your research?
Once I started focusing on the year, I began to notice what I thought were coincidences but which I began to see were actually patterns. And the intersections among the writers were both literary and also very personal. One of the best examples of what I mean is that during one weekend in September 1922, Virginia and her husband Leonard Woolf were hosts to T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster at their country house—a weekend most notable in Virginia Woolf’s diary for the lengthy discussions she records of James Joyce’s Ulysses—and at the exact same time, five thousand miles away, D. H. Lawrence, just arrived in New Mexico, was begging his publisher in New York to send him a copy of Ulysses because he had heard it was “the last thing in novels” and he had read articles in which he was compared to Joyce and wanted to know precisely why.
These are intimidating writers. How familiar with them do you have to be in order to appreciate The World Broke in Two?
Not at all familiar. I think it’s enough to know their names and that you are intimidated by them. And maybe that you’ve thought of reading them, but didn’t know how to begin. My book offers a new way in to writers many people have been afraid to read.
Because I discovered that Woolf, Forster, Eliot, and Lawrence were, at the start of 1922, writers in deep despair, privately confronting the terrifyingly blank page of an uncertain creative future; each of them felt literally at a loss for words. None of these essential pillars of twentieth-century literature could foresee the work just ahead that during that year was about to transform them as writers. I think that will come as a surprise to most people. How these writers struggled and how much, in 1922, they believed themselves to be failures.
It turns out, though, that the main subjects of my book are all working, somewhat blindly and without much hope in 1922 on what would be their greatest books — Mrs. Dalloway, The Waste Land, A Passage to India. But they didn’t know that yet. Only we do.
In an important way, you don’t have to have read these books, because at the time I’m writing about, they haven’t been written yet.
What about Ulysses and Proust? They’re even harder to understand, aren’t they?
I think many of us will identify with the difficulties Virginia Woolf found reading Ulysses in 1922. It’s great fun to know how much she hated it. And so in a way, Virginia Woolf read Ulysses so you don’t have to. She could barely get through it and took months to do so—and when she finished it, she said she had felt bound like a martyr to a stake. Part of it was jealousy at Joyce’s fame—but a greater part of it was genuine outrage at what she felt was the unfinished, raw, effusion of words that Ulysses was to her, a work unrestrained by true artistry, or a true novelist’s control of his material.
But, as I tried to show, her clear vision of what she thought was wrong with it led her to a conviction she could do better. She saw what the men were writing and it honed her idea of what it meant for her to be a woman writing. And this is what she was trying to do in writing Mrs. Dalloway—a novel about a woman. In reading Ulysses, even against her will, she found a way to write a book she could not have written otherwise.
That is the mystery of literary creation I tried to explore by looking at these writers’ lives, their diaries, their letters, their working drafts so closely.
How did you research this book?
I tried to focus as much as possible on what the people I write about were thinking at the time about their lives and works. For that reason, most of my source material has been their diaries and letters, and those of the people who knew them. That said, I tried to put these contemporaneous thoughts and impressions in context, and to make clear where what people thought, or wrote privately, was myopic, mistaken or false. Because of this focus, I worked a lot in archives—at the British Library, at the New York Public Library, at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin TX, at the Beinecke Library at Yale, and elsewhere—and what you find there are many unpublished letters and diaries, often written by the people closest to these major writers. And you also see people’s drafts, discarded material that illuminates what they, in the end, actually wrote. In fact, I was really surprised that even with writers like Woolf, Eliot, Lawrence, and Forster there is so much material that remains unpublished.
Because I used so much unpublished private writing, by these writers and by their friends and relatives writing very frankly about them to their friends and mistresses, among others, I was able to make the story of my book is the stories of their books becoming books—often to their own writers’ surprise.
What is the contemporary relevance of what you reveal in The World Broke in Two?
I had not expected the uncanny political parallels to this moment in 2017. Much of my book is about anti-Semitism, and also about censorship. The American publishers of T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence were both Jewish, and Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband and the founder, with her, of their own publishing company, The Hogarth Press, was also Jewish. I hadn’t realized, as I began, what vitriolic anti-Semitism these men faced, or how deeply it affected their careers, and in the process the history of publishing and the fates of the daring works that were published after World War One. The Waste Land, Ulysses, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love—in many cases only Jewish publishers were willing to risk these and other books.
The resurgence of overt anti-Semitism in the last several years—the open use of anti-Semitic imagery and language in politics, here and abroad—created deeply disturbing parallels, for example, to the letters of John Quinn, a New York lawyer who was T. S. Eliot’s patron, and who arranged the publication of The Waste Land. His letters to Eliot and others are full of scathing anti-Semitic language. Quinn and others used it nearly 100 years ago—it was the common language of business—but much that is in Quinn’s letters sounds remarkably like the rhetoric shaping politics today, too. Then and now, anti-Semitism was linked to anti-immigrant rhetoric. Anti-immigrant rhetoric shaped the 2016 presidential election, and the legality of policies put in place since then is now being debated in the courts—including in the Supreme Court next term.
It was startling to see that in 1922 people were charging that Jewish publishers and immigrant publishers were poisoning America. This led, regularly, to the seizure of books, the legality of which was debated in very dramatic cases in 1922. It was a version of the argument we are having today about free speech—trigger warnings, what it is “politically correct” to say or not say.
I think there is another crucial parallel. One of the charges against the modern classics published in and around 1922 was that they dealt too frankly with sex. It seemed to many an obvious reason to try to censor what publishers could publish. They claimed a moral justification—a moral responsibility to do so. We are still having that argument—about the books of 1922, on the one hand, but also about the books of our own time. What should novelists be writing about? What limits can we place on who should read them?
In 1922, and now, the debate is really about who controls language, and whether there are limits to what can or ought to be said. In that way, the era of literary modernism is still very much the present. And the threat is the same: Will readers be able to decide for themselves what they should be “allowed” to read? Or will crusaders claiming it a moral issue, on one side or another, make the decisions for us? A provocative novel still seems particularly dangerous, even in an era of ubiquitous pornography. Books are still being banned in communities all across the country.
BILL GOLDSTEIN, the founding editor of the books site of The New York Times on the Web, reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s “Weekend Today in New York.” He is also curator of public programs at Roosevelt House, the public policy institute of New York’s Hunter College. He received a Ph.D. in English from City University of New York Graduate Center in 2010 and is the recipient of writing fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, Ucross and elsewhere.