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The first chapter describes how plans for liberal internationalist government began within the extended Bloomsbury group, as a moment of queer cosmopolitan disaffiliation with imperial order. The chapter opens with a mysterious set of letters written in protest against the Boxer Rebellion, one of the last wars of Victorian liberal imperialism. These letters, supposedly written by a Chinese consul, in fact are penned by a central member of “Edwardian Bloomsbury,” G. L. Dickinson, a Cambridge mentor to E. M. Forster who will be crucial to plans for formal international government after the First World War. Dickinson generates connections between Cambridge and May Fourth Modernism in China, through his friendship with the poet Xu Zhimo. It argues that the affiliations of Dickinson, Forster, and Xu Zhimo provide a model for thinking through an interwar modernism defined by cosmopolitan friendship, queer disaffiliation from the nation, and a strong attachment to liberal governmental institutions.
The conclusion traces out the legacies of the battle between interwar liberal and anti-liberal political aesthetics. The antagonism of literary critics toward liberalism and neoliberalism in the present has inherited elements of the modernist confrontation with liberal governance, as demonstrated through some of the more important figures in the debate. Our own relationship to liberal governance tends to occlude the specific relationship of modernists to the dominant liberal order of their time, in a way which impoverishes our accounts of politics and aesthetics between the wars.
“The Artist as Clerk” moves from the reinvention of national debt under John Maynard Keynes to examine the role of debt, literary and financial, in the high modernist work of T. S. Eliot. As a young bank clerk at Lloyds of London, Eliot’s assignment was to parse the German debts adjudicated by the Versailles Treaty’s terms. It briefly recalls the structural role of debt in the liberal crises of interwar Europe, then connects those crises to the unbearable material and poetic debts that burden Eliot’s poetic line. Debt work makes its way to the very heart of his major postwar poetry, in the arid indemnities of “Gerontion” and in the conjunction of clerk, desk, and typist at the heart of The Waste Land. In Eliot’s interwar essays we see a parallel confrontation with economic and political liberalism, an interest dramatized in the incomplete Coriolan sequence.
The new opportunities, experiences, and limits of liberal internationalist order produced a distinctive kind of feminist-internationalist genre, the internationalist typewriter fiction. The bestselling novelist Rose Macaulay, Hogarth Press intimate Alice Ritchie, journalist and novelist Winifred Holtby, also Virginia Woolf: all wrote of clerks, secretaries, and typists at liberal internationalist offices during the postwar period, for a feminist audience both dependent on and resistant to empire. These fictions contest the familiar modernist trope of the passive “typist home at teatime,” as in Eliot and Conrad, and open up new ways to read the textual traces of liberal governance. Feminist depictions of liberal world order, particularly in the Mandate territories of Africa, allow us to track the complex network of paperwork, romance, and race that organized neo-imperial rule under the Mandate system. Depictions of typists and office work also allow us a new way into reading the imaginative life of the new technical-managerial economic order that rose to increasing prominence between the wars.
This chapter takes up the friends and enemies of the liberal world order of 1919, beginning with the anti-liberal provocations of the postwar avant-garde. At its center it focuses on the ambivalent relationship of Leonard and Virginia Woolf to liberal internationalism. I propose a new reading of the political Virginia Woolf as a writer devoted to rethinking liberal governance, rather than a critic writing “against empire,” and read her breakthrough anti-bildungsroman, Jacob’s Room, as an extended inquiry into liberal governmental order. I put Woolf’s approach to liberal government in dialogue with H. G. Wells’s World State fiction and his Outline of History, a major intellectual event of the postwar period.
The introduction opens by asking the reader to rethink modernism’s relationship to liberal world order and liberalism itself. It outlines the involvement of a wide range of modernists with mechanisms of liberal world governance. After defining interwar liberalism and laying out the central terms and methodology of the book, the introduction engages that framework in a reading of James Joyce’s first draft of “A Portrait.” The introduction concludes by formalizing the argument that will be developed in the following readings: modernists ordered and were ordered by the liberal institutions of the interwar period, a dialectical relationship that informs the politics and aesthetics of their time and ours.
What was the modernist response to the global crisis of liberal world order after 1919? This book tells the story of the origins of liberal world governance in Cambridge modernist circles, the literary response to the Versailles Peace of 1919, and the contestation of that institutional moment across a range of world literary modernities. Challenging standard accounts of reactionary postwar politics, Interwar Modernism and the Liberal World Order articulates a modernism animated by the contradictions of liberal governance between the wars. The book develops a new materialist reading of modernist politics hinged on the official figures that traverse both modernist texts and liberal order. This official liberal world shapes interwar arts and letters from wartime Cambridge to revolutionary Shanghai.