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Texts and Debates


Sarvar V. Sherry Chand

AESTHETICISM AND MODERNISM: DEBATING TWENTIETH-CENTURY LITERATURE, 1900-1960
Edited by Richard Danson Brown and Suman Gupta
Routledge, New Delhi and The Open University, Milton Keynes, 2005, pp. 445, £18.99

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 7 July 2005

The book under review comes as the first volume of a set of three that forms the course material of an Open University programme A 300 ‘Twentieth-Century Literature: Texts and Debates’. Unlike most literary histories, we are told in the ‘Preface’, this one offers, in each chapter, a detailed analysis of one individual writer and one or more of her/his works. It is also an unusual approach to literary history in that it foregrounds the notion of debate—essentially the old art and morality problem, but handled in an extremely nuanced and open way. In this context, it must be said, however, that the title of the volume is inclined to be misleading. It sounds as if we have here a debate between aestheticism and modernism which strikes the average English Literature person as rather odd. Nor does the contents page conform to the symmetry of the title. It contains two broad parts titled ‘What is Literature for?’ and ‘Contending Modernisms’. It is not as if the first covers ‘aestheticism’ and the second ‘modernism’.   Each part opens with a general introductory chapter. The Introduction to Part 1 plots the broad coordinates of the debate which, in effect, turns out to be between the aestheticist and instrumentalist approaches to art. Touching upon the ideas of Plato, Wilde and Orwell, the chapter moves to close readings of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and Elizabeth Bishop’s virtually imagist poem ‘The Fish’, to illustrate the terms of the debate. The “major difference between the poems is connected with their structures,” says the author of this essay, Richard Danson Brown, “where ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ announces its agenda, ‘The Fish’ does not” (p.16). The chapters in Part 1 are devoted to Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the poetry of the 1930s.   The first chapter by Sara Haslam focuses upon Anton Chekhov and The Cherry Orchard. It looks at the dramatic impact of various performances of the play since 1904, examines it as a literary text, and locates it within its historical, biographical and generic contexts—highlighting especially the fact that the play can be read/performed as both tragedy and comedy. Whereas Chekhov himself thought, “the whole play is gay and lighthearted,” directors since Stanislavski, audiences and critics, on the whole, have tended to see it as tragic, emotional and moving. Especially interesting is a demonstration, using one scene, of how ...


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