Shall We in That Great Night Rejoice?
‘But hush, for I have lost the theme’…
A party of young people takes advantage of a beautiful blue-sky spring afternoon to have a picnic. The men are all trim and waistcoated, the women wear their hair in shapely turrets, with long white gloves on their hands. Baskets of fruit, an ice-bucket filled with bottles of sweet wine, and platters of coldcuts weight the picnic blanket. The air is clear and the nearby trees are gently swaying. The talk is quicksilver, invigorating.
The first ant is barely noticed. Only when a dozen or so have gathered are they seen and swept away. Flies begin to dip low over the coldcuts, but the task of dispersing them hardly causes a pause in gay proceedings.
In short order, the ants become a problem. Conversation and laughter come to awkward halts as the young men and women gradually realize that big black moving stains of ants can now be seen in several spots on the blanket. Flies are writhing across apples and pears.
With great reluctance and abrupt conclusion, the young men and women decide to abandon their picnic. By now the ants are so persistent they’re crawling up pantlegs and dress hems, and the flies are beginning to hover at human faces.
In some hurry, the party packs up. The food is left behind as despoiled, ants are hastily brushed off the unopened bottles of sweet wine, and everyone rushes to the car parked in the neighboring dell.
It’s only after a silent interval while driving back to town that someone finally laughs, and it’s a self-conscious, slightly nervous laugh. In the months that follow, the young men and women will listen in a kind of grim, self-mocking silence to the stories their friends tell them of weekend picnics, of the wonderful times had by everybody. Invitations to such outings will be universally declined, usually with a laugh and a lie.
Some odd quirk of timing, some unguarded turn of phrase, at some point years later galvanizes these young men and women—still capable of mirth, after all, and not wishing to consider themselves superstitious—and they plan another picnic. They exaggerate their trepidation to convince themselves of its absurdity—there’s much gallows humor about the previous debacle.
Finally the day arrives, the car is laden with food and drink, a perfect spot is picked out. Again there are sweet wines and fresh fruits and salvers of meats, and again the day is beautiful. Conversation starts out strained and watchful but gradually relaxes into laughter.
When the first ants appear this time, they are met with the laughter of a group that has convinced themselves history would not be so rude as to repeat itself. The first few flies are hooted at as though they were stage comedians.
In jerking, inelegant halts and starts, the party gradually realizes that these interruptions are not trivial. Ants in thick columns stream everywhere on the picnic blanket; flies swarm into eyes and noses; angry wasps whine on every inch of exposed flesh. One of the young men, in a flailing attempt to keep ants out of his mouth, suffers a heart attack. One of the young women experiences allergic reactions to wasp stings and collapses to the grass.
Screaming and yelling, the rest blindly flee over the hill to the car. Swerving and speeding, they race toward town with ants pouring out of their pantlegs and wasps rummaging in their hair.
There is no gaiety this time, no playfully rueful reflection. None of these young survivors will ever set foot on grass again voluntarily, of course—nor will any of them ever again calmly hear an insect’s drone. But it’s more than that: they will forever afterwards distrust the very nature of joy. They will see a lie at the heart of life.
And on practical terms, none of those young men and women will ever be able to think about anything except those two picnics. The entire remainder of their lives, overtly or otherwise, will be about those two picnics—in their creative work, they will either traumatically re-live some aspect of their ordeal, or they will strenuously idealize the times of their innocence.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Edith Wharton a copy of The Great Gatsby in 1925, her response was, as usual, unerringly, perfectly on point:
“I am touched at your sending me a copy, for I feel that to your generation, which has taken such a flying leap into the future, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers.”
Unerring because it’s a well-worn truism that old centuries lumber into their graves in a most untidy manner. They heed neither date nor calendar, and their passing is always the stuff of symbol rather than sigil.
Hence the many births of the 20th century. The election of Theodore Roosevelt? The Armenian genocide? The nightmare of the Somme?
The most aesthetically pleasing symbol is naturally the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. A huge, ostentatiously presumptuous exemplar of a self-proclaimed “modern” age, brought to foil and ruin by nature’s caprice, and in the process shown to be bumptiously unprepared even for known perils. Certainly Henry Adams thought so, mordantly linking the Titanic disaster with the failing Taft administration (the irony here being the fact that at this point Adams had already written—though not yet published—his frenetically magisterial Education of Henry Adams, a quintessentially 20th century work in tone and nervous brilliance).
The malleability of these mileposts mocks mere millennialism and requests a better standard. The year 1900 will not do, just as it would be useless to discuss the lives our picnickers prior to their twin catastrophes. The two greatest literary figures on the 20th century’s printed calendar, for instance, Edith Wharton and William Butler Yeats, do nothing to illuminate that calendar. They are publishing in the 20th century, but they are obviously writing in the 19th.
Rather we should say that 20th century literature—indeed, the literature of any century—consists of those works which arise from the conditions of the 20th century, works which belong to that century and couldn’t have been written in any other. A bit flat as precepts go, but it spares us needing to find a place at the table for Rudyard Kipling or Arnold Bennett, to say nothing of Henry James (but includes the likes of J.M.Synge, all of whose masterpieces were written with only a big toe in the 20th century but who, like Adams, manages through anxious prescience and a certain ration of sheer talent to feel nothing like any 19th century writer).
It is a schoolroom adage that the writings of a time reflect that time. In no century in the history of human literacy has this task been harder than the 20th. Max Planck and Niels Bohr elaborate atomic and quantum theory; Marie Curie studies the domestication of radiation; Einstein theorizes about special and general relativity; Freud and Jung publish on psychology and sexuality; the Wright brothers fly; Harlow Shapely and his colleagues map the Milky Way itself; T.H. Morgan opens up the study of genetics. The comparatively steady progress of previous centuries seems a dream. The 19th century convulsed along the entire breadth of its latter half by the advent of Darwin; the 20th produced a Darwin roughly every six or seven years.
Probably it’s impossible to determine what percentage of Darwin’s explosive potency is literary in origin, but there is the fact: On the Origin of Species is an enduringly well-written book. In this respect it is hardly alone in the annals of 19th century science-writing. Poisson, Agassiz, Doppler, Humboldt, Lyell, Helmholtz—all can be read with a pleasure quite apart from their academic acumen.
Not so the 20th century. As the discoveries have become more astounding and more intrinsic, the prose style has almost universally degenerated to the argot of the laboratory. Part of this is perhaps inevitable, as the century’s amazing proliferation of scientific knowledge forced a greater and greater degree of specialization on men and women who once had the leisure to hone their prose styles. In Lyell’s London, technological and scientific conditions were virtually identical to those that obtained in Chaucer’s time, or Arthur’s. In very rapid order—hammer-blow upon hammer-blow—this changed in the 20th century: elements were discovered and added to the periodic table in unprecedented number; Fessenden transmitted human speech via radio waves; Marconi developed radio telegraphy; Robert Goddard pioneered rocketry; jet propulsion, blood chemistry, antibiotics, automobiles, phones—all were either invented or radically advanced in and around the war years, and in the end this served to enhance the pervasive sense of uncertainty our young picnickers felt. The pace of this development has been unrelenting—a generation terrorized to its core by its inability to hear V2 rockets coming raised a generation likewise terrorized by its inability to escape a nuclear holocaust, and that generation begat another which lives in fear of biochemical threats, whether in the form of new and deadly viruses or weaponized germ warfare.
Such an environment is perhaps not one in which it should be expected that scientists will write as well as they think. The two world wars divorced science from its human agency in a way the world had not seen before; human flight and the development of submarines and long-range missile delivery systems made it possible for the first time to kill enemies you could not even see. The fact that in many cases these enemies remained theoretical even after their destruction (it’s impossible to get a head-count of the dead if an unknown number of the bodies were completely disintegrated, for instance—likewise with carpet-bombing a major industrial city, or huge swaths of Asian jungle) only served to widen the disconnect at the heart of the 20th century.
The general decline in educational standards that followed the Second World War (and which continues to deepen all through the latter half of the century) gave rise to successive waves of popularizers and generalizers, but genuine works of scientific merit also possessing literary merit are thin on the ground. Pioneering and fearless ethnologist Franz Boas, writing in the first half of the century, displays a robust, argumentative style (especially in his masterpiece, The Mind of Primitive Man), and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is spare and insightful. But where else can one turn? The discovery of DNA gets James Watson’s scabrous and pea-brained The Double Helix. Televisions, transistors and electronic brains lack even so paltry a Homer as that.
The century’s most prominent scientist, Einstein, wrote works that are as opaque as they are groundbreaking—unsurprising, perhaps, when it’s noted that he and other pioneers in nuclear physics (Bohr, Teller, Oppenheimer, etc) surely represent the aforementioned 20th century disconnect more starkly than any other group: at a time in the century when only a handful of people knew the destructive potential of nuclear physics, that entire handful advocated the building of nuclear bombs.
(Any other group but one, perhaps: quantum theorists from Planck to Heisenberg to the present day have consistently displayed a disconnect not only from the consequences of their work but from reality itself. Whether or not this is due to the fact that the heart of their work is complete nonsense—just as there are no cool spots in a bonfire, so too a universe built on chaos would have no order in it, as this universe very observably does—is open to conjecture, but the fact remains: the entirety of their output is empty of literary merit.)
One might with optimism turn to the twin disciplines that in the 20th century purported to justify the ways of man to man, psychology and philosophy. In the two tasks of explicating the mind of man and the nature of existence, a roster of formidable names looms over the century. Here were Freud and Jung; here were Wittgenstein and the Nazi Heidegger.
But the 20th century was stronger and more patient than all but a handful of its authors, and those writing in the disciplines closest to the heart of that dark strength seem to have suffered the worst from the twin manias of psychotic detachment or panicky nostalgia.
It is ironic that Freud should be by far the most enjoyable reading experience in the field he pioneered, especially in light of the fact that his research methodology basically consisted of asking roughly eight people a series of leading and embarrassing questions. Such a towering mountain of lucrative gougings, resting on so permeable and wisecracking a foundation!
Or perhaps not so ironic: Freud, like James and Wharton and so many other figures publishing in the early years of the 20th century, was actually writing from the comparative sunshine of the 19th. His weird, furtive books state their ridiculous claims—the phrenology of the new age—well before the hammer-blows of catastrophe began to fall. It’s left to his disciples and their disciples to take what little coherent framework he devised and twist it into the characteristically neurotic shapes endemic to the new day. The groundbreaker of so-called analytic psychology, Jung, posited archetypes dotting the landscape of a ‘collective unconscious’—an evangelical religious position clearly aimed at recalling an idyllic pre-Babel state of man. The prolonged trauma our young picnickers experienced had the predictable effect (among the many others such trauma produces) of rendering them intensely, inescapably narcissistic—not in the sense of staring lovingly at the mirror but in the bleaker sense of being unable to step outside the confines of their personal tragedy and grant truly independent existence to other people. So horrible, so scarring were the events that happened to them that they are forever afterward incapable (or unwilling—ultimately, it makes no difference if the will can’t override the want) of admitting the reality of other events, and the people who experienced them. Hence psychology’s swift and steady decline into profitable and utterly irrelevant navel-gazing. Freud was trying (however bunglingly) to reveal essential truths about mankind, to take the place he has so often been given beside Kepler and Darwin; his books have the literary charm that zeal lends. His disciples have summer homes and Vassar tuitions to afford, and it shows in their soulless prose.
We shall see how the full rot of this particular kind of narcissism reaches its greatest extent in other 20th century fields (poetry in particular), but it is evident throughout most of the century’s attempts at philosophy as well. The conflagration of two epic wars, the death-camp horrors that came out of the second, the near-total collapse of the world economy, the sweeping influenza epidemic, the rising fear of nuclear war—these things care nothing for philosophy and handily transcend it. This is embarrassing, naturally enough, for the inheritors of Plato and Socrates, of Seneca and Hume. The hammer-blows that struck the 20th century so regularly and remorselessly sent the Muses scattering, and it’s telling how each discipline then returned or re-invented itself. Some acquitted themselves better than others. Few failed more starkly than philosophy. This is sad and unfair, but the truth is, no one will ever know what the 20th century would have been like without those hammer-blows—we will never know (we only grieve ourselves in asking) what lives of promise and loss those young picnickers would have led, had cataclysms not overtaken them.
Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Sartre, even the Nazi Heidegger—names carved on library walls, and yet their works are almost entirely unreadable, both in style and in matter. Standard literary companions typically use the word “hard” to describe, for instance, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness…and as with all generously euphemistic terms, the word is misleading. It can be used to describe both gnawing on a plank of wood and reading John Stuart Mill, but it doesn’t mean the same thing in both cases. In the former, only the rote difficulty of the act is described; in the latter, a promise of reward is implied (and in Mill’s case, generously delivered). Reading almost all 20th century philosophers is the equivalent of gnawing on a plank of wood…the bad, pointless kind of “hard.” Wittgenstein and Sartre are Torquemada figures, torturing language in an attempt to make it divulge secrets. In Wittgenstein’s case, he doesn’t care about the secrets themselves—only the way in which they’re divulged. Sartre leans over his agonized victim and as each secret comes out murmurs, “I know, I know, but what difference does it make?” In both cases and so many others, we see the kudzu-like over-elaboration of a genre that senses its own irrelevance. Some of our young picnickers will spend the rest of their days—and absolutely furious amounts of energy—on attempting to calculate the exact number of ants at their awful second picnic, or the exact aggregate weight of the wasps that bedeviled them. They will view this as healthy and even innovative work, and there will be no way to dissuade them. The great night that compels them is too deep.
Fortunately, philosophy is an elastic discipline. Just as it can expand to include the scrupulous stupidity of a Michel Foucault (positing more strenuously than any undergraduate that the world and everything in it didn’t actually exist until he got to college), it can also live to fight another day and field some genuinely good writers. If the giants of the discipline’s past had only one lesson to convey to the present, it was that intelligent, searching inquiry need not be wood-plank “hard.” Some 20th century philosophers—Isaiah Berlin foremost among them—heard this lesson clearly and began to shake off the treehouse insularity of postwar irrelevance. Two representative masterpieces, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue, share both a comparatively modest scope and a happy readability. They offer a kind of hope for the genre—one we will return to in due course.
When we turn to the two disciplines that are in any century the weakest and the strongest in dealing with and transmuting the events of the times—fiction and poetry, respectively—we find the age has suffered equally here as well. Fiction has a built-in tendency toward jittery escapism, and poetry at its best tends to pare away all the dross of rendering in order to say one line of truth. Only music itself is more tactilely alert than these two arts (E.M. Forster called music the closest parallel to novels)—we can naturally expect that the hammer-blows of the 20th century would sound the loudest here.
They do, but the phantoms of invention are no match for the entire world repeatedly derailing. The two mental traits displayed by our young picnickers—maniacal obsession with their ordeal (and the concomitant conviction that all life is ruled by chaos, hence the appeal of quantum theory), and forced nostalgia for a prettied-up past—are everywhere in 20th century fiction. The century gets off to a strong 19th century start: Henry James, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett—all are working, gloriously examining the boundaries of their art, toiling steadily in the patois of the known. Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane—all are pursuing the naturalism of the 19th century to its logical ends. We can wonder (but we will never know) what shapes the art would have taken if the 20th century, like the 19th, had been characterized by relatively steady governments, relatively static technological advancements, and relatively local carnages. An entirely different, intensely intriguing canon seems almost to take shape, before vanishing in a cloud of flies and wasps and swatting hands.
Instead, the peace treaty had no sooner been signed at Versailles (leaving the “door open” for Hitler, as Palmer and Colton observe in their magnificent A History of the Modern World, underscoring the contiguous nature of the two world wars) than the twin panics of the age set in. The bookstore shelves at the close of the Great War groaned under the weight of war-memoirs—Tirpitz, Ludendorff, Lord Fisher, Field Marshal French, Admiral Jellicoe, General Falkenhayn, among many others, attempting, all of them, to be the winners by whom history is written. And next to them on the shelves, sprouting all around, are the harbingers of rejection and pining.
Here is where we find the cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie, the empty, beautiful savagery of Eugene O’Neill, the beginnings of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s complicated disenchantment, the escapism of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the flailing bleakness of Georg Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello. Here we see the most sensitive and sighted souls of the era reacting to the decadence and decay they see all around them—either by opposing it (this era gave birth to, among other things, Reader’s Digest, the London Times Literary Supplement, the first volume of Emily Post, and Superman) or by embracing it (it’s here that we find The Beautiful and the Damned, and “The Waste Land”) or by denying it entirely (both Bambi and the inimitable Jeeves date from this time).
The fact that these works are reactions to cataclysm doesn’t in and of itself make them bad (although the magnum opus of the interwar period, James Joyce’s Ulysses, certainly is—crabbed despite its baggy length, florid without flora, and above all displaying the ungiving narcissism already mentioned as a pathology of the age, it foists itself upon the reader like a drunk at a party and then condemns the poor sufferer as lazy if he fails to hang on every slurred word)—it merely circumscribes them, in a way that is both sad and oddly comforting. This is the fiction of a damaged time, most of it cravenly examining its own wounds.
There are restorative exceptions, of course. The spikey (Virginia Woolf called it “hard” and didn’t mean it as a compliment) fiction of Katherine Mansfield belongs to this time, as does the doomed grandeur of Roger Martin du Gard. The magnificent short stories of Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, and Liam O’Flaherty originate in this period, ably compensating for various retrograde countrymen. The best of Hemingway and Dos Passos and Christina Stead and John O’Hara and Kafka come from here.
But the age belongs to escapism, to miniaturism, to rage—forces that tend to deform rather than elevate fiction. The lull between the wars becomes a breeding-ground for later nostalgias of all types, and the Second World War—with its ensuing flood of maimed survivors and death-camp grotesqueries—provides yet another hammer-blow to a generation already reeling. Escapist fiction explodes in a proliferation that subsequent decades have seen only increase. So-called “serious” authors either grapple with the Second World War (the best novels of Evelyn Waugh, for instance, or Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or to a lesser extent Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) or strenuously avoid it (John Cowper Powys’ addle-pated late works, or the works of R.K. Narayan and Natsume Soseki).
The panic and chaos of postwar fiction cannot help but bequeath a vitiated version of itself to the next generation. One looks in vain for anything with the heft of certainty (vain because that certainty has fled, vain because the literature pretends it hasn’t, or else flees with it), indeed for much of anything beyond baroque fidgeting with exercises in style. The stunted, insular self-absorptions of Philip Roth and John Updike in turn beget the feral and sterile antics of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and even the worthy work of Jamie O’Neill or Richard Powers feels furtively encyclopedic. Fiction limps offstage at century’s end awash in bric-a-brac novelties, scatterbrained and very nearly pointless.
Poetry, the most personal of the arts, is the most vulnerable to the neuroses set in motion by the great night engulfing the 20th century. It seems in little danger from the intense obsession with cataclyms themselves (epic poetry seems permanently out of favor; as a result, the wars have only been pecked at), but that only highlights the other mania, the grim narcissism of the victim’s mindframe.
When a poet writes a poem consisting entirely of unexplicated personal allusions and then locks it in a drawer, he’s guilty of nothing worse than sentimentality. If the poet publishes that same poem without explication, he’s guilty of an almost unbelievable self-absorption—and 20th century poetry, stretching from the Cantos of Ezra Pound to the Beat Poets and beyond to the millennium, is swamped unto drowning with exactly this self-absorption. Only in the hands of an Irishman—in this case Paul Muldoon—could such self-referencing even approach the status of art, and even then it’s mainly a footnoter’s folly.
There are bright lights, as always. Auden and Larkin, though the former is a watery echo of Yeats and the latter is a watery echo of the former, manage to rise above the tide and speak to the ages, as does Constantinos Cavafy in a far more individual voice. Horatian (and to a lesser degree Catullan) echoes abound in the works of John Berryman, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. But nevertheless the marks on the body make it clear: poetry suffered the most from the great body-blows the 20th century received, collapsing into a mere chatter from which it has shown no great desire to recover.
Considering the damage done to the soft arts of the 20th century by its own history, it’s curiously encouraging that the strongest art of the age is history itself. Partly this is understandable: it’s the historian’s job, after all, to respond to events, to impose perspective on cataclysm. Using and refining (instead of rejecting and subsequently needing) the historical disciplines of the 19th century, 20th century historians raised their craft to heights entirely worthy of their predecessors. Even when one considers the very best work in other disciplines, one winces at the thought of what came before. Think of the fiction produced in the 19th century, for instance, and then try in vain to stifle a whimper when turning your eyes to that produced in the 20th. A huge part of this is not, as we’ve seen repeatedly, the fault of the 20th century authors in question—theirs is a mangled, broken time, and they just happen to live in it. But the comparison is telling nonetheless, and evokes relief when the subject of history-writing comes up.
20th century historians weathered the deformation of their century (those who weren’t actually consumed by it, that is) without allowing it to deform their art—something of a unique achievement, given the times.
Needless to say, the world wars at the center of the century prove an impossibly tempting target-matter. Not since the Peloponnesian War has a conflict been so well-attended by chroniclers. From Leon Wolff’s spryly mordant In Flanders Field to Lyn MacDonald’s harrowing account of the Somme to Telford Taylor’s searching book on Munich to William Shirer’s intensely angry history of the Third Reich (histories of the Reich by Burleigh and Evans are also—and not redundantly—brilliant) to eminent Bostonian Samuel Eliot Morison’s epic history of the American Navy during the Second World War…it’s an embarrassment of riches, spurred as much as anything by the very cataclysms that crippled the other arts.
It is perhaps the central nodality of the Second World War’s many evils—the Holocaust—that generated some of the most coldly, intensely beautiful historical prose of the 20th century. Reitlinger’s The Final Solution, Lucy Dawidowicz’s toweringly analytic The War against the Jews, Raul Hilberg’s virtually unreadably thorough The Destruction of the European Jews, Eugen Kogon’s nimbly damning The Theory and Practice of Hell, and most of all, Hannah Arendt’s mercilessly forensic Eichmann in Jerusalem, the single greatest piece of historical writing in the new century—these and many others sprang from the inexplicable obsession at the heart of Nazi Germany, incalculably enriching the century’s store of historical prose at a price too high to be willingly paid. In this new century, a thoroughly modern science-worshipping opera-loving Western country tried with all the art and bureaucracy of a modern state to exterminate another people. That great literature could germinate from such ash is both a tribute to and a heartbreaking diagnosis of the pathology of the age.
But the achievements range far and wide from the wound at the center of the century. Sean O’Casey’s devilish and densely atmospheric volumes of autobiography, Herbert Muller’s idiosyncratically encyclopedic The Uses of the Past, Dale Spender’s highly charged polemic Women of Ideas, Ronald Hutton’s charmingly chatty, authoritative writings on the Restoration, George Dangerfield’s rakish The Strange Death of Liberal England…these and dozens of other works carry forward the great scholarly traditions of earlier centuries. Masterpieces such as William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, AJP Taylor’s British History 1914-1945, and Sir Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution can be set on the same shelf as the mightiest works of the 19th century, even though they were in many cases written with shot and shell falling outside the casement windows.
If there is to be a crowning achievement for a literature as anxious and unhappy as that of the 20th century, it must be shared between two disciplines, each virtually unique to the century, in execution if not strictly in form.
The first of these is the broad genre of “nature writing.” The 19th century flood of animal book mired in anthropomorphism surged on unabated in the 20th, but mixed in with these arose an entirely different kind of “nature book,” spurred by ethology that was always willing even when its flesh was weak. These new books rested not on shotgunned specimens pinned to dissecting tables but rather on living creatures observed rigorously in situ. Its etiology is difficult to trace (although it probably stems from the century’s shaken confidence in the largely religious hierarchies in which previous centuries put so much blind faith), but a mindframe gradually became widespread among naturalists and animal behaviorists that was quietly, radically at odds with that of previous eras.
This new approach could be characterized by two tenets above all others: that the objective, non-invasive and above all respectful study of animal societies was a good in and of itself, not needing to further the industries or confirm the hegemony of man, and that the observational and analytical tools of natural history could most certainly be applied to mankind itself. There arose from these tenets in the 20th century a unique body of literature that bore little resemblance to its only nominal forebears, the anatomy-monographs and hunting-memoirs of the previous age.
The pioneering work of this type in the 20th century may be Charles Elton’s Animal Ecology, which sought in clear and graceful prose to assess more than simple physiology. Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape and Robert Audry’s The Territorial Imperative take Darwin’s central bombshell—that man is an animal too—and dispassionately pursue it to lengths (and largely unflattering conclusions) that would have horrified Darwin. Careful, caring observation of animal species going about their everyday lives (always with the implicit plea that they be allowed to go on doing so), hitherto the province of the gardener and the birdwatcher, now ranged across the planet. This movement was spurred on by such tireless and able generalists as David Attenborough, and it was given its patron saint—and very nearly its Holy Writ—by Jane Goodall and her wise, sad, hopeful book In the Shadow of Man.
If this new discipline could be called tangential to the great affairs of the age, it shares that description with its companion genre, children’s literature. This genre was of course a flourishing business in the 19th century, but as with natural history, the children’s literature of the 20th century gradually took on qualities that completely differentiated it from its progenitors. At the start of the 20th century, the saccharine treacle of the 19th century’s children’s literature was still being poured over everything that left the presses. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the Peter Rabbit tales of Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (the lip-curling cutesie-ness of which was so immortally mocked by Dorothy Parker): this was the birth of the genre in the 20th century—books with soft, rounded edges, durably enjoyable by children but crafted out of adult nostalgia and nothing else.
Gradually a change worked its way into this literature, a subtext of wistful sophistication that legitimized the question of whether or not the writers in question still envisioned children as their sole audience, or indeed their primary one. Works such as Antoine de St. Exupery’s The Little Prince and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and perhaps most especially E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web seem to occupy a weird and unprecedented middle ground; extreme narrative simplicity is the hallmark of all three (and many other examples), and yet that same simplicity carries an aesthetic edge no child can yet grasp. Certainly the annals of so-called adult 20th century fiction have little in them to match the simple, almost diacritical grace of Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny, to say nothing of her masterpiece, the century’s quintessential work, Goodnight Moon.
In its ending like its beginning, the 20th century slipped away piecemeal, and a terminus is tricky to pick. The fall of communism is attractive, as the ending of all protracted conflicts always is, but this particular end feels too unforeseen, too accidental to be satisfying. Likewise it feels too morbid to roll-call the last remaining survivors of World War II. The radical Islamic attacks that destroyed Manhattan’s World Trade Center in 2001—the most vicious incident yet in the Crusades that have been ongoing since virtually the moment of Islam’s birth—seem somehow alien to the age. While they can certainly lay claim to the beginning the 21st century, they are an awkward epitaph for the 20th.
The truth is in all likelihood more gradual. The piece of writing you are now reading (trudging with weary steps toward the mecca of “the end” now almost in sight) will see the light of day in 2007—but it will not see print. It will instead appear in an internet forum that (however bonny!) required some pocket change and a couple of hours’ work to create, a forum in a surging sea of such fora. In a manner unprecedented in human history (and certainly unguessed by the poor harassed 20th century, except perhaps at its very end), the internet has enlarged and infinitely complicated the arena of literature.
Mostly bad literature, it of course goes without saying. The declining educational standards of the latter half of the 20th century have in the internet of the 21st found an almost satanically perfect vessel for expression. Never has the very process of writing so been so democratically accessible, and thus open to any fool or illiterate with the (often rudimentary) ability to use a keyboard. The sheer growth of written material available online, the asymptotic multiplication of verbiage, offers at best an ambiguous promise for the future of literature: the forest expands exponentially, but it’s mostly weeds.
What effect this will have on the literature of the 21st century is too long a call for even the most farsighted, but it at the very least raises the question of whether or not literature itself will exist, at least under any definition that currently applies. Intelligent college students, when asked what their last great reading experience was, answer straight-facedly that it was the text of the video game they’re currently playing. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are kept in business by the sales of one single series of children’s book. The number of people who read at all is in its fifth consecutive decade of decline.
In the manifold dystopias of science fiction (the scrappy bastard of 20th century literature), literature is almost always the first thing to go. Books are lost, forgotten, forbidden, or apocalyptically misinterpreted, but never anymore simply read and enjoyed. Et in utopia ego: in Star Trek books have become museum-piece curiosities, entirely superseded by new technologies. If that is the fate of literature, that fate will surely commence in the 21st century. In which case the brutal, turbulent 20th century—in which a man walked on the moon, in which a President’s assassination was caught on film, in which diseases as old as man were eliminated, in which genocide was co-opted as a tool of warcraft—the 20th century will have seen literature’s swan song.
If literature as we know it is fated to die in the brave new century, it goes to that death a broken thing, because in the 20th century, for the first time in mankind’s history, literature failed its age.
Steve Donoghue graduated from Harvard University in 1748 with a degree in classical literature. Wounded during the British evacuation of Boston, he has since retired to his Wellesley manor to write his memoirs. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads, at stevereads.blogspot.com.