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Pulling oneself together: power and character in British literature, 1914-1939

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Title: Pulling oneself together: power and character in British literature, 1914-1939
Author(s): Riede, Austin N.
Director of Research: Goodlad, Lauren
Doctoral Committee Chair(s): Goodlad, Lauren; Hart, Matthew
Doctoral Committee Member(s): Hansen, Jim; Esty, Jed
Department / Program: English
Discipline: English
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: Ph.D.
Genre: Dissertation
Subject(s): Power Character Interwar T.S. Eliot Lewis Grassic Gibbon Rebecca West Virginia Woolf Vera Brittain David Jones Thomas Stearns Eliot
Abstract: A revealing legend from the First World War told of a tribe of deserters from all armies that had reverted to a pre-political “state of nature,” living beneath no-man’s-land in abandoned trenches and pillaging corpses in the night. This tale inspires the under-examined question that is central to my dissertation: how did the First World War alter English citizens’ relation to political power at its most basic level? Literary scholars have read interwar literature as an attempt to work through war trauma, and they have focused on the transformative cultural changes the war brought about. The field has not, however, given sustained attention to the threat that the war posed to established models of governmental and political legitimation, even though Westminster acknowledged the threat in unprecedented legislative interventions. Through readings of familiar and unfamiliar interwar literature, my dissertation analyzes how Britons constituted themselves as objects of state power during a culturally and psychologically fragmenting state of emergency. Drawing on such archival material as letters, diaries, parliamentary debates, medical treatises, and self-help books, my dissertation shows how state power administered British bodies and minds through the inter-related sites of law, medicine, and labor. My first chapter, “Character, Power, and Britain’s Emergency Measures,” argues that the political philosophy concepts of the sovereign decision, biopower, and governmentality can help us better understand the cultural and literary production of the interwar years. During the 1914-18 war, the British government took exceptional and extralegal measures that citizens generally supported or took for granted. In retrospect, interwar writers engaged sometimes paradoxical questions of citizens’ roles, rights, and obligations in a liberal state engaged in total war. This chapter demonstrates that writers and observers often worked through the fundamental political problem of the sources and limits of state power presented by the war, and the way the war changed the interface between the citizen and the state, by referring to changes in both personal and national “character,” which constituted a complex and often contradictory nexus of social and political codes. Chapter 2, “Corporeal Law: Community, Memory, and the Missing Subject” focuses on the The Defence of the Realm Act (1914) and related legislation. These laws disrupted forms of communal, cultural and political identification across geographic and economic lines. In Scottish novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), communal disruptions produce self-alienated subjects who struggle to stabilize a sense of self among contradictory cultural and political demands. Gibbon’s novel is an imaginative recreation of how wartime legislation compelled isolated rural communities to form permanent new relationships to the state through the violent appropriation of natural resources and rural labor. The Waste Land similarly presents the intervention of the war’s material conditions into the biological existences of English subjects, but also questions the legitimacy of any sovereign decision in so fragmented a society. Chapter 3, “Getting the Right Idea: Shell Shock, Contagion, and Control,” examines aesthetic and cultural reactions to the psychological treatment of soldiers, focusing particularly on the gender crisis “shell shock” revealed. The chapter is underwritten by an analysis of interwar self-help books by recovering shell shock sufferers—a previously unexamined archive that I discovered in the British Library and Imperial War Museum. These texts demonstrate that acceptable forms of recovery often depended on the sufferer’s willingness to resituate himself within social hierarchies and gender norms by appropriating the power and assuming the role of the medical expert. The unique social and psychological structure of shell shock treatment underlies Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). West’s Chris Baldry and Woolf’s Septimus Smith both confront the threat of confinement and the loss of personal agency as a result of their trauma. Stripped of their identities through highly personalized psychological interventions, Chris and Septimus must choose between reinscription and complicity within rigid gender and power structures, or the permanent obliteration of their prewar identities. Chapter 4, “Unmaking and Remaking: The Values of War Labor,” focuses on how the war altered English subjects’ relations to work. I argue that Hannah Arendt’s theories of labor, work, and action clarify the values attached to forms of war work, and how war work tied subjectivity to identification with or against state power. Vera Brittain chronicled her changing attitudes toward work before, during, and after the war in her memoir Testament of Youth (1933), which, I argue, cannot be understood without attending to her complex and intertwined work as a student at Oxford, her labor as a war nurse, and her action as an internationalist peace advocate. As the war poet most closely allied with high modernist style, David Jones resolves shell shock in his long poem In Parenthesis (1937) by translating his years of labor as a soldier into a highly formalized work of art, thereby transforming himself from animal laborans to homo faber. In a brief postscript, I suggest the historical and political continuity between the interwar and postwar periods, suggesting that the methodology of this approach could be usefully applied to the analysis of postcolonial, as well as British literature.
Issue Date: 2012-02-01
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/29425
Rights Information: Copyright 2011 Austin N. Riede
Date Available in IDEALS: 2014-02-01
Date Deposited: 2011-12
 

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