Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics

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OUP USA, Sep 19, 2013 - Literary Criticism - 316 pages
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Commonwealth of Letters complicates the traditional understanding of the relationship between elite, aging modernists like T.S. Eliot and the generation of colonial poets and novelists from Africa and the Caribbean— Kamau Brathwaite, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Jean Rhys, and others-who rose to prominence after World War Two. Rather than a mostly one-sided relationship of exploitation, Kalliney emphasizes how both groups depended on-and thrived off-one another. The modernists, dispirited by the turn to a kind of bland, welfare-state realism in literature and the rise of commercial mass culture, sought rejuvenation and kindred spirits amongst a group of émigré writers from the Caribbean and Africa who had been educated in the literary curriculum exported to the colonies in the years before 1945. For their part, the postcolonial writers, ambitious for literary success and already skeptical of the trend toward corruption and philistinism among their compatriot anticolonial politicians, sought the access to cultural capital and the comforting embrace of literature provided by metropolitan modernists. As a result, modernist networks became defined by the exchange between metropolitan and colonial writers. In several chapters, Kalliney provides compelling analyses of colonial writers in postwar cultural institutions, such as the BBC, literary anthologies, and high profile English publishers such as Faber & Faber and Heinemann, developer of the African Writers Series. Throughout, Kalliney acknowledges the elements of cultural imperialism, and paternalism involved in these relationships; however, he broadens our perspective on postcolonial writers by emphasizing the strategic ways they manipulated these elite modernist networks to advance their own cultural agendas.Transatlantic Modernism and the Emergence of Postcolonial Literature is a study of midcentury literary institutions integral to modernism and postcolonial writing. Several organizations central to interwar modernism, such as the BBC, influential publishers, and university English departments, became important sites in the emergence of postcolonial literature after the war. How did some of modernism's leading figures of the 1930s, such as T.S. Eliot, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, come to admire late colonial and early postcolonial literature in the 1950s? Similarly, why did late colonial and early postcolonial writers—including Chinua Achebe, Kamau Brathwaite, Claude McKay, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o—actively seek alliances with metropolitan intellectuals? Peter Kalliney's original archival work on modernist cultural institutions demonstrates that this disparate group of intellectuals had strong professional incentives to treat one another more as fellow literary professionals, and less as political or cultural antagonists. Surprisingly, metropolitan intellectuals and their late colonial counterparts leaned heavily on modernist theories of aesthetic autonomy to facilitate their collaborative ventures. For white, metropolitan writers, T.S. Eliot's notion of impersonality could help recruit new audiences and conspirators from colonized regions of the world. For black, colonial writers, aesthetic autonomy could be used to imagine a literary sphere uniquely resistant to the forms of racial prejudice endemic to the colonial system. This strategic collaboration did not last forever, but it left a lasting imprint on the ultimate disposition of modernism and the evolution of postcolonial literature.
 

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Contents

1 Modernist Networks and Late Colonial Intellectuals
1
Nancy Cunard Langston Hughes Claude McKay Ezra Pound
38
FR Leavis Kamau Brathwaiteand Ngůgî wa Thiongo
75
4 Metropolitan Modernism and Its West Indian Interlocutors
116
Amos Tutuola at Faber and Faber
146
The African Writers Series
178
Left Bank Modernist as Postcolonial Intellectual
218
Postcolonial Writing or Global Literature in English?
245
Notes
259
Bibliography
287
Index
307
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About the author (2013)


Peter Kalliney is Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Cities of Affluence and Anger: A Literary Geography of Modern Englishness.

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