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British Literatures and World Lit. Theory

'British Literatures and World Lit. Theory' is an intervention on three levels: it works on the theoretical level as an investigation into the usefulness of Pascale Casanova’s theory of world literature (as published in the 2004 translation of her work, The World Republic of Letters); it sheds new light on the relation between Welsh and anglocentric British literary spaces in the twentieth century; and it radically re-positions Edward Thomas, the ‘quintessential English poet’, as a pioneering writer in an Anglophone Welsh literature.

The dissertation investigates the usefulness of Casanova’s theory of international literary space for the task of recovering a writer for a dominated nation within Britain. I argue that Casanova’s theory places too much emphasis on the benevolent effects of what she describes as the ‘universalizing’ structure of international literary space: the idea that a writer, having achieved recognition at a literary centre like London or Paris is necessarily able to return to his dominated nation and spread literary ‘autonomy’. Her argument ignores the position of the literary field in relation to the political and economic spheres in the nation concerned, assuming instead that the ‘autonomy’ achieved in London is enough to engender its equivalent in the dominated nation. I make the case that, even in the literary centre, there is no clear ‘autonomy’ for literature: here, as in the dominated nation, the literary field is relatively dependent on the political and economic forces which underpin it. Casanova’s theory, I suggest, needs to be modified in several ways: firstly, to take account of the way that critics at the literary centres not only spread ‘autonomy’ to the dominated nation, but also refract their own political concerns; secondly, to allow for analysis of the position of the literary field in the political and economic contexts of the nation concerned; thirdly, to incorporate a less deterministic view of history in which it is possible for a nation’s literature not to undergo the stages of her paradigm in the consecutive order she suggests.

Having modified Casanova’s model accordingly, I go on to apply her ideas to my case study, the author Edward Thomas, a writer traditionally assimilated into an anglicized British literary space, in order to see if he can be recovered for a Welsh tradition. Reviewing his reception within both the Welsh and English critical traditions, I show how, on both sides of the border, the immediate political context informs the way critics read him: in Wales, for example, Thomas falls victim to the bitter language divide of the twentieth century, with Anthony Conran effectively excommunicating him from Welsh literary history and accusing him of becoming English. In the English critical tradition, Walter de la Mare, writing in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, reads his poetry as a representation of the rural England for which he supposedly died, an angle that is modified in the years prior to the Second World War in order to encourage military recruitment. In the 1970s, Thomas is appropriated by a group of critics and poets including Philip Larkin and Edna Longley, for whom he is a key figure in their revisionist attempts to re-centre the canon around a native English poetic tradition in opposition to the ‘mainly American’ modernist invader. In these ways, Casanova’s model of the benevolent effects of recognition in the literary centre fails to capture the political complexity of a critic’s position, even in the centre.

My study then shows how the relative size of the London-centred literary establishment (compared to the Welsh) affected the literary choices of writers at the beginning of the twentieth century. This analysis also reveals how the British establishment, concerned that unrest in Ireland did not spread to Wales, was particularly worried about the impact of the Welsh-language radical press. My dissertation argues that debate among Welsh critics at the time has, as its subtext, the battle over where Welsh writing should be positioned in relation to these political issues. Bringing to light this hitherto neglected area, enables me to place Thomas back into the context of an emergent Anglophone Welsh literature.

By re-examining Thomas’s literary journalism, and commissioned books, work which has largely remained out of print since it was written, as well as biographical factors long obscured behind the focus on his death as a British soldier, I am able to show how Casanova’s paradigm, when applied to Thomas, reveals a radically different writer to the one who has been critically received. By applying stage one of her paradigm to Thomas (the littérisation of the folk tradition within an emergent national literary tradition), I am able to show that Thomas’s interest in Welsh folk stories and songs recurs throughout his prose and poetry in a way that suggests a national project. Looking at Thomas through stage four of Casanova’s paradigm (ways in which he assimilates to British literary space yet subverts it from within) enables me to present him as a writer who undermines the Anglo-centrism of British literature, and defies the political establishment’s interference in the literary sphere. He does this in several ways: firstly, by supporting the Irish literary revival, promoting its writers through his journalism, and using its example to urge on the Welsh; secondly, in the way his work imports models from French symbolism, and early modernism; thirdly, his post-Wilde trial defence of gay writers (including Wilde himself, and Edward Carpenter); and finally, in the way that his poetry subverts his inheritance of English Romanticism, a point I argue with the support of Ian Baucom’s theory of post-Wordsworthian English identity.

With the help of Casanova’s theories, albeit modified, Thomas can be reclaimed for an Anglophone Welsh literature. My study has consequences on three levels: at the theoretical level as an investigation into the usefulness of Casanova’s theory of world literature; at the national level, as a study which sheds new light on the relation between Welsh and anglocentric British literary spaces; and at the level of the individual author, in the way it radically re-positions Thomas, the ‘quintessential English poet’, as a pioneering writer in an Anglophone Welsh literature. On all three levels, my findings make more urgent the question that critics such as Ian Baucom have begun to address: of what will a post-imperial, or even a post-British, English identity consist?