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Resisting Tyranny, Resisting Stasis: British Modernism, the Artist-Critic, and the Function of Criticism, 1895-1940 Open Access

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This dissertation assesses the aesthetic, political, and ideological interventions in the critical nonfiction by British Modernist writers between the years of 1895 and 1940. This project contextualizes these artist-critics against major historical events in order to demonstrate that criticism issues a necessary challenge to reductive and restrictive regimes of ideological and aesthetic thought. Moreover, this project demonstrates that, firstly, criticism should be esteemed as a creative form and, secondly, that the nonfiction of Modernist writers deserves the same scrutiny as their fiction, drama, and poetry.The introduction critiques contemporary critical methods like symptomatic reading and surface reading, while offering the methodology of artist-critics as a necessary complement to academic writing. The first chapter examines Oscar Wilde’s testimony in his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry, Regina v. John Douglas; I argue that Wilde’s testimony employs aesthetic principles to reveal the inconsistencies inherent in the authority of the state. The second chapter analyzes Rebecca West’s journalism and book reviews against the backdrop of the First World War, contending that West’s feminist writings produce a counter-history that complicates academic discussions of Britain’s Great War literature. The third chapter seeks to reclaim literary biography as a genre of critical writing, by reading Virginia Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography as an extended argument for the task of the critic and the function of criticism. The conclusion, by reading Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scottish nationalism against the events of the June 2016 “Brexit” vote, demonstrates the continued valences of artist-critics’ work beyond their own historical periods.

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