20th century English literature
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
English language literature since 1900
The most widely popular writer of the early years of the 20th century was arguably Rudyard Kipling, a highly versatile writer of novels, short stories and poems, often based on his experiences in British India. Kipling was closely associated with imperialism and this has damaged his reputation in more recent times.
From around 1910, the Modernist Movement began to influence English literature. Whereas their Victorian predecessors had usually been happy to cater to mainstream middle-class taste, 20th century writers often felt alienated from it, and responded by writing more intellectually challenging works or by pushing the boundaries of acceptable content.
Joyce's increasingly complex works included Ulysses, an interpretation of the Odyssey set in Dublin, and culminated in the famously obscure Finnegans Wake. Lawrence wrote with understanding about the social life of the lower and middle classes, and the personal life of those who could not adapt to the social norms of his time. He attempted to explore human emotions more deeply than his contemporaries and challenged the boundaries of the acceptable treatment of sexual issues in works such as Lady Chatterley's Lover. Virginia Woolf was an influential feminist, and a major stylistic innovator associated with the stream-of-consciousness technique. Her novels included To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, and The Waves.
Novelists who wrote in a more traditional style, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett continued to receive great acclaim in the interwar period. At the same time the Georgian poets maintained a more conservative approach to poetry.
One of the most significant English writers of this period was George Orwell. An acclaimed essayist and novelist, Orwell's works are considered among the most important social and political commentaries of the 20th century. Dealing with issues such as poverty in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four and colonialism in Burmese Days. Orwell's works were often semi-autobiographical and in the case of Homage to Catalonia, wholly autobiographical.
The leading poets of the middle and later 20th century included the traditionalist John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and the Northern Irish Catholic Seamus Heaney, who lived in the Republic of Ireland for much of his later life.
Major novelists of the middle and later 20th century included the satirist Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, Anthony Powell, William Golding, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch.
In drama, the drawing room plays of the post war period were challenged in the 1950s by the Angry Young Men, exemplified by as John Osborne's iconic play Look Back in Anger. Also in the 1950s, the bleak absurdist play Waiting for Godot, by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett profoundly affected British drama. The theatre of the absurd influenced playwrights of the later decades of the 20th century, including Harold Pinter, whose works are often characterized by menace or claustrophobia, and Tom Stoppard. Stoppard's works are however also notable for their high-spirited wit and the great range of intellectual issues which he tackles in different plays.