REVIEW: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M Forster--and a Magical Year

The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the Year That Changed Literature

By Bill Goldstein

Henry Holt, 368 pp.

By Robert Allen Papinchak

Bill Goldstein’s The World Broke In Two is an indispensable guide to four legendary writers who were largely responsible for the creation of modern literature.  What could have been a musty, fusty, dusty academic tome is, instead, an easily accessible encomium to a group of artists who did as much as any to shape 20th century fiction and poetry.  Goldstein illuminates their personal crises, their professional failures, and finally their successes.

Goldstein, the founding editor of the New York Times books website and a contributor to NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, presents these illuminating portraits with some masterly craftsmanship of his own.  He seamlessly incorporates quotes from diaries, letters, and journals that enlighten the history, the biography, and the literature that enveloped Woolf, Eliot, Lawrence, and Forster – just as they were on the brink of exploding into genius. 

The year that changed literature, to which the book’s title refers, is 1922.  That was before Mrs. Dalloway, before The Waste Land, before Lady Chatterley’s Lover, before A Passage to India.  But it was after the aftermath of World War I, and after the consequences of the influenza epidemic of 1921 that affected all four writers.  Goldstein identifies all of them as being in “deep despair,” labeling them “adrift” and “painfully conscious of past and pending failures.”

Each of the four suffered from a longing for a creative leap of faith.  They were seeking a new “form, style, and subject.”  And it was all very much tied to the peculiar historical moment that 1922 represented.  The techniques the writers were experimenting with, Goldstein relates, were “an attempt to make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now, and between the artists they had been then and the pioneers they were becoming.” Each was searching for “a new landscape of the mind.”

As Woolf was nearing the age of 40, she battled a strenuous bout of influenza, along with concerns about not being able to write.  She was “preoccupied not only by illness, but by a persistent sense of having failed to write a novel that commanded the precise quality of literary esteem she aspired to.” During a burgeoning friendship with Eliot, she corresponded with Forster, telling him that “[w]riting is like heaving bricks over a wall.”

Eliot was fighting his own demons.  He was wrestling with shaping a “hoard of fragments” into what would become The Waste Land, inarguably the most influential poem of the 20th century.  Ezra Pound wanted to help form those fragments into something “austere, direct, [and] free from emotional slither.” Goldstein traces the protracted negotiations that finally resulted in the publication of the poem.  He also delineates the personal pressures that Eliot endured—a miserable marriage, a mental breakdown which sent him to Switzerland to deal with the “kink in his brain” that was diagnosed as psychological not neurological.

Like Woolf and Eliot, Forster was also desolate.  His personal life was overwhelmed by an unrequited passion for a roommate at Cambridge.  For years, he lugged around the incomplete manuscript of what would become A Passage to India.  In the meantime, he led a “’double life,’” churning out unpublished gay erotica.  In India, he labored under a life of “lonely ineffectualness.” In England, he endured a life “amid a ‘haze of elderly ladies,’” including his mother.

If Forster, like one of his characters, “’seemed fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it,’” it was just the opposite for Lawrence.  Since he “did not like the world of people as he found it,” he “preferred to immerse himself in nature or in worlds of his own creation.” His restlessness had him constantly searching for “mental peace.” As he chased his “destiny” along with his wife, Frieda, he became a nomad in a “bid for happiness.”  The longest (two years) he would live anywhere was in Taormina, Sicily.  But he had “no mental peace.” He was “a traveler between destinations, an artist between forms.” Even his sojourn in Taos, New Mexico, proved unsuccessful.  As a child he had asked, “’What do you think life is?’” As an adult, he continued to ask, “’where was life to be found?’” As a writer, he was still wondering where was the “new form of art that would arise from it, to be found?”

Once Goldstein establishes the chief biographical elements of each of the four writers, he devotes the remainder of The World Broke in Two to detailing the shifts and accommodations each had to make to their lives and their work.  He also clearly shows how Woolf, Eliot, Lawrence, and Forster benefited from the influence and inspiration of other major writers in their circle, most notably James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Ezra Pound.   

Joyce’s Ulysses was the monolith that cast a shadow over all that followed it.  For Woolf, it “destroyed the whole of the 19th century.” From it she learned “how to create character in fiction,” by a technique she called “tunneling,” which created “a new method of giving psychology” to human nature.  It showed that “stories must be drawn together into a story.”  

Proust’s Swann’s Way taught Forster the “uses of the past.” Pound helped to shape Eliot’s lines into a “melancholy autobiography.” From Joyce, Lawrence learned how to deal with obscenity trials and legal difficulties that plagued the publication of nearly all of his novels.

At the end, The World Broke in Two is invaluable.  It does what any good book about literature should do. It provides context to writers.  It sends readers to read books they have never read before.  And it reminds them of the joys of re-reading ones they have, and rediscovering the thrills of the fiction and the poetry once appreciated but now forgotten.

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed a range of fiction in various newspapers, magazines, and journals including the Seattle Times, the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, People, the Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books.  He is a judge for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife creative writing contest.  His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he has contributed several biographical critical essays to Scribners’s Edgar award-winning Mystery and Suspense Writers.  And he has published Sherwood Anderson:  A Study of the Short Fiction.