At Midcentury: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day

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If underestimation of the midcentury persists in twentieth century literary scholarship, then that underestimation has been licensed in part by the powerful hold of modernism and postmodernism as heuristic and period frames for the century’s writing. A powerful hold, but not an intractable one. As the archive of Modernism/modernity alone now evidences, modernist scholarship of the past two decades has reassessed just what modernism was, just when modernism happened, and just how modernism worked (what institutions, technologies, and networks facilitated it). In literary criticism, the important project of overhauling received notions of modernism now underwrites a discourse of what I call “modified modernisms,” in which temporal modifiers such as “late,” “midcentury,” the capacious “new,” and, most recently, the prefix “inter-” extend modernism’s heuristic and historical reach. This modernist creep forward into and beyond World War II attests to how the assumptions and priorities of modernism still structure our thinking about the immediate postwar period. For reading the midcentury, the limitation of the modified modernisms is that this central period remains valued, if at all, primarily for its extensions of or elegies for modernism.


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