Children of the Sun
by Martin Green
Basic Books, 469 pp., $15.00
The subtitle of Martin Green’s book is A Narrative of “Decadence” in England After 1918. (Thanks for the inverted commas.) It is really a curious mixture of anthropological theory and a Baedeker of the main cults or “gangs” that have succeeded one another in English literature for forty years after the national disaster in 1918. And since this is the period when Great Britain ceased to be a world power and when a wealthy, brilliant, and traditional governing class lost its will and its money, and virtually gave up control of English life (and about a third of the earth’s surface), Mr. Green slips in dramatic headlines about the state of society to which literature may be linked.
The subject is well worn: it has been irresistible to simplifiers and theorists; Mr. Green himself is a man who cannot resist a generalization. He is not primarily a literary critic but a cultist and iconographer. For him the question is what cultural clothes the writers of the period were dressed in. Sackcloth and ashes? The glitter of the dandy? The revolutionary denim? The Puritan black? The buccaneering eye patch and gaudy sashes of Pop culture? Or the shabby suit of the likable old humanist who “fatally lacks power, for he is not where the action is in the cultural debate.” The critic must pant after the Zeitgeist.
The novelty of Mr. Green’s situation is that he is a more or less repentant Leavisite of the 1947 vintage who has become fascinated by the display of the dandies and aesthetes who dominated the Twenties and the “naif” dandies of the Thirties who gave up cosmetics for semicommunist sunburn. In his undergraduate years he would have called himself a Roundhead in conflict with Cavaliers. Thirty years later he is wondering whether a touch of the Cavalier might not be “reconciling”; what a critic must go for is power. Now he makes the fashionable appeal to mythology. It is dull to call the dandies of the Twenties Cavaliers; after consulting anthropologists like Bachofen, T. J. Perry, and the cultural diffusionists he sees the dandies of the Twenties and Thirties as the Sonnenkinder, the legendary Children of the Sun, and invokes the heady names of Demeter, Apollo, Adonis, Narcissus, and Dionysus as he studies the careers of the old Etonians and Oxford undergraduates of this theatrical period. One noticed in Mr. Green’s earlier book The von Richthofen Sisters a tendency to pile it on; the detail distracts the argument, for, as usual with schematic writers, the ambiguities and the exceptions proliferate.
It is well known that after the slaughter of the 1914 war the younger generation born after 1900 became rebels against the Victorian patriarchy and family, and declared that responsibility and maturity, as represented by them, were palpable evils. The gifted rebelled and turned to elegance, irresponsibility, and hedonism. Even when they were not as rich or as well born as, say, the Sitwells, the Actons, and their like who …