Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the old image of modernism as uniformly hostile to mass culture has increasingly been eroded. But while critics have enthusiastically delineated the avant-garde’s co-option of dance-crazes, ad-layouts or café-culture, they have tended to follow Andreas Huyssen’s distinction between this socially engaged historical avant-garde and a paradigm of high modernism, autonomous and aloof, whose mission it was to salvage the purity of high art from the encroachment of mass culture. Such theoretical clarity is achieved at the expense of historical nuance; recent studies focussing on Eliot’s interest in music hall and jazz, on Pound’s receptiveness to the public theatricals of Futurism, or on popular reaction to Wyndham Lewis’s paintings in the Cabaret Theatre Club, have strongly challenged those monolithic formulations of high modernism and mass culture. My study of the crowd in modernist writing (which is also a study of modernism in the crowd) follows on from this work in an attempt to complicate and enrich our understanding of the intercourse between modernist art and mass life.

The age we are about to enter will in truth be the era of crowds,1 predicted Gustave Le Bon, in 1895. In many ways, the totalising formula instituted by Le Bon came to occupy the same space as recent critical formulations of mass culture. But crowd is the version that Pound, Lewis, and their contemporaries would recognise; they grew up with crowd theory accounts of advertising and the influence of the press, in a political culture that was very much concerned with crowd control. Psychological models of consciousness, so important to the period’s experimental prose, admitted crowd theorists’ ideas about group minds; foremost among the imported prototypes for London’s emerging poetic avant-garde was Jules Romains’ cult of the unanime, the city’s crowd soul.

Responding enthusiastically in the 1930s to the rise of governments that sought to master crowds and mobilise populations for totalitarian ends, Pound and Lewis represent particularly complex cases of Modernist approaches to the Crowd. Both, in different ways, were working with ideas of Crowd culture early in their careers: Lewis fostered his crowd book (printed in its entirety in my appendix) for over 20 years; Pound’s career as an Imagist was launched on the back of a crowd poem, and his angle on the widely-discussed pre-war question of how art could express the new mass culture would be essential to the development of his mature aesthetic.

I show how their crowd-rhetoric evolved, mirroring historical developments in the political sphere; how political concerns with crowds became transformed as they were translated into aesthetic form; and how, as particular visions of crowd-being faded from the political scene, the crowd, too, faded from the focus of literary modernism.

The texts treated in this thesis signal key moments in the formation of an avant-garde in pre-war London, that avant-garde’s maturity and arguable triumph, and it’s eventual dissolution in the complicated political climate of the 1930s. With the exception of The Waste Land, they are fragmentary, unfinished works or dead-ends which nevertheless, I argue, are key to their writers’ careers. The crowd, in different ways, can be seen as central to each of them.

The disparate body of tentatively experimental writings which Pound and Lewis, competing rabble-rousers of the art world, tried to form into one mental unity, draw on Edwardian concerns about the crowd’s dangerous power. But the optimistic engagement with crowds in pre-war London never achieved coherence; when a Modernist canon began to emerge, circa 1922, the vital crowds that had energized the earlier writings were dead in a war. Interred in The Waste Land, enlisted in Ulysses’s monumental act of remembrance, or repressed beneath Mrs Dalloway’s trip to the florists, they would return in the 1930s to haunt the later writings of Pound and Lewis: the road not taken. The latter two chapters of this thesis constitute an attempt to exhume these crowds and ascertain the causes and consequences of their obscure disappearance.

Chapter 1 looks at Pound’s Lustra; it details the raft of continental and American ideas about crowds and crowd-writing (Le Bon; Jules Romains’ unanimiste response; Vachel Lindsay’s demotic futurism) which elicited excited responses in the journals and magazines of early twentieth-century London.

Chapter 2 focuses on Lewis’s Crowd Master texts (his Blast story, The Crowd Master, and related manuscript materials, as well as the revised version that eventually appeared in his autobiography) and his writings on giants, which figure the social body as a leviathan-like whole.

Chapter 3 is examines the impact of the war, and the crowd as a haunting presence in Lewis’s work of the 1920s. I show how Lewis engages with a contemporary London where ideas about the death of the crowd had taken on an immediate cultural urgency. I argue that Lewis’s crowd-texts can be seen as an example of a literature which imagined it could represent itself as a science. I explore the origins of vorticism, and then returns to Lewis’s pre-war crowd texts, reworked for the post-war in an attempt to find out what had become of the crowd.

My conclusion speculates on the fate and future—if any—of crowd writing.

My appendix presents a text of Wyndham Lewis’s unpublished Cantelman: Crowd Master, which is discussed in chapters 2 and 3, prepared from the manuscripts in Cornell University Library.

  1. Gustave Le Bon, Psychologie des foules, trans. (unaccredited) as The Crowd: A study of the popular mind (1896; reprint, Atlanta: Cherokee, 1982), xv.