The work of Wyndham Lewis would seem, on the face of it, an unlikely place to begin a critical discussion of late modernism. Lewis was, after all, a key player in the small but noisy pre-World War I British avant-garde. Already by the outbreak of the war, he had gained notoriety as the foremost representative of extreme modernism in painting and as the volcanic impulse behind the journal Blast (1914-1915). And while known at that time primarily as a visual artist, he had also published stories and sketches, eventually reprinted in The Wild Body (1927). His expressionistic play, Enemy of the Stars , featured violent action and screaming typography that fought for the spotlight with the manifestos in the first issue of Blast . This latter "drama," with its minimal plot, extraordinary science fiction-like setting, and extremities of language, probably represented the farthest frontier of experimental writing on the British scene until ,the publication of Woolf's The Waves and Joyce's Finnegans Wake many years later. Still finding few parallels in British or American writing, Enemy of the Stars stands more comfortably among the works of the early European avant-gardes, with the spectacles of Russian and Italian futufism or the violently contorted stage events of expressionism and dadaism.
Yet Lewis, as I have already noted, was interrupted in his role as leader of the British avant-garde. He went off to war in the uniform of an artillery officer; and he came back, as he regularly insisted throughout his later career, erased : "a man of the tabula rasa," as he would later
describe himself to Julian Symons. The Great War imposed a division in his life and career, as deep and impassable as an intricate trench system. This hellish catastrophe was "more than war," Lewis would remark late in his life. "It put up a partition in one's mind; it blocked off the past literally as if a huge wall had been set up there." Lewis's enormous energies were never stymied for long, however, and he began over, intensively remaking himself as the artistic lone gun, the aggressive polemicist-critic, the political enemy.
The specific forms his self-reinvention took are crucial to my account, as indices of broader shifts and ruptures within the cultural formation we have come to call modernism. Two additional reasons, however, contribute to the central role that I give Lewis in this study of late modernism. First was his torrential productivity. By 1937, according to his own account, Lewis had written twenty-four books, many of considerable scale: novels, works of criticism, polemics, political tracts, short story collections. Along with this literary production, he managed to sustain a respectable, if financially and politically hampered, career as a painter as well. The sheer volume of his production in so many areas, then, allows me not just to read "symptomatically" a few literary works for their tensions with the prestigious exemplars of modernism, an approach I necessarily take to the writings of Djuna Barnes and Samuel Beckett in the chapters that follow. Lewis's comprehensive writing practice embraces several registers and rhetorics, from publicistic harangues and popular journalism to highly erudite discussions of literature, art, and philosophy. The broadest reach of Lewis's written output creates, of itself, a significant context for understanding the more circumscribed field of "literary" (or as he put it, "formal") writings—works in which Lewis's polemic against modernism remains more tacit, expressed primarily through his handling of narrative voice, stylistic parody, and formal manipulation. Lewis devotes so many pages of his "informal" writ-ing—pamphlets, articles, polemics, literary criticism, philosophical reflections, political commentary letters to editors, private correspondence—to cultural, political, and autobiographical justification of his literary practice that the task of the- critic becomes somewhat different than when confronting more taciturn writers like Barnes and Beckett. In Lewis's case, the critic is compelled to sift through and collate materials across the different genres and domains that engaged Lewis's energies as a writer, in order that a coherent picture of his trouble with modernism might eventually emerge.
I also give Lewis pride of place because of a peculiarity of his career, which allows us to measure with a certain precision the difference between his early and later contexts as they affected the social meaning of his writings. In a span of a few years, Lewis republished almost everything he had written before or during the war, much of it in substantially revised form. His reinvention of himself entailed a kind of repetition of his literary beginnings. But it was a repetition with a difference, a second beginning in a new political and cultural environment. In considering Lewis's acts of revision, critics have often evaluated the stylistic shifts that distinguish the earlier and later versions of the Wild Body short stories, the novel Tarr , and the vorticist drama Enemy of the Stars . I am not concerned here, however, with the question of which version is better. I seek to delineate the new discursive and practical contexts in which the works reappear, new contexts that are at least partially shaped by contemporaneous works Lewis was newly publishing alongside the republished early works. Lewis's early work, I suggest, took shape within the framework of avant-garde groupings and concerns. The republished work, in contrast, appears within the expanded framework of Lewis's intellectual activity after 1926, activity increasingly bound up with a logic of publicity, ideological conflict, and struggle over canonizing authority in literary criticism.