'The World Broke in Two': How 1922 Shaped Four of the World's Best Known Authors

Dec 11, 2017

When we study classic literature in school, it’s generally the literature itself that we study and not what was happening in the lives of the authors who wrote the books.

However, a recent book drills down very deeply into what was going on in the lives of four major writers - Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster - for whom one year was immensely important.

"I was trying to approach these writers as they were in 1922...because they seemed particularly vulnerable to themselves and to what their reputations were, what they hoped their reputations would be, their sense of failure," explains writer Bill Goldstein.

Although these authors are easily identified in the canon of literature, Goldstein suggests it is a completely new experience to look at them in a moment when they could not see the work ahead of them. His recent book, The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, makes the argument that 1922 did nothing less than change the course of literature.

Goldstein writes that the 1922 in which all four authors lived was a world dealing with the aftermath of World War I.  As writers, they were also shaken by the publication of two major works - James Joyce's Ulysses and Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

"(Ulysses) was a fearsome specter for every writer - it still is," says Goldstein. "So here was Joyce with this notorious book...and there is not only the shadow of his fame over all these people, but the sheer accomplishment that a certain kind of storytelling was no longer possible in the wake of Ulysses."

Goldstein says Virginia Woolf described Joyce's work was "raw" and "unfinished," finding the reading incredibly challenging.  She would begin to write Mrs. Dalloway in 1922, but before that major work was published, Woolf didn't feel she was a settled and accomplished writer at 40 and hadn't created the modern work she had wished to do.

"Any time (Woolf) was sick, she was afraid that it would open what she called the 'dark cupboard' of illness because she also had mental illness and it was never clear what these things would cascade into," notes Goldstein.

He also gives the example of T.S. Eliot, who had a nervous breakdown in 1921 before he would go on to publish The Waste Land,  saying, "I do not know whether it will work."

E.M. Forester began to begrudgingly work on A Passage to India in 1922 after a long hiatus, but it would not be published until 1924. Goldstein hopes that by showing how these authors got into their works, readers can approach them with a little less intimidation and more understanding.

"What I thought I could try to do is make these works more accessible that you wouldn't have had to read them in order to read this," he explains. "So if we could go along with the writers into the works, that we could then find our ways into the works because that's what they're doing."

Goldstein says that all four authors discovered their voices in 1922, "when the world broke in two:"

"What they want to do against their own expectations is to synthesize all of this," says Goldstein. "What I discovered in writing this book is that writers are doing so much that they don't understand and that it takes a very long time to see what the shape of the narrative was."