Hostile Environments, Parties, and Observation in Woolf’s “The Years”

Scarlet Clark, Southampton University

In the latest essay in the #ModernistMoments series, Scarlet Clark examines the role of auto-ethnography in countering hostile nationalist politics and encouraging collective self-scrutiny. Clark discusses Virginia Woolf’s employment of Mass Observationist theories in The Years (1937) as a literary example of such an invocation.

Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937) spans the history of one family while focusing with often minute detail on modern English life. Sharing the same journalistic origins as Three Guineas (1938) and Between the Acts (1941), The Years possesses a clear desire to address the public directly, “with more milk skimmed,”[1] and to encourage collective self-scrutiny.

Writers in the late 1930s were working in an increasingly insular Britain. Oswald Mosley, founder of The British Union of Fascists, had reached the peak of fascist frenzy by 1939, continuing his ultra-nationalistic quest against the backdrop of an array of intolerant immigration legislation. The Aliens Act of 1919, the legislation that governed refugees from Nazism in the 1930s, grew ever more hostile with stricter visa requirements and the increased police monitoring of immigrants and refugees. Woolf’s The Years subsequently bears themes of detachment, weariness, and public duty—all of which we keenly recognise today.

The contemporaneous auto-ethnographic impulse provides a backdrop to Woolf’s urge for national self-scrutiny. The Mass Observationist (MO) movement, a Blackheath group formed in 1936, were responding to a late modernist “desperate need for anthropological study of our own situation”. With a library of around 5,000 press cuttings and 1,730 public reports in a single year, MOs recruited the public to observe and document daily life. At first glance, with their impetus to “collaborate in building museums of sound, smell, food, clothes, domestic objects, advertisements, newspapers,”[2] the MOs appear to fall into Jed Etsy’s description of a stagnant imperial modernity whose “island became one large museum” following the fracturing of the British Empire.[3] Madge’s definition of the movement, however, reveals a search for methodologies which resisted totalisation, being an

instrument for collecting facts, not a means for producing a synthetic philosophy […]. The availability of the facts will […] add to the social consciousness of the time […]. It is one part of a general deflection of emphasis from individual to collective effort.[4]

This instrument’s consciousness-raising approach is in part due to the fear that Nazism, the “force of unreason associated with humanity in the mass […] could overwhelm British people.”[5] Both Woolf and the MOs theorised that the most effective ways to guard against this were reason and self-vigilance. Woolf’s Outsider’s Society methodology in Three Guineas encouraged women (and the general public) to maintain “an attitude of complete indifference […] with a firm rooting upon fact”[6] in order to resist the nation: “a country beyond constitutional definition, whose appeal is overwhelmingly emotional.”[7] When approaching nationalism with reason and collected evidence, women become aware of how “little [they have] to thank England for in the past […] or in the present.”[8]

Leena Kore Schröder makes note of Woolf’s own description of her emotional attachment to England and its later use as self-critical ammunition in Three Guineas. Woolf describes the nostalgic English countryside and its alluring qualities preventing exactness of sound and sense: “the sound seems to fall through an elastic, gummy air; which holds it up; which prevents it from being sharp and distinct […]. The rooks cawing is part of the waves breaking.”[9] The root of this description is a self-critical passage in Three Guineas which outlines the careful mediation of indifference and attachment:

[…] if, when reason has had its say, still some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree, […], this drop of pure, if irrational, emotion she will make serve her to give England first what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world.[10]

In The Years, the doctor character Peggy personifies this late modernist and auto-ethnographic quandary of how one “combines detachment and sympathy” regarding English politics.[11] Peggy is a social eye, constantly watching and collecting microscopic fragments of conversation, though having clear difficulty in “grasping the sense of specific occurrences and gestures empathetically.”[12] Peggy sees everything with “extreme clearness,” is remote from others, often “drawing herself back against walls” and floors to “take notes of what people say”—most of it “nonsense.”[13] Her crippling self-reflexivity, consequent inability to act instinctively, and refusal to be “inside” contribute to her melancholia.

Peggy’s indifferent observations are an antidote for feeling adrift, of needing to “drug [herself] into a state of comparative insensibility” in order to act. Differently to the co-creation of the auto-ethnographers, she prescribes herself the solitary and self-soothing activity of observation, repeating: “take notes and pain goes. Take notes and the pain goes” (323). Woolf here may well be criticising a detached writing ethic which is beneficial to the self, rather than the public.

In Three Guineas, indifference is figured as a relentless utilisation of critical thought that disrupts habitual, national life. Peggy’s role in The Years, seen most clearly in the “Present Day” party section, is to lay the cornerstone for the total defamiliarisation of ingrained English social custom and post-colonial nostalgia.

In Woolf’s late fiction, the Conradian “horror” of the English home is established in drawing rooms or village greens. Her use of the auto-ethnographic becomes useful in dramatising the nation’s failure to re-stage English identity as “autonomous of colonial heritage.”[14] Woolf’s gaze in The Years is truthful when it shows “we know nothing, even about ourselves” (394), and when Peggy’s ethnographic lens goes on to render familiar customs unfamiliar, she shows anthropology to be inoperative.

Peggy’s auto-ethnographic view of the party from the ground is a challenge to the autocracy of aerial narrative perspective. Her documentation unusually renders the private family home a port of imperial trade and knowledge:

[F]rom her seat on the floor she had a queer view of people’s feet; feet pointing this way, feet pointing that way, patent leather pumps; satin slippers; silk stockings and socks. They danced rhythmically, insistently, to the tune of the fox trot. And what about the cocktail and the sea, he said to me, said he to me—and the tune seemed to repeat over and over again. And voices went on over her head. Odd little gusts of inconsecutive conversation reached her […] down in Norfolk where my brother-in-law had a boat […] oh compete washout I agree […] people talking nonsense at parties. (355)

In this passage, Peggy does not privilege one detail over the other. She remains on the floor, widely noting down all information as it “flies over her head”, unable to see from above the partygoers and fragmentary conversations as a meaningful totality. Noticeable in this passage is the total lack of uniformity (even with the insistence of the fox trot), its dynamism and multiplicity. The Years instructs its reader to, like Peggy, “construct meaning based on indeterminacy, multiplicity, and connections, and to face the possibility that there may be no final pattern.”[15]

Peggy’s on the ground, outsider disengagement allows her to scrutinise her own nation’s chronic national decline without emotional attachment or comforting synthesis. However, she feels the allure of British nationalism after she tunes into the sounds of London and the harsh

suggestion they brought in of other worlds, indifferent to this world, of people toiling, grinding, in the heart of darkness, in the depths of night […]. How can one be ‘happy’ […] in a world bursting with misery […] tyranny; brutality; torture; the fall of civilisation; the end of freedom? (358)

Peggy next asks “why do I notice everything?”, before submitting to failure, forcing “her mind to become blank and lie back, and accept quietly, tolerantly, whatever came” (358).

Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII

Peggy’s passivity is interrupted twice, firstly by group laughter over a dream-like, animalistic drawing of Queen Alexandra during a party game. The picture is created collectively, each body part drawn by a different person. The head resembles the Queen’s, but the body is comprised of different animals. Sensing a shared feat of critical, anti-imperial representation, Peggy attempts to impart her vision, asking others to relieve her of the auto-ethnographic duty which leaves her “feeling like a person whose blood had been sucked” (333). Peggy implores her audience to “look here… she began […]. Look here…,” but her vision “hung before her, the thing she had seen, the thing she had not said” (360-61). Soothing her anxieties, Peggy tells herself that at least she’d tried: “her eyes half shut; it seemed to her that she was on a terrace, in the evening; an owl went up and down, up and down; its white wing showed on the dark of the hedge; and she heard country people singing” (361).

Earlier, Peggy’s patience is interrupted when an elderly patient reminisces about the “fine old days” and the English, a “faded snapshot of […] some country mansion” (324). Peggy’s vision at the party dredges up this comforting nostalgic illusion of rural English insularity, of the white, unthinking movement and slumberous vigilance ‘up and down, up and down’ the dark borders, as the comforting substitution for giving up on endeavours to improve social consciousness.  Nevertheless, her narrative sharpens, losing its “gummy” quality as new feet approach her, beginning once more to “note” conversation and positively resolving to try again, to accept her duty towards difference, and deciding that “you have to pick up the pieces, and make something new, something different, she thought, and joined the foreigner” (362).

Just as the mass observationists emphasised the importance of “collective effort” when re-building a self-critical nation in the context of global xenophobia, Woolf makes clear through these public interruptions that Peggy, originally believing her auto-ethnographic duty towards others to be solitary and draining, realises it must include others to be valuable. Despite her exhaustion, Peggy retains her critical eye, but this time admits hope and shared public responsibility.

A December 2021 “Kill the Bill” protest against the PCSA Act (Steve Eason/Creative Commons)

Just as late modernists were responding to their own hostile environments, an overview of Britain’s immigration and asylum bills today paints a similarly bleak picture. For recent Ukrainian refugees, the emergency British visa process was marked by bureaucratic and logistical hostility, while the new Nationality and Borders Bill now possesses the ability to strip British citizenship without notice. Its details of offshore processing and indefinite detention are set to deepen the criminalisation of asylum seekers and immigrants already in the UK. In addition to these xenophobic administrative processes, the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act criminalises the right to protest this oppression.

In the face of such despair, to continue “trying again”, mobilising, and moving towards an anti-fascist Britain feels like an insurmountable task. Virginia Woolf’s Peggy, though feeling this pain and exhaustion, recovers energy in the collective, moving towards the co-creation of a better England. Woolf instructs us to observe what’s happening within, but then to extend our self-observations into active, hopeful directions: picking up the pieces, making something new, and joining the foreigner.


[1] Virginia Woolf, “Saturday 23 November, 1940”, Selected Diaries (London: Vintage, 2008), 495.

[2] Charles Madge, Mass Observation (London: Fredrick Muller, 1937), 35.

[3] Jed Etsy, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 44.

[4] Madge, 47.

[5] James Buzard, “Mass-Observation, Modernism, and Auto-ethnography,” Modernism/modernity 4, no.3 (1997): 108.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (London: Vintage, 2000), 205.

[7] Leena Kore Schröder, “‘A Question is Asked which is Never Answered’: Virginia Woolf, Englishness and Antisemitism”, Woolf Studies Annual, 19 (2003): 33.

[8] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas (London: Vintage, 2001), 206.

[9] Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”, in Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976): 66.

[10]  Woolf, Three Guineas, 207.

[11] John Marx, The Modernist Novel and the Decline of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 60.

[12] Carey Snyder, British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 5.

[13] Virginia Woolf, The Years (London: Vintage Classics, 2016), 323. Subsequent references to this text are in parentheses within the body of the essay.

[14] Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 4.

[15] Jessica Evans (ed.), The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997), 76.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlet Clark is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar working on the Intelligent Oceans Project at Southampton University. Her research is at the intersection of American law and literature, investigating contemporary Southern literature, counter-archives, and petro-colonialism, with a particular juridical focus on legacy litigation. She also writes and publishes on modernism, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and has a forthcoming article out in a special edition of The Faulkner Journal, edited by Ahmed Honeini, this Autumn.  

Philip Johnson: Architecture’s “International Style” and Fascist Nationalism

Bill Freind, Rowan University

The designs of modernist architect Philip Johnson are prominent landmarks in many city skylines. However, Johnson was a Nazi sympathiser, and the development of his architectural style is inseparable from his fascist politics. In the latest of the #ModernistMoments series, Bill Freind examines this political-aesthetic instability in Johnson’s career.

On February 9, 1932 the inauspiciously titled “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” opened at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The show was organized by three men: Alfred H. Barr, the 30 year-old director of MOMA; Henry-Russell Hitchcock, 28 and a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; and Philip Johnson who was 25 and who, although he would become one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, had no formal training in architecture at the time. Hitchcock and Johnson published a book entitled The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 concurrently with the exhibition, although Johnson acknowledged that Hitchcock had written it. Barr lays out the three principles of the style:

 … emphasis upon volume – space enclosed by thin planes or surfaces as opposed to the suggestion of mass and solidity; regularity as opposed to symmetry or kinds of obvious balance; and, lastly, dependence upon the intrinsic elegance of materials, technical perfection, and fine proportions, as opposed to applied ornament.[1]

Le Corbusier’s Villa Besnus, in Vaucresson near Paris (Charles Gerard, 1924)

Intentionally or not, both the exhibition and the book made this architecture both famous and immediately recognizable, laying the groundwork for both the “glass box” skyscraper that would become the default building for global capital and the “midcentury modern” style of houses in the US, despite the fact that Johnson would claim in 1994 that “it seems crystal clear that what Russell wrote was a history of the previous great decade, not a prescription for the next one.”[2] The only explanation for the choice of 1922 as a date comes in a somewhat opaque reference: the style “appeared already plainly by 1922” (49). Hitchcock seems to have in mind works such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Besnus (above right) and Mies Van Der Rohe’s plans for a brick country house (below), which he actually seems to have designed in 1923 or 1924.

Mies Van Der Rohe’s design (Creative Commons)

The book begins in a very strange way: “[s]ince the middle of the eighteenth century there have been recurrent attempts to achieve and to impose a controlling style in architecture such as existed in the earlier epochs of the past.”[3] But who has attempted to “achieve and impose” this “controlling” style? The answer would seem to be time itself: “[t]he nineteenth century failed to create a style of architecture because it was unable to achieve a general discipline of structure and of design in the terms of the day.”[4] By way of contrast, Hitchcock suggests “[t]oday a new single style has come into existence” that “exists throughout the world, is unified and inclusive” and has emerged through “directed evolution.”[5] In other words, the International Style is created by some powerful and unspecified movement of history, which would suggest that to defy it is to defy history itself. The vaguely authoritarian tone of those lines becomes more explicit as the book progresses:

The continued existence of Romantic individualism is not a question of architecture alone. There is a dichotomy of the spirit more profound than any mere style can ever resolve. The case against individualism in architecture lies in the fact that Wright has been almost alone in America in achieving a distinguished architecture; while in Europe, and indeed other parts of the world as well, an increasingly large group of architects work successfully within the discipline of the new style.[6]

This is a truly stunning claim: innovation in the arts comes not from individual creativity but through conformity to a style that, if we are fortunate, somehow emerges from the spirit of the time. Unsurprisingly, this infuriated Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Hitchcock and Johnson had asked to join the exhibition only because he was too prominent to exclude. Wright at first claimed he was withdrawing, then agreed to stay if the museum consented to distribute his essay “Of Thee I Sing.” While Wright’s prose is often unclear or turgid, he clearly recognized a central problem with Hitchcock’s claim:

The community interest in these United States is not communism or communistic as internationalists’ formula for a “style” presents itself. Its language aside, communistic the proposition is. Communistic in communism’s most objectionable phase: the sterility of the individual its end if not its aim [sic] and…in the name of “discipline”![7]

Calling Hitchcock and Johnson “communistic” completely misreads their motivations: while some of the architects in the exhibition, especially Walter Gropius and those affiliated with the Bauhaus, were informed by left-wing politics, Mark Lamster notes the exhibition “all but eliminated any concern for progressive social values”[8] and they placed Gropius and a Bauhaus model in a preliminary gallery. At the same time, Wright was certainly correct that there was a strong authoritarian tendency in Hitchcock and Johnson’s aesthetics, and it’s worth remembering that 1922, the year that marked the beginning of the exhibition, was also the date of Mussolini’s march on Rome, so the emergence of the International Style was matched by the emergence of a hypernationalist, fascist government in Italy. Johnson was less interested in Mussolini than in Hitler, who he first saw in October 1932, eight months after the opening of the exhibition, when he attended a Hitler Youth rally in Potsdam. Johnson said he was caught up in the “febrile excitement” of the rally, and called Hitler a “spellbinder.”[9]

Philip Johnson in 1933 (Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons)

A little more than a year later, in December 1933, Johnson would resign his position at MOMA to create with his friend Alan Blackburn the National Party, an organization that, according to an article in the New York Herald Tribune, was “distinguished from all other political aggregations, juntas, parties or groups, past and present, by a complete lack of a platform.”[10] Despite the sarcastic tone, that was an accurate assessment, as Johnson emphasized action over policy or even thought: “[a]ll you need is faith, courage, and loyalty. If you have them, you’ll get things done…. Beyond that nothing is needed, not even consistency. The only necessary consistency is consistency of feeling.”[11] Although the party lacked a coherent political ideology, it was predicated on an inchoate, irrationalist authoritarianism – which of course is true of many people drawn to fascism. The party’s slogan, “the need is for one party,” was simultaneously vacuous and revealing: as with the Roman fasces that served as the model for fascism, unity is predicated on the both transcendental and largely undefined myth of the nation, and this mystical “need” echoes the authoritarian tendencies in Hitchcock’s celebration of the dominant architectural styles that he and Johnson celebrated.[12]

Searching for a suitable authoritarian, Blackburn and Johnson first decided to offer their services to Huey Long, the populist Senator from Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, Long and his advisors recognized that Johnson and Blackburn were powerless dilletantes and declined their services. (It’s worth noting the irony of Johnson endorsing Long’s Share Our Wealth program, since Johnson’s personal fortune was about half a million dollars at that time.) After Long was assassinated in 1935, the pair turned their attention to Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic and anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest whose radio broadcasts made him one of the most powerful political figures in the US. When Coughlin addressed a crowd of 80,000 at Chicago’s Riverview Park, he did so on a huge platform that Johnson had designed — and that he had modeled after the stand he had seen at Hitler’s 1932 Potsdam rally.

Johnson drifted through a variety of short-lived political allegiances, but his commitment to Nazi Germany never wavered. He met with Nazi officials in New York and Washington D.C., and his biographer Mark Lamster suggests he may have been “exchanging information on the activities, politics, and membership of American fascist circles and discussing the means by which the Germans might disseminate their propaganda.”[13] William Shirer, the American journalist who later wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, suspected Johnson was a Nazi spy, and by September 1940 Johnson was the subject of at least five FBI case files.[14]

While any number of artists in the twentieth century endorsed anti-Semitism and various forms of authoritarian politics, Johnson’s unambiguous support for Nazi Germany is particularly egregious, and yet he never received the attention directed at, for example, Ezra Pound. In part, that was due to Johnson’s talents with spin, hype, and public relations: discussing his racist, fascist past, he offered tepid apologies, deflections, and hand-waving. For instance, he suggested his enthusiasm for National Socialism stemmed from the sight of “all those blond boys in black leather.”[15] His proposal to the Berlin Government to rebuild the area around the Friedrichstrasse is an appallingly masterful demonstration of his ability to downplay his Nazi past: in the first paragraph of his pitch, he glibly asserts “[p]olitics interest me only in so far [sic] as it fosters or impedes the production of architectural beauty. For example, I loathe Hitler but love Friedrich Wilhelm IV: bad client, good client.”[16] I want to emphasise the audacity of that claim: in a proposal to the Berlin government to rebuild a section of the city never fully reconstructed after being bombed in World War II, Johnson simultaneously offers a sly wink and nod to his Nazi past, while absurdly claiming that to him Hitler was merely a “bad client.”

550 Madison Avenue (David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nonetheless, that deflection was successful and Johnson was awarded the contract to build the American Business Center, also known as Philip Johnson Haus, adjacent to the former site of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Perhaps the Berlin government felt that Johnson’s claims weren’t wholly inaccurate: by the late 1970s, Johnson had abandoned the sleek modernism of Mies van der Rohe for a slick postmodernism that glibly appropriated and juxtaposed historically incongruous styles, as demonstrated by his building at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan (right), known first as the AT&T Building and later the Sony Tower.

While that building was widely reviled, it was praised by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, who said it was “more in the spirit of his own work than anything he had seen by an American architect since 1945.”[17] Johnson apparently returned the compliment, since the American Business Center includes a ceiling based on Speer’s design for the Reich Chancellery in 1939 – another sly and appalling reference to his Nazi past. In that gesture, Johnson reduced the atrocities of the Third Reich to little more than decorative touches in a monument to the triumph of global capitalism that is literally situated in the location where both National Socialism and European Communism were defeated.

That’s an important and telling detail. While Johnson’s life and career might seem to be marked by aesthetic and political inconsistency, one thing remains consistent: his desire for a power that can transcend borders to shape, direct, and control the masses. That first emerges in his valorization of a “controlling style” in architecture and is made more explicit in his full-throated support for National Socialism. When those were exhausted or defeated, Johnson refashioned himself as, in his words, “a whore” who is “paid very well for building high-rise buildings.”[18] Johnson’s authoritarianism merely shifted to unquestioning support for global capitalism.


[1] Hitchcock, Henry-Russell and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (New York: Norton, 1966) 29.

[2] Hitchcock, 16.

[3] Hitchcock, 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hitchcock, 35-36.

[6] Hitchcock, 43.

[7] Wright, Frank Lloyd, “Of Thee I Sing” in The Collected Writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Volume 3 (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993) 114, ellipsis in original.

[8] Lamster, Mark, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018) 103.

[9] Lamster, 114.

[10] “Two Quit Modern Art Museum for Sur-Realist Political Venture,” New York Herald Tribune, December 18, 1934, 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Johnson and Blackburn were drawn to the writings of Lawrence Dennis, who, although largely forgotten now, was perhaps the most prominent voice of American fascism. A former child preacher who had subsequently attended Exeter and Harvard, Dennis was also a Black man who was passing as White.          

[13] Lamster, 165.

[14] Lamster, 182.

[15] Schulze, Franz, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 110. 

[16] Johnson, Philip, “Berlin Alternative” in Philip Johnson: Recent Work (London: Academy Editions, 1996) 43.

[17] Lamster, 366.

[18] The Charlottesville Tapes, commentary by Jacquelin Robertson (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1982) 19.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Freind is Professor in the Department of English at Rowan University. He is the author of American Field Couches (BlazeVox Books, 2008) and the editor of the collection Chrysanthemums and Scuba Divers: The Writings of Araki Yasusada (Shearsman Books, 2011). He has published articles in Poetics Today, the Journal of Modern Literature, Paideuma and other journals. He is at work on a manuscript entitled Advertising the Avant-Garde: Mass Communication and Innovative Art.