The year 1922 has been known as the annus mirabilis (“miracle year”) of Anglo-American literary modernism, chiefly because of the near-simultaneous publication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. The distinctive historical character of 1922 remains an ongoing concern: the year was at once a time of traumatic memory of World War I and a moment of renewed ambition for the radical experiments of modernism. During the war, Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf had enjoyed an unusual opportunity to revise and extend their aesthetic ambitions. Each of their works registers the more defiant provocation of postwar literature, but each confronts the powerful resistance of cultural and political authorities who saw the efforts, especially of Eliot and Joyce, as both meaningless and dangerous. The postwar period also saw the rapid expansion of new technologies (especially in transport and telecommunications) and a consumer society keen to enjoy the availability of freshly circulating material goods. D. H. Lawrence described the end of war as both a relief and a menace. This double valence captures the contrast between searing memories of battlefield death and anticipation of pleasure and plenitude in the Jazz Age. The central figures in this entry are at once newly confident in the adversarial mission of modernism and fully aware of the social complacency and cultural conservatism arrayed against them. The immediate felt disturbance of these works came through their formal challenge, in particular through the intersecting uses of many-voiced and multi-perspectival montage, an assemblage of fragmentary views, and a diversity of speaking tones. This conspicuous technique appears in closely related terms within the early films of Dziga Vertov and the postwar philosophy of logical atoms developed by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the formal inventiveness exhibited during the year is no more prominent than the social concern. Especially as in 21st century, historical studies of the period have recovered the depth of interest in questions of race, empire, sexual debility, and social failure.
Prose is a fabrication, not a linguistic axiom. It has a complex history well before its intricate literary genealogy. Made, not given, prose comes down to modern use with the form, formally determined, of a world-historical invention. As culturally significant in its evolutionary advent as in its ramified means of reporting event, prose thus bears with it a biography as telling as the fictional narratives it eventually serves to recount. Born of empiricism and print culture, prose is neither neutered poetry nor transcribed speech. Only its immediate ancestry is oratorical. Nonetheless, when “modern prose” is launched by leaving embellished declamatory models behind for the reign, first of epistemological lucidity, later of verisimilitude in narrative fiction, the oral is not thereby cancelled entirely. For prose, not unlike poetry, makes—and shapes—its way by incorporating the subvocal underlay of alphabetic (hence phonemic) language into the rhythms of its evoked readerly enunciation. It is in this fashion, by tapping its own linguistic platform or substrate, that prose comes to seem, more than otherwise, a medium rather than just one among several contested rhetorical means. Long after the modified or overthrown “plain style” taken up by early fiction like that of Daniel Defoe or Jonathan Swift, prose’s developing tendency to recover language’s silent phonetic resonance anticipates, in turn, one major Victorian inheritance from the complexities of Romantic verse sonority: a legacy that renders, ever afterward, the idea of “prose poetics” anything but an oxymoron. Here, too, is where the idea of “style” persists as an ongoing flashpoint for literary response. From Charles Dickens and Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad, for instance, we hear the potential sounding of theme in the depth charges of fictional prose. At the same time, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, we can track an alternate mode of deflected orality in the “free indirect discourse” of surfaced inner speech—not overheard talk, these elicited mental monologues, but their own kind of artificial and subliminal eavesdropping—as they channel the cadences of represented psychology. Channel: in precisely that sense of a medium by which prose can best be understood and studied, both in the ecology of modern literary communication and in its reframing by media theory.