BA English Literature with Creative Writing / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Radical Turns: Culture and Politics in the 1930s

Course unit fact file
Unit code ENGL31141
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course analyses the ‘radical turn’ of culture in Britain during the 1930s.  Casting a critical eye over dominant constructions of the ‘red decade’, it explores the often conflicted ways in which writers and other cultural intellectuals responded to economic crisis (the great slump) and political polarization (the spread of fascism and communism).   It maps the international political context and analyzes texts produced in response to the decade’s tumultuous events.  It identifies central cultural institutions, such as Mass Observation and the General Post Office Film Unit, assessing their objectives and the texts they produced.  Drawing on the University’s Special Collections and other local resources, the module works closely with some of the decade’s most influential ‘little magazines’, thinking about the content, formats and communities of readers assumed by publications such as Left Review and New Writing.  The core of the module comprises the close-reading of texts from a wide range of cultural forms including historical fiction (Lewis Jones, Sylvia Townsend Warner), anti-fascist dystopian fiction (Katharine Burdekin), politically engaged poetry (W.H. Auden, John Cornford, Cecil Day Lewis), documentary writing, film-making and performance (George Orwell, GPO films, ‘living newspapers’) and autobiographical prose and poetry (Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice).  


' To analyse 'the radical turn' in British culture in the 1930s and the debates it has provoked;
- to work with historicist methodologies to shed light on the period's cultural production;
- to introduce level 3 students to the academic study of cultural institutions and little magazines;
- to produce critical dialogue across media and genres in the light of an overarching contextual framework;
- to close read cultural material in ways sensitive to its medium, multiple contexts and formal properties.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students should be able to:

- describe and engage critically with dominant constructions of the 1930s;
- summarise formative international political events from the period;
- gloss key political terms (e.g. 'fascism', 'capitalism', 'patriarchy', 'communism', 'liberalism', 'socialism', 'popular front');
- explain, with reference to secondary literature, what is meant by an 'institution' and 'little magazine' in literary / cultural studies;
- list central cultural institutions and little magazines of the period, identifying their alignments, objectives and contradictions;
- plot key patterns in the culture of the period, such as the turn to 'documentary' or 'autobiographical' modes;
- make informed comparisons between texts produced across different media;
- apply and refine theoretical methodologies learnt at levels 1 and 2 through analysis of the culture of a particular moment;
- integrate contextual understanding and close analysis of individual texts in verbal contributions and academic essays;
- search online databases and external library catalogues for periodical holdings and primary archive material;
- access and work with this material physically and online;
- demonstrate skill in the close reading of cultural material;
- competently and confidently present, both verbally and in writing, the analysis produced through this close reading;
- handle arguments, supporting and clearly explaining these through illustration and the analysis of evidence;
- manage time and meet deadlines.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication
Students on this unit will develop their ability to write in a way that is lucid, precise and compelling.

Assessment methods

 close reading essay 40%
essay 60%


Recommended reading

Dot Allan, Makeshift and Hunger March (1934; Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2010)

Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night (1937; New York: Feminist Press, 1985)

Christopher Isherwood, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935; London: Vintage, 2001)

Lewis Jones, Cwmardy (1937, Cardigan: Library of Wales, 2015)

Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal (1939; London: Faber & Faber, 2013)

Mass Observation, Britain (1939; London: Faber & Faber, 2009)

Robin Skelton (ed), Thirties Poetry (London: Penguin, 2000)

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937; London: Penguin, 2001) 

Study hours

Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ben Harker Unit coordinator

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