Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jane C. Marcus

Subject Categories

American Literature | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America | Peace and Conflict Studies


modernism, pacifism, relief work, Spanish Civil War, total war, Virginia Woolf


"Modernism's Impossible Witness: Peace Testimonies from the Modernist Wars" begins the process of recuperating the lost history of Spanish Civil War pacifism. It studies the ways in which writers and artists employ the aesthetic techniques of modernism, so often ensconced in violence and militarism, to articulate a program of peace. By approaching the Spanish Civil War as a pivotal site of production and inspiration for an international network of writers and artists, this project reworks what is generally accepted as the very center of modernism. "Modernism's Impossible Witness" explores the connections among art, violence, war, and peace in the twentieth century. It introduces a pacifist worldview to the discussions of the field and opens a transatlantic discussion between Britain, Spain, and the United States. The inclusion of Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) pacifism in modernist studies forges a historical constellation, staging an intervention in the dominant narrative of the employment of total war: that the only way to respond is militaristically. "Modernism's Impossible Witness" unfolds an alternative possibility and conducts an analysis of pacifists who responded actively against the war in Spain.

Through case studies including, but not limited to, Muriel Rukeyser's poetry and reportage, Gerda Taro's and Dora Maar's photography, Virginia Woolf's writings, Langston Hughes's and Louis Delaprée's war correspondence, Pablo Picasso's paintings, and British Quaker relief work, this project explores how Spain became an international cause around which modernists rallied and position the activist networks as part of a transnational political and aesthetic movement deeply affected by the war in Spain. This project works through the ethical paradox that the development of total war, marked by the wide-scale aerial bombardment of civilian populations in 1930's Spain, presented to the modernist community: some felt that military intervention was the only way to stop the civilian deaths, while others felt that the horror of total war reinforced the ethical necessity of an absolutist pacifist stance and found alternative, non-military ways of taking action.

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