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Global Forms: Allegory, Collage, and Virginia Woolf’s American Utopia

Allégorie, collage et formes mondiales : l’utopie américaine de Virginia Woolf
Caroline Pollentier


Dans son essai intitulé « America, Which I Have Have Never Seen » (1938), Virginia Woolf représente une Amérique utopique, à travers la fiction d’une communauté mondiale se faisant le creuset culturel de plusieurs nations. À l’encontre d’un certain nombre de discours utopiques et dystopiques de son temps, la métafiction parodique conçue par Woolf débute par un processus paradigmatique d’allégorisation, substituant l’Amérique au « monde cosmopolite d’aujourd’hui » ; s’ensuit une juxtaposition métonymique de fragments, orientée vers la « combinaison et collaboration de toutes les cultures ». À une période où le projet intergouvernemental de la Société des Nations faisait désormais figure d’utopie ratée, Woolf conçoit ainsi la possibilité d’un contact interculturel au sein d’une politique esthétique ouverte, fondée sur la capacité de repenser le présent historique à travers des formes mondiales. En réinscrivant cette mondialisation utopique dans une pensée de la « forme spatiale », pour reprendre l’expression de Joseph Frank, cette microlecture vise à saisir la réciprocité de l’allégorie et du collage, et démontre qu’ils participent tous deux, entre indécidabilité et syncrétisme, d’une résistance à la totalité, non géographique mais herméneutique.

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1In ‘America Becomes Nation Number One’, a 1938 article published in the American magazine Cosmopolitan, the English novelist and social commentator J. B. Priestley presented globalisation as the Americanisation of the world: ‘We are all being Americanized. What you do today, the rest of us will do tomorrow’ (Priestley 1938, 38). Positioning himself as an English outsider and a guardian of Western high culture, Priestley did not so much condemn cross-cultural homogeneity in itself, as warn his American readership against a global cultural decline. Drawing an essentialist contrast between ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’, he ultimately called for an enhancement of cultural standards: ‘There is plenty of life here, but now there must be better life’ (39).

2Priestley’s cultural anxieties about America indirectly offered a corrective response to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘America Which I Have Never Seen’, published in the same venue four months earlier, in April 1938. Unlike Priestley’s account of a uniform Americanised world threatening the survival of culture, Woolf precisely represented America as ‘better life’, in the shape of a global communal space condensing the cultures of several nations. Her overtly fictional mock-utopia, which Genevieve Abravanel has persuasively identified as an ‘Ameritopia’ in Americanizing Britain, The Rise of Modernism in the Age of the Entertainment Empire (24–52), was originally written as an answer to the editor’s question, reprinted at the beginning of the piece: ‘What interests you most in this cosmopolitan world of today?’ (Woolf 1938a, 128). The editor herself had privately suggested that Woolf write on America: ‘In view of the fact that you have never been here, you must have formed many impressions, some of them right and some of them not right, that would be of great interest to your large and appreciative public’ (Watkins). Pushing factual deficiency to fictional extremes, Woolf turned the editorial proposition into a utopian protocol, playfully exhibited as such in a metafictional parody of the ideal no-place. Her American construct was all the more self-consciously fabricated as, at the time of its writing in August 1937, she was also envisioning a very different ‘pale disillusioned world’ (Woolf 1985, 101), after she learnt of Julian Bell’s death in the Spanish Civil War at the end of June 1937. The historical facts that do not surface in Woolf’s essay—and which were indeed glossed over, as shall be seen by considering the manuscript version—only highlight her decision to think about the global in fictional form.

  • 1 Insofar as my analysis relates a formal emphasis on space, as initially theorised by Frank, to mate (...)

3Taking fictional disengagement as a central premise of this formal experiment, I suggest Woolf’s syncretic global imagination may be understood through her strategic recourse to allegory and collage. Woolf’s global America emerges through an allegorical process of substitution—the paradigmatic substituting of America for the ‘cosmopolitan world of today’ (Woolf 138, 128)—, which gives way to a metonymic dynamics of juxtaposition, leading to the ‘combination and collaboration of all cultures’ (131). By asserting the utopian potential of allegorical collage against any content-based utopian programmes, Woolf negotiates a specifically formalist response to globalisation, in the sense that Fredric Jameson defends utopian formalism: ‘out of the ideological impasses of utopian content […], the solution will have to be a resolutely formalist one: which is to say an absolute formalism, in which the new content emerges itself from the form and is a projection of it’ (Jameson 2005, 212). Despite its pervasive playfulness, Woolf’s American utopia should not, indeed, be reduced to an escapist, formal game. At a time when the interwar intergovernmental project of the League of Nations had come to be seen as a utopian failure, Woolf rooted the possibility of intercultural contact in an open-ended politics of form, foregrounding the capacity to rethink the historical present through the use of global tropes. By insisting on the global rather than transatlantic scope of Woolf’s utopia, this analysis diverges from Abravanel’s illuminating reading of the essay as a ‘metadiscursive formulation of British anxieties about the United States’ (Abravanel 45). In seeking to understand Woolf’s idea of global form—to rephrase Joseph Frank’s title1—, the close reading that follows interprets the interconnectedness of allegory and collage, and the bond they establish between undecidability and syncretism, as part of resistance to hermeneutic, rather than geographic, totality.

  • 2 On this recontextualisation, see Abravanel’s thorough analysis, which considers in turn Kipling, We (...)

4To begin with, it is worth recontextualising Woolf’s utopia within a polemical set of utopian and dystopian discourses on America.2 In The Future of America: A Search for Realities, H. G. Wells defended the ‘prophetic habit of mind’ (Wells 1906, 7–26) in relation to America’s political and economic future. His 1935 political study The New America: The New World placed the New Deal in a global context of change, and criticised it for falling short of building a community. For Wells, America was no utopia but, as a nation facing the future, constituted a particularly apt country from which to envision the ‘socialist world-state’ (Wells 1934, 751) he later advocated as a feasible utopian project in Experiment in Autobiography. Aldous Huxley elaborated his own dystopianism against ‘the horror of the Wellsian utopia’ (Huxley 1969, 348) and, tellingly, was a major critic of America’s utopian aura. Following from his 1926 trip to the United States, he identified America as both ‘the future of the world’ and the dystopian downfall of civilization (Huxley 1927, 265). Anticipating his 1932 novel Brave New World, set in 632 after Ford, his essay ‘Outlook for American Culture: Some Reflections in a Machine Age’ condemned the technological signs of American modernity, namely machines and in particular transport, which he aligned with a standardisation of thought. Although ‘cheap and rapid transport’ might seem to provide access to a ‘rich universal culture’ (266), it actually leads, Huxley argued, to a uniform culture across countries: ‘One can anticipate a future in which men will be able to travel round the world without finding an idea or a custom different from those with which they are familiar at home’ (266). When Woolf was asked to write about America, the country was thus not only divergently appraised as a national entity, but more broadly, its representation was caught up within antagonistic constructions of global modernity, ranging from fact to projection, from cultural pessimism to political optimism, and, as this major rift between Wells and Huxley underlines, from cross-cultural homogeneity to universal collectivity.

5The ideological antagonism in which America—and, by extension, political and cultural processes of globalisation—was embedded at the time is largely questioned by Woolf’s essay, which unsettles the very ideological dichotomies it seems to set up, and undoes any clear-cut distinction between fact and fiction. Woolf’s construction of cosmopolitan belonging arises neither as a projected programme nor as a given phenomenon currently under way, but rather as an undecidable allegory. According to Fredric Jameson, the purpose of allegory is precisely to solve what cannot be represented: ‘I think we have allegory when there is a problem of representation. Allegory is a solution to the representation of what is ultimately not representable, those being essentially totalities’ (Jameson 2007, 229). Reworking national rhetorics of allegory, Woolf’s allegorisation of the world offers, indeed, a momentary solution to a representational aporia, as she both posits the presence of a global master code and evades it, in an ironic resistance to hermeneutic closure.

  • 3 If, as De Man demonstrates, allegory involves a form of spacing in relation to its origin insofar a (...)

6Comparable to the way the sociologist Roland Robertson would later define globalisation as ‘the compression of the world’ (Robertson 8), Woolf starts by ‘compress[ing] and epitomis[ing]’, as she identifies America as the ‘essence and abstract of the world’ (Woolf 1938a, 128). By substituting America for the world, she not only operates a spatial, synecdochic reduction, but simultaneously configures globalisation as a temporalised hermeneutic process.3 The shift to allegory solves the inaugural problem of representation, but constitutes an obstacle in itself, as, ironically addressing her American readers, the speaker admits her own ignorance of America: ‘But what—if, like me, you have never been to America—does America mean to you?’ (128). Hence a concomitant shift to an allegorical utopia, introducing, in answer to her question, the metafiction of a speaking bird:

When the question was put to her the other day, ‘What is America like?’ She gave her wings a shake and said, in her lighthearted way: ‘Sit still on a rock on the coast of Cornwall; and I will fly to America and tell you what America is like’. So saying, she was off. (128)

7The utopian experiment is typically launched by what Louis Marin has defined as ‘spatial play’ in his formal study of Thomas More’s Utopia, namely the fiction of circular travel. As she embeds her utopia within a ‘lighthearted’ frame story, Woolf reactivates the spatial dynamics of the genre—leaving one’s home to visit a better land and returning home—as well as its narrative conventions. The circularity of the bird’s travel is reduplicated in a circular rhetorical game, as the initial fictional disclaimer—‘Imagination, unfortunately, is not an altogether accurate reporter; but she has her merits’ (Woolf 1938a, 128, emphasis added) is echoed by a final discursive twist: ‘But of course, Imagination, with all her merits, is not always strictly accurate’ (132, emphasis added). The chiasmus both delimits and destabilises utopia’s rhetorical space, thus undoing the emphatic certainty of the opening allegorical substitution (‘undoubtedly’, 128).

  • 4 See Woolf’s Diary (99).
  • 5 Stapledon’s narrative of ‘interstellar travel’ (17) was all the more on Woolf’s mind as she bought (...)

8While parodying well-known generic topoi, the shape of Woolf’s American fiction also echoes a specific utopia, Star Maker, published by Olaf Stapledon in 1937. On the 25th of June 1937, Woolf had just received the novel, which Stapledon had sent her, and was favourably inclined to read it.4 As an account of planetary flight, her own essay is not only reminiscent of his narrative of a cosmic air travel but also resonates with the macro-communal ideals of his ‘utopian galaxy’ (164–169).5 Unlike Stapledon’s scientifically informed utopian community, Woolf, however, does not embark on science fiction. Very much aware of the obsolete nature of allegory—she pinpointed the ‘modern distaste for allegory’ in an earlier essay on Spenser’s Faery Queen (Woolf 1935, 489)—, she chooses instead to embody ‘Imagination’ through self-referential prosopopeia. The allegory of the bird appears to originate from the autobiography of a popular American novelist of the time, Sherwood Anderson. Presented by Woolf as a ‘resolutely and defiantly’ American writer in ‘American Fiction’ (Woolf 1925, 270), Anderson indeed reflects on his life as much as on the singularity of the American character in A Story Teller’s Story, insisting in particular on the sense of escape and impermanence characteristic of the American psyche: ‘The American is still a wanderer, a migrating bird not yet ready to build a nest’ (Anderson 309). As a künstlerroman, his text constitutes a metaliterary enterprise as well as a reflexive portrait of America, which Woolf relates more broadly to ‘the prevalence of . . . self-consciousness’ in America (Woolf 1925, 271). The fact that she should elaborate a self-referential allegory therefore parodically picks up on what she identifies as a marker of American fiction, but instead of confidently founding a national identity, alerts the reader to the fictional nature of her utopia. As opposed to any fully-fledged utopian project, the utopian content of the essay coincides with its self-reflexive fictional form.

9Undecidability affects the whole ideological structure of the allegory down to its founding figural core. The United States are first seen and pictured as the lit-up Statue of Liberty, the American emblem par excellence, while England is ultimately personified as an old woman carrying sticks. This humorously clichéd contrast between the two national allegories—the woman carrying an electric torch and the woman making fire—is nonetheless blurred by an initial element of indeterminacy, which is briefly referred to at the beginning of the bird’s travel as it catches sight of the Statue of Liberty: ‘It appears to be the figure of a great woman who seems, as I come closer, to be lighted up, whether with electric light or with the light of reason I am not at the moment certain’ (129). This opening syllepsis on the literal and figurative meanings of the word ‘light’ potentially undoes the transatlantic dichotomy the essay seems to depict. Significantly enough, the fleeting political critique of this double entendre was taken up by J. B. Priestley, as he denounced America’s defective culture: ‘I suspect . . . that too many things are lighted by neons and not enough by the imagination’ (Priestley 39). Unlike Priestley’s univocal image, however, Woolf’s play on the material and symbolic content of American modernity remains unresolved, thus producing an open-ended and largely exploratory form of critical thinking beyond nations.

10Within this discursive and figural uncertainty, Woolf rewrites utopian collective programmes by constantly blending national clichés with political ideals, to the point that the very boundary between utopia and dystopia becomes blurred. As the bird arrives in New York, it first adopts the visitor’s gaze, observing architectural and linguistic differences between England and America. The attitude of the ‘English tourist’, ‘want[ing] above all things something different from what he has at home’, as Woolf put it in her earlier essay ‘American Fiction’ (Woolf 1925, 269), quickly turns into a utopian communal gaze. ‘There is no privacy . . . The houses stand open to the road. No walls divide them’ (Woolf 1938a, 129), she writes, revisiting the idealised space of More’s Utopia. In the essay’s manuscript, equality is presented as a lifestyle—‘Everybody is equal. That saves time too’ (Woolf 1997)—, while in the final version of the essay the American car is turned into an egalitarian symbol: ‘Everyone has a car’ (Woolf 1938a, 129). The ideal no-place, marked by a recurring use of negations opposing America to England, is however later ambiguously pictured as ‘an extraordinary land’ (131). The adjective remains half-ironic as Woolf also distances herself from the eugenic society she depicts: ‘Americans . . . are all in the prime of life, mostly clean-shaven, better built than we are, and extremely well-groomed’ (129). This eugenic vision, implicitly set against utopias such as Wells’s Men Like Gods (1923), is finally reinforced by a mock-utopian, cartoonish portrait of American superheroes: ‘look how they battle and punch; hack and hew; tunnel through mountains’ (131). The superman-like Americans are, however, simultaneously praised as ‘much freer, wilder, more generous’, in a final moral eulogy combining stereotype and utopia (131).

  • 6 See Woolf’s rewriting of Thomas Paine in Three Guineas (Woolf 1938b, 313).

11At the same time as Woolf parodies utopian programmes of community, and thus disrupts the possibility of a collective totality, her communal imagination crystallises around a syncretic dynamics of collage. Instead of lamenting the Americanisation of the world as a cultural process of uniformisation, she pictures a kaleidoscopic global community, incorporating traces of multiple cultures. Indeed, positing America as a tabula rasa, she erases all geopolitical boundaries, as she was doing when describing the outsider’s position in Three Guineas,6 which she was writing at the time: ‘But the country is not like England, or Italy, or France. It is a primeval country: a country before there were countries’ (130). The global tabula rasa encompasses in fact several countries in absentia through various fleeting syntagmatic scenarios of juxtaposition and fragmentation shaped by the transhistorical passing of a car: the ruin, the palimpsest, the archive, and the collage.

12Our attention is first drawn to a pile of rubbish: ‘witness that heap of rusty tins; that deserted shed of corrugated iron; that skeleton of an old motorcar’ (130). Singled out as a sort of ready-made produced by random association, this particular item of trash had already appeared in Woolf’s previous essay on American fiction: ‘the primrose banks have become heaps of old tins; the barns, sheds of corrugated iron. It is cheap, it is new, it is ugly, it is made of odds and ends, hurriedly flung together, loosely tied in temporary cohesion’ (Woolf 1925, 270). In fact, Woolf derives this proto-aesthetic protocol of collage from the image of the ‘vacant lot’ in Anderson’s A Story Teller’s Story—a matricial image which reappears throughout his narrative as the ‘ugly’ screen onto which the story-teller projects the ‘life of fancy’ (Anderson 77–78): ‘The vacant lot was in reality filled with rubbish, rusty tin cans, piles of dirt, broken wagon wheels and worn-out household utensils’ (137). In rewriting Anderson’s image, Woolf reveals the allegorical dimension of the fragments and thereby turns them into ruins, in a process reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s demonstration of the hermeneutic affinity between the ruin and the allegory in the The Origin of German Tragic Drama. It is the residual dynamics of this American waste land, associated with haste and provisionality, that develops into a temporalised global syncretism intertwining past, present, and future.

  • 7 See Anderson (187).

13In her manuscript, Woolf proceeds to represent America through metonymic fragments of England and France, including a specific reference to Chartres Cathedral which featured in Anderson’s novel:7 ‘The leaves, bright red, yellow, emerald green, are as bright as the stained glass in Chartres’ cathedral’ (Woolf 1997). In the final version of the essay, she pictures England’s residual presence on an actual rather than metaphorical mode, which transforms the American landscape into a live palimpsest. ‘Remembering The Last of the Mohicans’, the speaker encounters a native American and evokes the English canon as she recounts ‘passing through some ancient English village on a Sunday morning’: ‘The villagers are dancing around a Maypole; they are singing songs that have a strange familiar sound; we seem to have heard them before, in Shakespeare, in Herrick’ (Woolf 1938a, 130). The allusion to Maypole dancing, which conjures up Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical narrative ‘The May-Pole of Merry Mount’, sketches a provisional, festive form of collectivity, inscribing the carnivalesque creativity of folk culture within a transhistorical community. As opposed to a cultural scenario of decline, pitting Americanisation against a glorious English past, Woolf’s palimpsest excavates and revives past communal impulses, in a way which could be compared to Ernst Bloch’s exploration of the utopianism of popular forms a decade earlier in Traces, which explores the ‘allegorical process in which various Utopian figures seep into the daily life of things and people’ (Jameson 2005, 5). According to Jameson, the interpretation of traces, as opposed to the construction of self-enclosed totalities, is that which defines a utopian hermeneutic such as Bloch’s, as opposed to utopian planners. It is, indeed, by identifying utopian traces and textual fragments ‘still visible’ in the American space that Woolf points towards a communal globality, as the motion of the car ultimately coincides with the allegorical movement of interpretation: ‘America has room for all ages, for all civilizations’ (Woolf 1938a, 130).

14As the car enters the city, different concrete scenarios of cosmopolitan collage emerge, starting with the commercial street, featuring ‘outfits of Parisian clothes’, and an ‘immense’ library (131). As an archival space open to all, the library imagined by Woolf becomes a global collective matrix, explicitly opposed to the well-guarded English library: ‘the doors stand open to all. . . . And there lie Shakespeare’s folios, Ben Jonson’s manuscripts, Keats’ love letters blazing in the American Sun’ (131). This accumulation, like the set of rubbish spotted in the countryside, seals the cohesive logic of contiguity built up throughout the essay and accentuated by its constant recourse to parataxis. The next accumulation depicts an architectural form of collage, as Woolf finally considers a cosmopolitan urban compound: ‘Down there in the courtyard is a palace lifted bodily from the Grand Canal; now we are in Stratford-upon-Avon; there is an Elizabethan cottage with the moss still on its tiles. From this extraordinary combination and collaboration of all cultures, of all civilizations will spring the future. But we interrupt, tell us about…’ (131). In a structural shift from literal juxtaposition to symbolic ‘collaboration’, this intercultural architectural mélange momentarily evokes a radically heterogeneous global community, which, for that matter, resonates with Anderson’s representation of the American multicultural city: ‘Then came the sections entirely inhabited by Jews, by Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Germans, or Poles. How many elements not yet combined in the cities!’ (Anderson 227).

15In this final spatial configuration, Woolf deleted a particular sentence including a reference to Nuremberg, where the annual rally of the Nazi party had been taking place since 1927: ‘and there, round the turning, a crooked medieval street from Nuremberg’ (Woolf 1997). In omitting to mention the German city, Woolf erases any direct link between her utopia and the contemporary historical facts she was dealing with in Three Guineas. Likewise, she deleted an iconographic collage of French, Italian, and Spanish art: ‘On the walls, as fresh as if they were painted today, hang frescoes by Fra Angelico, apples painted by Cezanne, cubist designs by Picasso’ (Woolf 1997). Woolf’s fleeting reference to Picasso’s cubism was rooted in a larger international crisis. On the 24th June 1937, less than two months before she started writing this essay, and less than two weeks before Julian Bell’s death in the Spanish Civil War, Woolf attended an international relief meeting on ‘Spain and Culture’ at the Royal Albert Hall. The event was organised in aid of refugee Basque children, and Picasso, who was supposed to attend the event, had donated for auction the sketch of a weeping woman, which also featured on the cover of the programme—a female allegory of universal suffering taken from a preliminary sketch of Guernica. Woolf’s passing allusion to cubism in her manuscript implicitly posits her own use of collage as a compensatory communal form. While eventually refusing to present her utopia as a direct response to history, she shapes her whole allegory through the cubist technique of fragmentation, thus drawing on artistic and literary forms to create concrete possibilities of intercultural associations—or, as she phrased it in ‘American Fiction’, ‘a mosaic of incongruous pieces waiting order at the artist’s hands’ and ‘fragments of nationalities’ (Woolf 1925, 278).

16What Peter Bürger has identified as a formal specificity of the avant-garde in his joint reading of ‘nonorganic’ forms (Bürger 68)—allegorical fragments and heterogeneous collages—can help us recover the experimental impulse and historical critique at work in Woolf’s deceptively conventional utopia. As I hope to have shown, allegory and collage function reciprocally as temporalised traces rather than totalised forms in ‘America Which I have Never Seen’, and, as such, allow Woolf to imagine an open-ended, syncretic world community distinct from cultural scenarios of homogeneisation as well as utopian universal projects. The way Woolf’s 1938 global America resonates with a postmodern theoretical framework of utopian thinking—one that is aware of ‘Utopia’s structural ambiguities’ and defends, like Jameson’s ‘anti-anti-utopianianism’ (Jameson 2005, xvi), the relevance of utopian forms against ideological critiques of utopias—should not lead us to disconnect her utopia from historical and material concerns, but urge us, on the contrary, to unpack the complex politics of fictional disengagement.

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1 Insofar as my analysis relates a formal emphasis on space, as initially theorised by Frank, to material concerns, it echoes Thacker’s conception of ‘modernist texts as creating metaphorical spaces that try to make sense of the material spaces of modernity’ (3).

2 On this recontextualisation, see Abravanel’s thorough analysis, which considers in turn Kipling, Wells, Huxley, and Woolf (24–45).

3 If, as De Man demonstrates, allegory involves a form of spacing in relation to its origin insofar as ‘it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference’ (207), this opening rhetorical substitution displaces the global master code towards the future of interpretation.

4 See Woolf’s Diary (99).

5 Stapledon’s narrative of ‘interstellar travel’ (17) was all the more on Woolf’s mind as she bought a telescope in August 1937 as well as James Jeans’s Mysterious Universe (1930).

6 See Woolf’s rewriting of Thomas Paine in Three Guineas (Woolf 1938b, 313).

7 See Anderson (187).

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Caroline Pollentier, « Global Forms: Allegory, Collage, and Virginia Woolf’s American Utopia »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 48 | 2015, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Caroline Pollentier

Caroline Pollentier is an Assistant Professor at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her research focuses on the modernist period, in particular on Virginia Woolf. She has published work on Virginia Woolf’s essays, animal flânerie, and the middlebrow. She founded the Société d’Études Modernistes in 2013.

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