In Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition, George McCartney argues that unlike traditional satirists, Evelyn Waugh was not primarily concerned with correcting morals and manners. Instead, he laid siege to the cultural and metaphysical assumptions of his time. McCartney demonstrates that the one constant in Waugh's work was his lively engagement with contemporary intellectual fashion. It was especially his response to modernism, the zeitgeist of his formative years, that gave his fiction its distinctive energy.
McCartney shows how at every turn Waugh's writing pays parodic tribute to modernist esthetics. Although he deplored many of the movement's philosophical premises, he nevertheless admired its methods, borrowing them freely whenever it suited his purposes. In effect, Waugh developed an alternate modernism. Whether it was his playful reworking of Bauhaus and Futurist theory, or his borrowings from film technique, he was determined to take his place in what he called "the advance-guard" despite his avowedly "antique" tastes. Part aesthete, part traditionalist, he appropriated the strategies of experimental art in order to defeat its metaphysical implications. McCartney provides evidence that this ambivalent regard for modernism reveals not only Waugh's interest in aesthetics and philosophy, but also his personal conflicts. For a man who prized rationality, he was remarkably, even notoriously impulsive. McCartney concludes that Waugh's satire sprang not only from his dismay with contemporary intellectual fashions but also from an inward struggle between his orthodox and wayward selves, a struggle that registered the cultural conflicts of his time with uncanny accuracy.
In McCartney's reading, Waugh's personal and intellectual ambivalence enabled him to become a prescient critic of our age. The result was a body of work that remains as vital today as when it was written.