Modernism in Literature is not a chronological designation. Modernism in Literature consists of literary work possessing certain loosely defined characteristics. The following characteristics of Modernism answer the question what is Modernism?
• Modernism is marked by a strong and intentional break with tradition. This break includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views.
• Modernists believe the world is created in the act of perceiving it; that is, the world is what we say it is.
• Modernists do not subscribe to absolute truth. All things are relative.
• Modernists feel no connection with history or institutions. Their experience is that of alienation, loss, and despair.
• Modernists champion the individual and celebrate inner strength.
• Modernists believe life is unordered.
• Modernists concern themselves with the sub-conscious.
Modernism, as a literary style, emerged after WWI, beginning in Europe and then progressing into American literature by the late 1920s. After the First World War many people questioned the chaos and the insanity of it all. The world’s “universal truths” and trust in authority figures began to crumble, and Modernism was a response to the destruction of these beliefs.
The modernist movement in fictional writing broke through in the U.S. with William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), which had a mixture of raving and ranting reviews. If you've read it I'm sure you know why . . . super confusing but brilliant. Faulkner went on to influence future modernist works like Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934), Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), to just name a few.
It was more than a literary movement, though. Modernism can be seen in many types of artistic expression from the period 1928-1945 in America; but this write will address Modernism in writing, so, here’s a list of the characteristics:
Fragmentation – in plot, characters, theme, images, and overall storyline. Thus, for instance, many modernist works are not in the typical linear sequence.
Loss is a huge theme in modernist works.
The “truth” is questionable, as a common theme, and thus, you cannot always trust the narrator to tell the truth, whereas in traditional literature it is the narrator’s job to make the reader understand what’s going on. Also, there may be more than one narrator, showing the diversity of truth.
The destruction of the family unit.
Characters may be given little or no physical description, and one or more characters is usually an "outcast."
Authority figures are often untrustworthy, reflecting the question of truth.
Movement away from religion.
The reversal of traditional roles (Example: women doing something typically “male” and/or vice versa. Or the changing of customary racial roles).
Ambiguous ending; such works often leave a lot of questions with the reader; they don’t tie everything up for you.
Often setting is more than just the setting (i.e. more meaning to it than just where the story takes place), or, maybe there is no setting at all
The use of improper grammar to reflect dialect.
More sexuality and the use of intertextuality are often found.
More use of the first person narrative, reflecting the lack of universal truth, i.e. there are only individual truths.
Between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II (1914–1945), the United States became a “modern” nation, riven with internal fractures. Literature of the period struggled to understand the new and diverse responses to the advent of modernity. Some writers celebrated the changes; others lamented the loss of old ways of being. Some imagined future utopias; others searched for new forms to speak of the new realities. In all, writers inquired into the connection between art and politics. Some deemed it inappropriate to link the two while others insisted that art could not be apolitical—because to be apolitical was to assume a political position.
Urbanization, industrialization, and immigration had altered national demographics of the 1920s. Harsh conditions in cities was often blamed on new immigrants, and in 1924 Congress enacted the Exclusion Act, barring immigration from certain parts of the world, notably Asia, as a way to control the racial and ethnic composition of the United States. Following the crash of the stock market in 1929, a depression set in, causing unrest and economic upheaval on a global scale. Europe saw the rise of fascist dictators and in the United States, politics and economics became central concerns overriding questions of individual freedom. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, liberal reforms aimed to cushion the population from the effects of the depression and helped alleviate a potential civil war. In addition, the apparent failure of capitalism and individualism, led to growing sympathies with communism, especially because it opposed fascism. But in this period, previously silent and disenfranchised groups, notably women and African Americans, began to write. Rampant industrialization led many workers and those sympathetic with the plight of the laboring classes to turn to the Marxist writings of Karl Marx. Marx’s ideas, which formed the basis of communist philosophy, advanced the notion that liberty and justice should exist for all, and not just for those who controlled the means of production. Such ideas became popular with writers and intellectuals but were often deemed “un-American.”
The 1920s was a period marked by rampant social and economic change. “Prohibition”—forbidding the manufacture, sale, or exchange of alcohol—gave rise to organized crime and the “Gangster” phenomenon of the 1920s. In addition, the importance of the work of Austrian psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, meant that Americans were reflecting more on the nature of desire, the psyche, fears, and trauma. With the 19th amendment, women became more politically enfranchised. Their roles in the private as well as public sphere changed, as women began to advocate equality with men. Nonetheless certain writers, including Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, maintained that authorship was a strictly masculine vocation.
Following the Great Migration out of the South, and in direct response to the industrial needs of World War I, African Americans began to take advantage of “opportunities” in the North. Despite facing racism and segregation in the North, African Americans became an important part of the cultural fabric of the nation. W. E. B. Dubois argued that African Americans had a “double consciousness”—they were aware of being American and being black. Women writers such as Nella Larsen also insisted that an awareness of gender made African American women’s experiences different.
In the world of business and technology, rapid advances were made; the most notable innovation was Henry Ford’s development of assembly-line automobile manufacturing that made cars affordable and accessible to a wider segment of the population. The institution of “big” science and more complex, and “rational” ways of thinking about space, time, matter, and the universe also began to take place during this era, eventually creating rifts between literary intellectuals and scientists. Art to some writers, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, offered an alternative way of understanding the world, eventually giving rise to the idea of “two cultures”—science vs. letters.
The era following World War I marked by tremendous social upheaval and economic and political devastation, gave rise to modernism. Modernism began in Europe as a response to the devastating effects of World War I. Broadly, it refers to literary work produced in the interwar period; more specifically, it references the breakdown of traditional society under the forces of modernity. At a formal level, works were constructed out of fragments and are notable for what they omit. Works begin arbitrarily, unity is disrupted, and shifting perspectives, voices, and tones are common. Symbols and images, rather than statements, predominate with the effect of surprising, shocking, and challenging readers. Despite the level of formal disunity, modernist works desire unity. In this way, it differs from postmodernism, which does not strive to produce any form of coherence or unity.
Because modernism was an international movement, it was seen by some to conflict with American literary traditions. But traditional Americanists, such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, or William Faulkner, also used “modernist” techniques, shaping the tradition to account for the distinctiveness of the nation. “High” modernists, who were permanent expatriates living in Europe such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, H. D., and T. S. Eliot, left the United States because of its perceived hostility to high culture. However, they all maintained U.S. citizenship and viewed themselves as “ambassadors” of American culture in Europe during the 1920s. Other writers rooted their works in specific regions of the United States: Willa Cather in the Midwest, John Steinbeck and Carlos Bulosan in California and Robert Frost in New England. The South in particular gave rise to a multiplicity of voices including those of Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Toomer, and William Faulkner. John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, and William Carlos Williams attempted to speak for the nation as a whole.
African Americans made significant contributions to the American modernist movement. During the Harlem Renaissance, black Americans such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston became prominent and applied modernist techniques to speak of the realities of black cultural and political life. Influenced by modernism, Hughes incorporated blues rhythms into his poetry and Hurston incorporated depictions of black folk life into her world. Largely white audiences of Harlem Renaissance art and culture became attuned to the specificities of cultural-political realities of African America.
Women writers also contributed in vital ways to the heterogeneity of the literature during the interwar period. Authors like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Amy Lowell, and Nella Larsen were intent on depicting the thoughts and experiences of women. By demanding cultural freedom for women, many of these authors began to also operate as public figures that took positions on public issues from race to labor and women’s issues.
A final, but significant, artistic development in the interwar period is in the realm of drama. After 1920, with the production of Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, the United States was able to claim that it had produced a world-class playwright. Though theatre itself was not new, it expanded its presence in the nineteenth century. In New York in particular the few blocks referred to as “Broadway” theatre became particularly important. Theatre also developed in other areas and playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s were not united by a core of common ideas, but by the assumption that drama should be an aspect of contemporary literature. Playwrights, like authors and poets, experimented with form as well as content. During this period, an “American” invention—the musical comedy—came into fruition with works by Ira and George Gershwin, and Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers in the 1950s. In the 1930s, when drama became incorporated into the U.S. literary mainstream, fiction writers as well as poets wrote plays, often embedded with political and social critiques.
The horrors of World War I (1914-19), with its accompanying atrocities and senselessness became the catalyst for the Modernist movement in literature and art. Modernist authors felt betrayed by the war, believing the institutions in which they were taught to believe had led the civilized world into a bloody conflict. They no longer considered these institutions as reliable means to access the meaning of life, and therefore turned within themselves to discover the answers.
Their antipathy towards traditional institutions found its way into their writing, not just in content, but in form. Popular English Modernists include the following:
• James Joyce - His most experimental and famous work, Ulysses, completely abandons generally accepted notions of plot, setting, and characters.
• Ford Madox Ford - The Good Soldier examines the negative effect of war.
• Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse, as well, strays from conventional forms, focusing on Stream of Consciousness.
• Stevie Smith - Novel on Yellow Paper parodies conventionality.
• Aldous Huxley - Brave New World protests against the dangers and nature of modern society.
• D.H. Lawrence - His novels reflected on the dehumanizing effect of modern society.
• T.S. Eliot - Although American, Eliot's The Wasteland is associated with London and emphasizes the emptiness of Industrialism.
Known as "The Lost Generation" American writers of the 1920s Brought Modernism to the United States. For writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, World War I destroyed the illusion that acting virtuously brought about good. Like their British contemporaries, American Modernists rejected traditional institutions and forms. American Modernists include:
• Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises chronicles the meaningless lives of the Lost Generation. Farewell to Arms narrates the tale of an ambulance driver searching for meaning in WWI.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby shows through its protagonist, Jay Gatsby, the corruption of the American Dream.
• John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, and Sherwood Anderson are other prominent writers of the period.
Mini Lesson: Make a chart to identify aspects of modernism. In the left column list the characteristics of modernism; in the middle column find specific passages; in the right column write an analysis of the passage.