The Emergence of Modernist Literature (Modern Poetry)

Many historians have characterized the period between the two world wars as the United States’ traumatic “coming of age,” despite the fact that U.S. direct involvement was relatively brief (1917-1918) and its casualties many fewer than those of its European allies and foes. John Dos Passos expressed America’s postwar disillusionment in the novel Three Soldiers (1921), when he noted that civilization was a “vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.” Shocked and permanently changed, Americans returned to their homeland but could never regain their innocence. Nor could soldiers from rural America easily return to their roots. After experiencing the world, many now yearned for a modern, urban life. In the postwar “Big Boom,” business flourished, and the successful prospered beyond their wildest dreams. For the first time, many Americans enrolled in higher education — in the 1920s college enrollment doubled. The middle-class prospered; Americans began to enjoy the world s highest national average income in this era, and many people purchased the ultimate status symbol — an automobile. The typical urban American home glowed with electric lights and boasted a radio that connected the house with the outside world, and perhaps a telephone, a camera, a typewriter, or a sewing machine. Like the businessman protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922), the average American approved of these machines because they were modern and because most were American inventions and American-made.

Western youths were rebelling, angry and disillusioned with the savage war, the older generation they held responsible, and difficult postwar economic conditions that, ironically, allowed Americans with dollars — like writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound — to live abroad handsomely on very little money. Intellectual currents, particularly Freudian psychology and to a lesser extent Marxism (like the earlier Darwinian theory of evolution), implied a “godless” world view and contributed to the breakdown of traditional values. Americans abroad absorbed these views and brought them back to the United States where they took root, firing the imagination of young writers and artists. William Faulkner, for example, a 20th-century American novelist, employed Freudian elements in all his works, as did virtually all serious American fiction writers after World War I.

The large cultural wave of Modernism, which gradually emerged in Europe and the United States in the early years of the 20th century, expressed a sense of modern life through art as a sharp break from the past, as well as from Western civilization’s classical traditions. Modern life seemed radically different from traditional life — more scientific, faster, more technological, and more mechanized. Modernism embraced these changes.

A Definition: A term for a wide range of tendencies in the arts of the early twentieth century. Some date modernism from the 1890s to the Second World War; others use the term to more narrowly to refer to a fifteen-year period following the First World War. For Virginia Woolf, human nature changed radically “on or about December 1910” and a number of the key modernist developments can be traced to this period. Pablo Picasso began work on the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1906, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Sacre du Printemps” had its riotous premiere in 1913, Ezra Pound’s first volume of poetry appeared in 1915 and by 1914 James Joyce had completed his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. For many people, however, 1922 is the key year for modernist literature, with both the publication of Joyce’s great modernist novel “Ulysses” and Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land’. Modernism was colored by the crisis in religious belief and the rise of scientism that accompanied the latter half of the nineteenth century and was intensified by the cataclysmic First World War. Important precursors of modernism are the German thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Karl Marx (1818-83), and the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who together questioned the certainties that had reinforced the traditional modes of social organization, religion and morality. Ezra Pound’s desire to “make it new” became a characteristic of the modernist revolt against traditional literary forms and subject matter. The works of authors such as Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), James Joyce(1882-1941) and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) are characterized by the rejection of linear chronological plot development, by a dependence on the poetic image as a vehicle for communication, by experiments in narrative point of view, and by the use of myth as a basis for their writing. These violations of conventional modes of realism are mirrored in the paintings of Cubism, surrealism, Futurism and vorticism.

A list of the most discussed features of modernism:

  1. In modern literature, the question “What is the story?” cannot be answered unless the other question—“How is the story told?”—is addressed.
  2. The uses of narrative points of view become a very sophisticated art form. In pre-modern fiction (say in Charles Dickens), the author intervenes like God. Thus, the God-like omniscient point of view is predominant in pre-modern fiction. In modern fiction, the first person point of view—representing a give perspective—is used more often. Sometimes, even when the third person—omniscient—point of view is adopted, the narrator confines his report through the consciousness of one character (Henry James is a master of this point of view): the use of point of view is called “limited omniscience.” Some other times, as in the case of Hemingway, the point of view is external: the narrator reports events “objectively” without telling us what he thinks or what the characters think.
  3. Perspectivism—the belief that a truth is something relative to a perspective and therefore reality is interpretable from many perspectives—is translated into various formal experiments. William Faulkner, for instance, is a perspectivist fiction writer as he is known for his uses of multi-perspectives.
  4. Fragmentation and open-endedness become new structuring principles as a resistance to totalized views of reality.
  5. Interests in the psychological depths of characters are inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis. Attempts to express the irrational workings of the unconscious result in new ways of presenting characters. The method of stream-of-consciousness becomes characteristic of modern writing.
  6. Irony and ambiguity are favored rhetorical modes, which reflects a general disillusionment in the social, economic and spiritual values of the Western world.
  7. There is a broad dependence on the image in modern poetry. Imagism is a manifestation of this preference.
  8. Traditions in the recent past and existing systems of belief are resisted, but traditions in antiquity become sources of inspiration. The purpose of invoking the ancient past (classicism) is a way to respond to the present situations. Myths are often used to structure the works and to blend the past with the present.
  9. There is renewed interest in non-Western cultures, which can be seen in the African element in Picasso, the Asian/Chinese element in Pound, and the anthropology in T. S. Eliot. Although some of these inclusions are superficial and decorative, such as interest nonetheless signals the opening up of American and European literature and art to international themes.

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