SOCIAL BACKGROUND The beginning of the 20th century was a time of change across the globe. Whether it was rapid growth in city populations, industrialization or global conflict, it was clear that a new and modern world was taking shape. It was World War I - the first war of mass destruction. With advancements in weapon development (like widespread use of automatic weaponry), war became about mass casualties - a change that many felt was inhumane and just downright evil. Others saw the results of World War I (over 9 million deaths) and felt that it was further proof in the necessity of a strong national defense (armed forces, etc.). Divided and confused, the only fact that was decidedly clear was that the U. S. had just been catapulted into modern warfare in a very modern world.
Dazed from the war, many of the younger generation no longer felt patriotic, content or safe. This generation became known as the 'Lost Generation'. A youth culture emerged - one in which free expression and a deliberate break from tradition became defining characteristics. While America continued to evolve and change (the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, and the stock market crash of 1929 changed everything), modernism in American literature continued to reflect varying experiences with change from 1914-1945.
MODERNISM IN LITERATURE Modernism as a literary movement reached its height in Europe between 1900 and the mid-1920s. ‘Modernist’ literature addressed aesthetic problems similar to those examined in non-literary forms of contemporary Modernist art, such as painting. Gertrude Stein’s abstract writings, for example, have often been compared to the fragmentary and multi-perspectival Cubism of her friend Pablo Picasso. The general thematic concerns of Modernist literature are well-summarized by the sociologist Georg Simmel: “The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life” (The Metropolis and Mental Life, 1903).
The publication of the Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 was a landmark event in the development of Modernist literature. Dense, lengthy, and controversial, the novel details the events of one day in the life of three Dubliners through a technique known as stream of consciousness, which commonly ignores orderly sentence structure and incorporates fragments of thought in an attempt to capture the flow of characters’ mental processes. Other European and American Modernist authors whose works rejected chronological and narrative continuity include Virginia Woolf, Marcy Proust, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner. The established literary forms and their integral parts, such as exposition, development, climax ad resolution, were considered unnatural, not reflecting the changeability and fragmentation of life.
CHARACTERISTIC FEATURES AND ELEMENTSIndividualism. In Modernist literature, the individual is more interesting than society. Specifically, modernist writers were fascinated with how the individual adapted to the changing world. In some cases, the individual triumphed over obstacles. For the most part, Modernist literature featured characters who just kept their heads above water. Writers presented the world or society as a challenge to the integrity of their characters. Experimentation. Modernist writers broke free of old forms and techniques. Poets abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and wrote in free verse. Novelists defied all expectations. Writers mixed images from the past with modern languages and themes, creating a collage of styles.
Absurdity. For many writers, the world was becoming a more absurd place every day. The mysteriousness of life was being lost in the rush of daily life. The senseless violence of WWII was yet more evidence that humanity had lost its way. Modernist authors depicted this absurdity in their works. Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," in which a traveling salesman is transformed into an insect-like creature, is an example of modern absurdism. Symbolism. The Modernist writers infused objects, people, places and events with significant meanings. They imagined a reality with multiple layers, many of them hidden or in a sort of code. The idea of a poem as a riddle to be cracked had its beginnings in the Modernist period. Symbolism was not a new concept in literature, but the Modernists' particular use of symbols was an innovation. They left much more to the reader's imagination than earlier writers, leading to open-ended narratives with multiple interpretations.
Formalism. Writers of the Modernist period saw literature more as a craft than a flowering of creativity. They believed that poems and novels were constructed from smaller parts instead of the organic, internal process that earlier generations had described. The idea of literature as craft fed the Modernists' desire for creativity and originality. Modernist poetry often includes foreign languages, dense vocabulary and invented words. “Harlem Renaissance”. The 1920-30’s marked the attempt of black artists to develop a strong cultural presence in America and promote their cultural values. Cycles of Life. Modernist literature represents the paradox of modernity through themes of cycle and rejuvenation. Eliot's speaker in "The Waste Land" famously declares "these fragments I have shored against my ruins" (line 430). The speaker must reconstruct meaning by reassembling the pieces of history. Importantly, there is rebirth and rejuvenation in ruin, and modernist literature celebrates the endless cycle of destruction, as it ever gives rise to new forms and creations.
Loss and Exile. Modernist literature is also marked by themes of loss and exile. Modernism rejected conventional truths and figures of authority, and modernists moved away from religion. In modernist literature, man is assured that his own sense of morality trumps. But individualism results in feelings of isolation and loss. Narrative Authority. Another element of modernist literature is the prevalent use of personal pronouns. Authority becomes a matter of perspective. There is no longer an anonymous, third-person narrator, as there is no universal truth, according to the modernists. In fact, many modernist novels (Faulkner's, for instance) feature multiple narrators, as many modernist poems (“The Waste Land”, for instance) feature multiple speakers. Social Evils. Modernist novels did not treat lightly topics about social woes, war and poverty. Modernist novels reflect a frank awareness of societal ills and of man's capacity for cruelty.