Modernism Biography


“On or about December 1910 human nature changed.” The great modernist writer Virginia Woolf wrote this in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” in 1924. “All human relations shifted,” Woolf continued, “and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” This intentionally provocative statement was hyperbolic in its pinpointing of a date, but almost anyone who looks at the evolution of Western culture must note a distinct change in thought, behavior, and cultural production beginning sometime in the late nineteenth century and coming to full fruition sometime around the Second World War. This change, whether art, technology, philosophy or human behavior, is generally called Modernism.

Modernism designates the broad literary and cultural movement that spanned all of the arts and even spilled into politics and philosophy. Like Romanticism, Modernism was highly varied in its manifestations between the arts and even within each art. The dates when Modernism flourished are in dispute, but few scholars identify its genesis as being before 1860 and World War II is generally considered to mark an end of the movement’s height. Modernist art initially began in Europe’s capitals, primarily London, Milan, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and especially Paris; it spread to the cities of the United States and South America after World War I; by the 1940s, Modernism had thoroughly taken over the American and European academy, where it was challenged by nascent Postmodernism in the 1960s.

Modernism’s roots are in the rapidly changing technology of the late nineteenth century and in the theories of such late nineteenth-century thinkers as Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche. Modernism influenced painting first (Impressionism and Cubism are forms of Modernism), but in the decade before World War I such writers as Ezra Pound, Filippo Marinetti, James Joyce, and Guillaume Apollinaire translated the advances of the visual arts into literature. Such characteristically modernist techniques as stream-of-consciousness narration and allusiveness, by the late 1930s, spilled into popular writing and became standard.

The movement’s concerns were with the accelerating pace of society toward destruction and meaninglessness. In the late 1800s many of society’s certainties were undermined. Marx demonstrated that social class was created, not inherent; Freud boiled down human individuality to an animalistic sex drive; Darwin provided evidence that the Bible might not be literally true; and Nietzsche argued that even the most deeply-held ethical principles were simply constructions. Modernist writers attempted to come to terms with where humanity stood after its cornerstones had been pulverized. The movement sifted through the shards of the past looking for what was valuable and what could inspire construction of a new society.

Modernism Representative Authors

T. S. Eliot (1888–1965)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888. He attended Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford, studying philosophy and writing a dissertation on the logician F. H. Bradley. While in college, Eliot began writing poetry, but in 1908 he discovered French Symbolist poetry and his whole attitude toward literature changed. Ezra Pound read some of Eliot’s poetry in the 1910s and immediately decided that Eliot would be a member of his own literary circle. Pound advocated for Eliot with Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine and got Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in that journal in 1915. Eliot had settled in London at the same time, and married the emotionally unstable Vivian Haigh-Wood. Eliot struggled to make a living, working as a teacher and later at Lloyd’s Bank until 1925.

In 1922 Eliot broke through with his brilliant and successful poem “The Waste Land, ” although the manuscript of the poem demonstrates that Ezra Pound played a large role in the editing of the poem. “The Waste Land” brought Eliot fame and a place at the center of the burgeoning modernist movement. For the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, Eliot used his fame and his position as editor of a prominent literary journal (The Criterion) and as managing editor of the publishing house Faber & Faber to argue for a new standard of evaluating literature. In critical essays and his own poetry, he denigrated the romantics and neoclassicists and celebrated Dante and the Elizabethan “metaphysical” poets. He argued for the central role of “Tradition” in literature and downplayed the cult of individual genius created by the romantics.

For the remainder of his life, Eliot occupied the role of literary elder statesman. He continued to produce poems such as the Four Quartets but was never prolific. He became the very model of the conservative, royalist, High Church English gentleman. He died January 4, 1965, the very embodiment of the literary establishment.

William Faulkner (1897–1962)
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, to a family with deep Mississippi and Confederate roots. He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, and briefly attended the University of Mississippi before leaving the state to seek his fortune as a writer. Settling briefly in New Orleans, Faulkner came under the tutelage of Sherwood Anderson and published his first book, The Marble Faun, a collection of short stories, in 1924. In 1929 he published the novel Sartoris, his first work set in the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha. Others followed, including his masterpieces The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Faulkner received a great deal of critical attention for his works, but he never obtained the kind of financial success that he sought. Attempting to remedy this, he wrote two sensationalistic books (Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun) and briefly moved to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, in Byhalia, Mississippi.

James Joyce (1882–1941)
James Joyce is the most important writer of the modernist movement. He produced relatively few works, but these books ranged from poetry to drama, to short stories to the novel that the Modern Library publishing imprint named the most im- portant novel of the twentieth century. His life, too, became the embodiment of many of Modernism’s most central themes: exile, the presence of the past in one’s life, familiarity with a broad range of cultures and historical periods, and self-destruction.

Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland, on February 2, 1882, to a lower middle-class Catholic family. His father died when Joyce was young. Joyce attended Catholic schools in Ireland and...

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