“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.