Modernism did not exist until it was almost dead. That is, until the 1930s or later the term “Modernism” simply did not mean what it means today: a group of writers, an arsenal of literary devices, a number of characteristic themes. Interestingly, in the 1910s and 1920s—the height of Modernism as it is understood today—the word “Modernism” referred to a particular strain of thought in the Catholic Church. At that time, the modernist writers did not see themselves as a unified movement. Instead, the writers now called modernists were members of dozens of different smaller movements: the Lost Generation, the dadaists, the imagists, the vorticists, the objectivists, the surrealists, and many others. What is identified as the characteristic themes or concerns of the modernist period (a general pessimism about the state of the world, a rejection of society’s certainties, a sense that only the rebel artist is telling the truth about the world) were simply “in the air” of the times; everyone was thinking and writing about the same ideas, so it did not seem necessary to name their commonalities.
Literary critics of the early twentieth century were generally hostile to the writers now called modernists. The Victorian ethos held that literature’s purpose was to identify “sweetness and light” and “the best that has been thought and said” (in the words of Matthew Arnold, one of Victorian England’s most important critics) in order to make...
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