Modernism was the most influential literary movement in England and America during the first half of the twentieth century. It encompassed such works as The Waste Land (1922), by T. S. Eliot, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce, and The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Representing an unequivocal rejection of Victorian aesthetic standards, moral precepts, and literary techniques, Modernism was initiated during the opening decade of the century, a time of extensive experimentation in the arts. Writers of the movement embraced the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the anthropological relativism espoused by Sir James Frazer, and in their works the Modernists emphasized the psychological state of a character through the use of such devices as the interior monologue, or stream-of-consciousness narrative.
In English literature, manifestations of the modernist aesthetic in fiction range from the sexual explicitness of D. H. Lawrence to the formal experimentation of Virginia Woolf and the myth-based narrative of James Joyce. The disorienting effects of the era of modern warfare that began with the First World War gave rise to such American expressions of modernist concerns as the novels of John Dos Passos, whose Manhattan Transfer (1925) utilized montage-like effects to depict the chaos of modern urban life, and Ernest Hemingway, whose The Sun Also Rises (1926) portrayed the aimlessness of the "lost generation" of American expatriates in Europe during the postwar era. Similarly, The Great Gatsby is seen to epitomize the demoralization of American society and the end of innocence in American thought.
While sharing the novelists' preoccupation with themes of alienation and ambivalence, Modernist poetry is chiefly known for its dependence on concrete imagery and its rejection of traditional prosody. Considered a transitional figure in the development of modern poetry, W. B. Yeats rejected the rhetorical poetry that had gained prominence at the height of the Victorian era, favoring a personal aesthetic, natural rhythms, and spare style. American expatriate Ezra Pound, who with Richard Aldington and Hilda Dolittle founded the Imagist movement in poetry in 1910, favored concise language and free rhythms, and became a champion of avant-garde experimentalists of the era. The thematic preoccupations and technical innovations of Modernist poetry are seen to culminate in The Waste Land, Eliot's complex, erudite expression of modern malaise and disillusionment.
Winesburg, Ohio (short stories) 1919
The Bridge (poetry) 1930
Dos Passos, John
Manhattan Transfer (novel) 1925
U.S.A. (novels) 1930-36
Eliot, T. S.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (poetry) 1917
"Tradition and the Individual Talent" (prose) 1919
The Waste Land (poetry) 1922
Murder in the Cathedral (drama) 1935
Four Quartets (poetry) 1943
The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925
Ford, Ford Madox
The Good Soldier (novel) 1915
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926
The Berlin Stories (short stories) 1935-49
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (novel) 1916
Ulysses (novel) 1922
Finnegans Wake (novel) 1939
Lawrence, D. H.
Sons and Lovers (novel) 1913
The Rainbow (novel) 1915...
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SOURCE: "Problems of Modernism," in The Snowflake on the Belfry: Dogma and Disquietude in the Critical Arena, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 24-43.
[In the following essay, Balakian considers the variety of meanings and manifestations of Modernism.]
Each generation of writers had the habit of reacting against the past by declaring itself "modern." The quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns used to be a cyclical phenomenon. "New" is in itself empty of meaning, a connective word between what was and what is to come. In early uses the word had a pejorative meaning, implying that what was new and modern could not be as good as what had the prestige of approval over a period of time.
Baudelaire as both poet and critic was one of the first to splice the meaning of "modern" in a modest article relating to his viewing of the art of his time. In his piece called "La Modernité" he first gives the image of a little man running around searching for the modern and expresses the normally accepted derogatory meaning: "the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent," but then adds "that which is capable of drawing the eternal from the transitory."
Since the middle of the nineteenth century critics as well as artists in the broader sense of the word have compounded ambiguities on "modern" by using it in both senses. Succeeding generations...
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Modernism And Earlier Movements
SOURCE: "Modernism and Romanticism," in The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, Macmillan Press, 1979, pp. 179-99.
[In the following excerpt, Josipovici studies the relationship between Modernism and the earlier artistic movement of Romanticism.]
[The] years between 1885 and 1914 saw the birth of the modern movement in the arts. What are the specific features of that movement and how are we to account for its emergence?
Two points need to be made before we start. First of all we must be clear that in one sense our inquiry is absurd. There is no physical entity called 'modernism' which we can extract from the variety of individual works of art and hold up for inspection. Every modern artist of any worth has achieved what he has precisely because he has found his own individual voice and because this voice is distinct from those around him. Yet it cannot be denied that something did happen to art, to all the arts, some time around the turn of the century, and that Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Klee, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, for all their manifest differences, do have something in common.
The second point is more in the nature of a reminder of a historical fact which, if rightly interpreted, should serve as a guide and a warning throughout this investigation. Although the First World War effectively marks the break...
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Stylistic And Thematic Traits
James Sloan Allen
SOURCE: "Self-Consciousness and the Modernist Temper," in Georgia Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 601-20.
[In the following essay, Allen considers self-consciousness as a defining trait of the Modernist temperament.]
If there is one undisputed attribute of the modernist temper, it is self-consciousness. Even quarrels over the merits of that temper fall into agreement here: self-consciousness—in such guises as the mirror, shadow, multiple selves, self-reflecting thought, an anxious pause between sensation and expression, shuffling feet, or quickly averted eyes—marks every work of the modernist imagination.
Critics who find fault with that temper often locate the fault in self-consciousness. A generation ago, Jacques Barzun, observing that "the first striking trait of the modern ego is self-consciousness," belabored this trait for subverting the "willingness to take risks" and thereby working "to the detriment of happiness… and of art." W. H. Auden agreed. Although Auden believed self-awareness could enhance imagination, he saw modernist writers usually crushed by it; and he concluded that the modernist temper tested itself upon one question alone: "How shall the self-conscious man be saved?" Robert Langbaum, surveying quests for psychological identity in modern literature, is less ambiguous. "Modern self-consciousness," he says,...
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Poetry And Drama
SOURCE: "The Growth of English Modernism," in Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry, Rowman and Littlefield, 1979, pp. 289-307.
[In the following excerpt, Hobsbaum examines Modernism in English poetry.]
A conventional account of the rise of modern poetry would, I suppose, run something like this. The Georgians of Sir Edward Marsh's anthologies represented the last lap of Victorianism; sheltered subjects and literary diction. English poetry was shocked out of such torpor by the Imagists; insistence on experiment, free verse. The resistance to 'modernism', so called, was overcome by the mature work of T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land and of Ezra Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. But their work has never been satisfactorily implemented in English poetry. Hence the thin poetic haul of the last thirty years.
There is a lot in this that one can agree with. Yet it seems to me far from the whole truth. And, indeed, a certain amount of dissatisfaction with this account has been shown already. In a broadcast of 1961, George MacBeth clearly showed that the Georgians were not so whimsywhamsy as popular accounts, and popular anthologies, have suggested. He maintained that the links between the Georgians, such as Lascelles Abercrombie, and the modernists, such as Eliot, were closer than had been suspected. In Mr MacBeth's opinion, the true...
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SOURCE: "What Was Modernism?" in Varieties of Literary Experience: Eighteen Essays in World Literature, edited by Stanley Burnshaw, New York University Press, 1962, pp. 307-29.
[In the following essay, Levin reflects on the distinguishing traits and cultural significance of the Modernist era in literature.]
A new apartment building in New York City, according to a recent announcement, has been named The Picasso. Though I have not had the pleasure of seeing it, I would suggest that it ought to be hailed as a landmark, indicating that we Americans have smoothly rounded some sort of cultural corner. Heretofore it has been more customary to christen our apartments after the landed estates or the rural counties of England, as if by verbal association to compensate for the rootless transience of metropolitan living. A few years ago the name of Picasso, as house-hold god, would have conjured up notions of a jerrybuilt structure and a Bohemian ambience. Prospective tenants, in their perennial quest for comfort and security, would have been put off by a vision of collapsible stairways, rooms without floors, trapezoidal kitchenettes, or neighbors with double faces and blue-green complexions. But in the meanwhile the signature has brought untold wealth and unquestioned prestige to its signer, and now it becomes a warrant of domestic respectability. If this is not an arrival, no...
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Ellmann, Richard, and Feidelson, Charles, Jr., eds. The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, 953 p.
Presents thematic arrangement of writings by novelists, dramatists, poets, artists, and philosophers.
Davies, Alistair. An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Modernism. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982, 261 p.
Includes books and essays discussing the origins, development, techniques, and cultural context of literary Modernism, and provides comprehensive individual bibliographies on such figures as W. B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot.
Bergonzi, Bernard. "The Advent of Modernism, 1900-1920." In The Twentieth Century, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, pp. 17-45. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1970.
Traces the origins and delineates prominent traits of Modernism in English literature.
Craig, David. "Loneliness and Anarchy: Aspects of Modernism." In The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change, pp. 171-94. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Craig decries expressions of loneliness and anarchy in Modernist literature.
Dettmar, Kevin J. H., ed. Rereading the New: A Backward Glance...
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