World War I
Modernism took place over many decades, and almost no facet of life in the West was not profoundly transformed by the changes that took place between 1860 and 1939. But if Modernism centered around one historical event, it was the unthinkable catastrophe that became known later as World War I. In the years leading up to World War I, the modernist writers thought of themselves as rebels, ruthlessly breaking apart all of the societal certainties of the Victorian age. The American modernists sneered at American middle-class acquisitiveness, while the British modernists chafed at the smug, self-assured conservatism of the Victorian and Edwardian age. Modernist writers broke convention by writing frankly about sex, by insulting religion, and by arguing passionately that the poor were not poor simply because of a moral failing. By breaking these societal taboos, modernist writers found themselves cast in the role of rebels, pariahs, even dangerous men and women. And such writers as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis began to believe their own hype about being dangerous to society.
The coming of World War I fulfilled the modernist predictions of a coming fragmentation and destruction beyond anything they could have imagined. The war itself came upon an unsuspecting Europe almost in a way that the modernists might have envisioned, for it was society’s faith in its own structures that ended up destroying it. Specifically, the complicated network of alliances dividing Europe into two moderately hostile camps (one consisting largely of...
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Modernism sought to accurately portray the world not as it is but as humans actually experience it. Modernist literature, then, relied especially heavily on advances in narrative technique, for narration (a voice speaking) is the essential building block of all literature. Interestingly, the narrative techniques in modernist poetry and modernist fiction illustrate the same ideas about experience, but they do so in very different ways.
Modernist fiction tends to rely on the streamof- consciousness or “interior monologue” techniques. This kind of narration purports to record the thoughts as they pass through a narrator’s head. The unpredictable connections that people make between ideas demonstrates something about them, as do the things they try to avoid thinking about. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom attempts not to dwell on his knowledge that his wife will cheat on him as he wanders the city, so thoughts of his wife, of Blazes Boylan (her lover), or of sex make him veer quickly in another mental direction. Also, a number of small ideas and images recur throughout the book: an advertisement for Plumtree’s Potted Meat, for instance, and the Greek word metempsychosis. These ideas crop up without any apparent pattern and get stuck in Bloom’s head, just as a song or a phrase might resonate through people’s minds for hours and then just disappear. This narrative technique attempts to record how scattered and jumbled the experience of the world really is, and at the same time how deeper patterns in thoughts can be discerned by those (such as readers) with some distance from them. That humans are alienated from true knowledge of themselves is the implicit contention of the stream-of-consciousness form of narration.
Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, did not delve deeply into the individual consciousness. Rather, they attempted to model the fragmented nature of minds and civilization in their narratives. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has dozens of speakers that succeed each other without warning: the poem opens with the voice of the dead speaking from underground, then shifts quickly to the unattributed voice of Countess Marie Larisch of Bavaria, then shifts just as quickly to a stentorian, priestly voice. The effect is a cacophony of voices, a mass of talking devoid of...
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Imagism is the best-known of the dozens of small movements in modernist poetry in the years leading up to World War I. Ezra Pound formulated the “rules” of Imagism, which were essentially a rejection of Victorian poetry. Imagist poets were encouraged to “simply present” an image; the poet “does not comment.” Excessive adjectives and the voice of the poet were anathema. Finally, Pound urged imagists to use the rhythm of the metronome.
From his base in London, Pound published the anthology Des Imagistes in 1914. Other poets in the movement included H. D., William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, and Amy Lowell; H. D.’s poem “Oread” embodies the imagist project. Pound soon moved on from Imagism but Lowell, from Boston, continued to publish imagist anthologies for years after the movement had become irrelevant.
After Imagism, Pound moved on to Vorticism. This movement (which consisted primarily of Pound, the writer T. E. Hulme, and the painter/novelist Wyndham Lewis) was published in their magazine Blast: A Review of the Great English Vortex. It took the basic tenets of imagism, combined them with the painting style of Cubism, and injected an aggressive anger. At this time Pound had discovered the Chinese written character and had decided that its unique combination of sound, text, and image created a luminous “vortex” of energy. The movement fell apart as World War...
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Compare and Contrast
1890s: The United States’ economy expands rapidly as the nation exploits its natural resources. Large corporations in the transportation, steel, oil, meat-packing, and financial industries establish monopolies; as a result, Congress passes the Sherman Anti-Trust Act intended to break up such monopolies.
Today: Dozens of states and the federal government go to trial with the Microsoft corporation. Charged with being a monopoly, the company defends itself on the grounds that standardization is better for consumers than variety.
1914: World War I breaks out when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is assassinated in Sarajevo. The system of interlocking alliances among Europe’s great powers compels these nations to go to war on each other’s behalf. The war drags on until 1918; millions are killed.
Today: After a terrorist attack destroys the World Trade Center in New York, President George W. Bush calls for a war against terrorism and especially against Osama bin Laden. In the first stage of the war, American and British submarines and airplanes bombard Afghanistan, where bin Laden is said to reside.
1915: During the first years of World War I, the United States refuses to join the fighting. In 1915, though, the passenger ship Lusitania is sunk by the German navy, killing thousands of Americans. This incident plays an important part in swaying American public...
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Topics for Further Study
Modernism evolved as an artistic reaction to dramatic changes in politics, culture, society, and technology. Research some of the technologies that were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s that might have literally changed the world. Some of the inventions you might want to investigate might be the technologies that captured and recorded reality (photography, sound recording, film), the technologies of communication, the technologies of transportation, and the technologies of weaponry.
The two world wars of the twentieth century had an enormous effect on the modernist movement. Many critics feel that the movement hit its height just after World War I and was effectively killed by World War II. Research the wars’ effects on writers of the modernist movement. What did they do during the war years? How did the war change their lives? You might want to look at lesser-known writers such as Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen who actually served in the conflict.
Most of the important modernist writers were born between 1880 and 1900, and most of them died in the 1960s. The world changed dramatically in the intervening period. In 1890 what were the world’s great powers? Who were its important leaders? What were the important issues in international relations? What products did people use? How did people travel from place to place? Compare the answers to these questions to what the world looked like in 1965.
In addition to being a...
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Call It Sleep
Perhaps the most notable example of Joycean prose in American literature is this novel, written in 1934 by Henry Roth, the son of Jewish immigrants to New York. The novel tells the story of David Schearl, an immigrant boy in New York. Using the stream-of-consciousness technique perfected by Joyce in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, readers hear the interior voice of this boy as he grows up poor, watches his parents fight, and struggles with persecution from neighborhood bullies. The novel gained critical acclaim upon publication but was quickly forgotten until its paperback republication in 1964. By this time Roth had given up writing and moved to New Mexico. In the early 1990s, near...
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Historically, most modernist works have not translated well into film or television adaptations. Of the modernist writers, it is Hemingway whose work has been most often filmed. Hollywood produced two versions of A Farewell to Arms, one in 1932 (starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, directed by Frank Borzage) and the other in 1957.
Other modernist writers have seen their novels turned into films. A few attempts have been made to produce Joyce’s work, for instance. In 1967 the director Joseph Strick filmed a version of Ulysses that depicted a bare-bones version of the story. However, since most of the book takes place on a linguistic and allegorical level, most viewers have found the film unsatisfying.
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What Do I Read Next?
There was almost no facet of life that was not fundamentally transformed by the technological advances of the modernist period. Stephen Kern’s 1983 book The Culture of Time and Space 1880–1918 (1983) is an excellent meditation on how technology changed human life and perception.
A movement that was not similar to Modernism in its formal features but provided many modernist writers with a model of artistic rebellion was the so-called Decadent movement of the 1890s. The best-known Decadent writers were the Anglo-Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde and the French novelist J. K. Huysmans, but dozens of other writers were loosely affiliated with this group. Reading Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, Yale University Press, 1994.
Brooks, Cleanth, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
—, The Well-Wrought Urn, Harvest Books, 1956.
Eliot, T. S., Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, Harvest Books, 1975.
Ransom, John Crowe, The New Criticism, New Directions Press, 1939.
Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890–1930, Penguin, 1991. This anthology provides more than two dozen essays by the most eminent critics of Modernism. Topics range from the...
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