How did Modernism affect American culture?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Modernism came to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century, and continued through the two World Wars. It tended to focus on invention and ingenuity, showing how the best innovations could be used to make life better, faster, and more enjoyable for the average person. Modernism was a key part of 1920's U.S. culture, with a shift towards the creation of a new, better society both casually and politically. The "Roaring Twenties" was a direct result of Modernist views, with new conventions to gender roles, as well as the fast spread of technological conveniences like telephones. Modernism in the U.S. also tried to avoid the most important social issues of the day, instead speaking to the youth and an idea of a fun life instead of an explicitly meaningful one. Art, music, and literature all moved away from Realism towards Abstraction, with free-flowing Jazz music, abstract art, and deeply metaphorical literature all becoming extremely popular. Architecture changed as well, leaving behind the unnecessary ornamentation of the past to show clean lines and functional design instead of wasted space. Overall, U.S. Modernism was a reaction to the changing social landscape of the world at the end of the 19th century, and served as a working template for many sociological, economic, ideological, and political philosophies of the future.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In her essay entitled "Modern Fiction," Virginia Woolf declares that the form of fiction that has been in style "more often misses than secures the thing we seek."

Ms. Woolf further contends that the "proper stuff of fiction" is not what custom has demanded. Instead, the Modernist writers attempted to come closer to real life and to preserve what truly interested them, even if doing so caused them to cast away conventions. Writers such as James Joyce, Woolf adds, come closest to representing the modern writer. He uses a stream-of-consciousness style and his protagonists feel incoherence, disillusionment, and uncertainty.

In the US, where for the first time its citizens experienced two wars on grand scales, optimism was lost and fragmentation was felt. As a result, many people began to feel unsure about the future and experienced a certain disillusionment. Like Krebs in Ernest Hemingway's short story "Soldier's Home," many no longer trusted the ideas and values of the world that had wrought such destruction and death.

The Modernist writers of America experimented with many new approaches and techniques. Above all, the Modernists shared the desire to capture the essence of modern life in the content and form of their work. For instance, in order to convey the fragmentation of the modern world that no longer seemed unified under any purpose, the Modernists rejected the traditional standards of literature. Often they would omit the exposition of a story or other traditional parts, such as resolutions to conflicts. In poetry the traditional forms were discarded for free verse. Themes were much more subtle than in traditional works, forcing readers to draw their own conclusions.

Oscar Wilde once said, "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life," and he may have unknowingly predicted what would happen in the 1920s. For as people began to become skeptical of traditional notions of art, they also began to reject traditional notions of morality, truth, and certainty. Thus, the "Lost Generation" (as Gertrude Stein referred to the those who emerged disillusioned from the wars) perceived little to accept or to praise. Many of them, such as Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot, became expatriates. Some became influenced by the theories of Freud and William James, so perspectives changed on sexuality and values.

The Jazz Age was born and people drank and danced. Young women wore shorter skirts and they rejected Victorian morals. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts this demoralization of the 1920s as many rejected traditional standards of thought and action.

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