Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1605
T. S. Eliot (1888–1965)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888. He attended Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford, studying philosophy and writing a dissertation on the logician F. H. Bradley. While in college, Eliot began writing poetry, but in 1908 he discovered French Symbolist poetry and his whole attitude toward literature changed. Ezra Pound read some of Eliot’s poetry in the 1910s and immediately decided that Eliot would be a member of his own literary circle. Pound advocated for Eliot with Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine and got Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in that journal in 1915. Eliot had settled in London at the same time, and married the emotionally unstable Vivian Haigh-Wood. Eliot struggled to make a living, working as a teacher and later at Lloyd’s Bank until 1925.
In 1922 Eliot broke through with his brilliant and successful poem “The Waste Land, ” although the manuscript of the poem demonstrates that Ezra Pound played a large role in the editing of the poem. “The Waste Land” brought Eliot fame and a place at the center of the burgeoning modernist movement. For the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, Eliot used his fame and his position as editor of a prominent literary journal (The Criterion) and as managing editor of the publishing house Faber & Faber to argue for a new standard of evaluating literature. In critical essays and his own poetry, he denigrated the romantics and neoclassicists and celebrated Dante and the Elizabethan “metaphysical” poets. He argued for the central role of “Tradition” in literature and downplayed the cult of individual genius created by the romantics.
For the remainder of his life, Eliot occupied the role of literary elder statesman. He continued to produce poems such as the Four Quartets but was never prolific. He became the very model of the conservative, royalist, High Church English gentleman. He died January 4, 1965, the very embodiment of the literary establishment.
William Faulkner (1897–1962)
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897, to a family with deep Mississippi and Confederate roots. He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, and briefly attended the University of Mississippi before leaving the state to seek his fortune as a writer. Settling briefly in New Orleans, Faulkner came under the tutelage of Sherwood Anderson and published his first book, The Marble Faun, a collection of short stories, in 1924. In 1929 he published the novel Sartoris, his first work set in the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha. Others followed, including his masterpieces The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Faulkner received a great deal of critical attention for his works, but he never obtained the kind of financial success that he sought. Attempting to remedy this, he wrote two sensationalistic books (Sanctuary and Requiem for a Nun) and briefly moved to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, in Byhalia, Mississippi.
James Joyce (1882–1941)
James Joyce is the most important writer of the modernist movement. He produced relatively few works, but these books ranged from poetry to drama, to short stories to the novel that the Modern Library publishing imprint named the most im- portant novel of the twentieth century. His life, too, became the embodiment of many of Modernism’s most central themes: exile, the presence of the past in one’s life, familiarity with a broad range of cultures and historical periods, and self-destruction.
Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland, on February 2, 1882, to a lower middle-class Catholic family. His father died when Joyce was young. Joyce attended Catholic schools in Ireland and matriculated at University College, Dublin. During his youth and college years, he struggled with the rigid structures of Catholic school and Irish nationalism. In 1902 Joyce left Dublin for Paris, but was called back to Ireland when his mother fell ill. He left Dublin again in 1904, bringing with him his companion Nora Barnacle, an uneducated but vivacious young woman (whom he did not marry until 1931). For many years Joyce struggled to make a living and to provide for his growing family. Settling first in Trieste and then in Zurich, he taught literature and enjoyed an occasional monetary grant.
During this time Joyce wrote and published stories, poems, and a novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dubliners, his collection of stories, was published in 1914 and immediately obtained the notice of the Anglo-American avant-garde and the disapproval of the Irish literary establishment. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was just that, a stream-of-consciousness narrative of Joyce’s own life (barely fictionalized as “Stephen Dedalus”) up to the point that he left Ireland. In 1922 Joyce published his masterpiece and the single greatest work of Modernism, Ulysses. This retelling of the Odysseus myth through the persona of a Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin is a triumph on every level. The book was immediately banned in England and America for blasphemy and obscenity; it was not until 1934 that it became legal in the United States.
After Ulysses, Joyce began work on another long novel, which was simply called Work in Progress during its composition. Joyce, by now the leading modernist writer, was living in Paris and had the worshipful admiration of the Lost Generation Americans as well as the more established writers of the city. Celebrations of Work in Progress appeared even before any of the work appeared in print. When it finally was published as Finnegans Wake in 1939, it shocked readers with its incessant wordplay. It is a very difficult novel, barely recognizable as English in many places, but its intricate structure and brilliant use of all of the English language’s possibilities ensure that readers will attempt to decipher it for decades to come. After finishing Finnegans Wake, Joyce and Nora moved back to Zurich to avoid being caught in the Nazi occupation of Paris. Joyce died in Zurich on January 13, 1941, following surgery for a perforated ulcer.
Ezra Pound (1885–1972)
In many ways, Ezra Pound was the father of literary Modernism. If nothing else, he almost single-handedly brought the techniques of Modernism to American poets, while at the same time bringing the talents of American modernist poets to the notice of the avant-garde establishment. Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, on October 30, 1885, but soon after his birth his family moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia. He grew up in that area and attended the University of Pennsylvania (where he met William Carlos Williams and another important American modernist poet, Hilda Doolittle) and Hamilton College. After a short stint teaching at a small college in Indiana, Pound grew tired of what he saw to be American small-mindedness and moved to Venice, Italy.
In Venice, Pound resolved to become a poet. He published a book there, but soon relocated to London. In the decade he spent in London, Pound, through the strength of his own will, created movements and forced himself into the center of those movements. Probably the most important of those movements was Imagism, a school of poetry that explicitly rejected Victorian models of verse by simply presenting images without authorial commentary. In 1920 Pound left London for Paris, where he spent a few years before becoming frustrated by the dominance of Gertrude Stein in the avant-garde scene there. In 1925 he moved to Rapallo, Italy, where he developed a strong affinity for Mussolini and Italian fascism. At this time he also began working in earnest on The Cantos, the epic poem that would become his life’s work.
Pound stayed in Italy for more than twenty years. During World War II he spoke on Italian state radio broadcasts aimed at American soldiers; in 1943 he was indicted for treason as a result of these activities and in 1945, returned to the United States to face trial. Found mentally unfit to defend himself, Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington, D.C. for thirteen years. Because of the intercession of such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway, in 1958 Pound was released from his incarceration and allowed to return to Italy. Settling in Venice, he published a few more books but by the mid-1960s he fell into a silence. He died in Venice, Italy, on November 1, 1972.
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)
Born January 25, 1882, Woolf met many eminent Victorians during her childhood. In 1904 she moved to the Bloomsbury district of London, a neighborhood that gave its name to Woolf’s literary and intellectual circle. She married the journalist Leonard Woolf and in 1917 she and her husband founded the Hogarth Press, an important literary and cultural publishing firm that published the first English-language editions of Freud’s work and T. S. Eliot’s early collection Poems (1919).
Beginning in the late 1910s, Woolf began to write. She quickly internalized the discoveries of Freud and the literary advances of the modernists and produced a number of novels striking in their sophistication: Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927). Her novels brought the “stream-of-consciousness” style a new depth and possibility. In addition to her activity in the literary world, she brought her feminist orientation and bisexual lifestyle to the forefront of her writing. In such works as Three Guineas (1938), A Room of One’s Own (1929), and Orlando (1928) she expressed opinions revolutionary for her time. However, her own life was not entirely happy. During the 1930s she grew increasingly fearful that she was suffering from a mental illness and would become a burden on her husband and friends. Spurred on by this fear and by her dread of World War II, she committed suicide by drowning on March 28, 1941.