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 better citizens. Literature and art, for the Victorians, were meant to be “edifying”—educational. Literature was read to learn how one should behave. By that same token, literature that did not put forth edifying models was simply bad literature. This attitude is shown especially well in the hostile response to Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 Madame Bovary, a novel that depicted, without comment or condemnation, the adulterous behavior of a middle-class woman. The Arnoldian attitude toward literature persisted well into the twentieth century, and in the United States was personified by the writers and editors of the Saturday Review of Literature, especially Henry Seidel Canby.
For these critics, modernist literature was both incomprehensible and dangerous. Its stylistic experiments made it difficult to digest easily—readers had to work to make it through Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury, not to mention The Cantos or “The Waste Land”—and its pessimistic, negative attitude toward society could hardly be expected to make better citizens. In fact, modernist literature celebrated those people, artists especially, who rebelled against society. Where the late Victorian critics and their intellectual descendants wanted edifying, socially-uplifting literature, modernist literature sought to create independent, critical, alienated subjects.
As a result, Modernism had to create its own critics and to a remarkable extent it succeeded. At first, modernist writers simply started their own magazines and reviewed each other’s work. Ezra Pound, through the journals Poetry and The Egoist, was especially productive in this. Later, T. S. Eliot became Modernism’s leading critic. In his journal The Criterion and, later, from his post as managing editor of the publishing house Faber & Faber, Eliot advanced his own vision of good literature. He denigrated the neoclassicists and the romantics and praised the Elizabethans; he argued for a literature steeped in the “Tradition”; he valued tension, ambiguity, and allusion. Not coincidentally, his own poetry seemed to be the height of “Good Literature” as he defined it.
After Eliot defined a modernist aesthetic, other critics began to agree with him. Difficulty, resistance, ambiguity, irony, and the sense of an ending to something were all qualities praised by critics ranging from the political right wing (the New Critics) to the far left...
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(the New York Intellectuals). By the 1930s and 1940s the modernist aesthetic was taking over Anglo-American literary criticism. The old guard of critics defending the edifices of Western civilization seemed less and less relevant after a war, a depression, and another war. The pessimistic modernist view of the world began to seem correct. By the 1950s, Modernism and its aesthetic standards were almost unquestioned in American criticism and education.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Modernism remained dominant in American literature. Literary histories were rewritten to reflect Modernism’s new importance; earlier, forgotten writers such as Herman Melville were rediscovered as important ancestors. And the modernist aesthetic of alienation, separation from the world, and profound pessimism became almost synonymous with literature.
This all changed in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of the political upheavals of the 1960s, relevance again became an important virtue of literature. Readers wanted literature to be politically engaged, to tell the stories of the struggles of oppressed groups (women, African Americans, Chicanos, gays and lesbians), and most importantly to take a political stand on issues. The modernist aesthetic denigrated works that sought to be politically relevant; this dated the works and made them less timeless and universal. But again, as in the 1940s and 1950s, a new generation of critics and teachers reevaluated Modernism and found it to be lacking in many virtues. It did not help that many modernist writers held political and social beliefs that ranged from extremely conservative to outright Fascist.
Over the last decade or so, a new generation of scholars has sought to again reevaluate Modernism. These scholars no longer look at Modernism according to Eliot’s own opinions of what is important in literature. In a sense, these new scholars read Modernism against its own grain, trying to find buried content in the literature. And while Eliot’s reactionary beliefs and Pound’s anti- Semitism still exist, even the most left-wing critics often find something to admire in their works, something that often Pound or Eliot explicitly urged readers to ignore. Perhaps the most notable example of this “against-the-grain” reading of Modernism is the reconsideration of “The Waste Land” after Pound’s central role in the poem’s composition was discovered. Eliot’s cult of the solitary, alienated artist standing apart from all of his peers and creating suddenly seemed questionable after readers discovered that Eliot’s greatest poem was, in fact, the product of a collaboration that he tried to hide for decades.