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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.

Representative Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Anderson, Sherwood

Winesburg, Ohio (short stories) 1919

Crane, Hart

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

Faulkner, William

The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929

Fitzgerald, F. Scott

The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925

Ford, Ford Madox

The Good Soldier (novel) 1915

Hemingway, Ernest

The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926

Isherwood, Christopher

The Berlin Stories (short stories) 1935-49

Joyce, James

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

Women in Love (novel) 1920

Lady Chatterley's Lover (novel) 1928

Pound, Ezra

The Cantos (poetry) 1925

Richardson, Dorothy

Pilgrimage (novel) 1915-38

Stein, Gertrude

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (memoir) 1933

Stevens, Wallace

"Sunday Morning" (poetry) 1923

Woolf, Virginia

Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925

To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927

The Waves (novel) 1931

Yeats, William Butler

"Easter 1916" (poetry) 1916

"The Second Coming" (poetry) 1920

"Sailing to Byzantium" (poetry) 1928

Purgatory (drama) 1938


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Anna Balakian

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...

(The entire section is 110,035 words.)