Historical Context

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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.

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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 democracies such as Great Britain and France, the other consisting of monarchies or dictatorships such as Germany and the Austro- Hungarian Empire, but even these categories had exceptions—Czarist Russia fought on the democracies’ side) became not a means of stability but the mechanism of Europe’s destruction.

The war began when the Serbian rebel Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Austro- Hungary sought reprisals against Serbia, the Russians came to the Serbian defense, the Germans came to the assistance of the Austro-Hungarians, and Eastern Europe was at war. At the same time, the Germans took this opportunity to try out a plan they had been developing for years. The German strategic command had worked out a way to march across Belgium and northeastern France and take Paris in six weeks, and in 1914 they attempted to do just this. The plan bogged down and soon the English came to the assistance of the French and Belgians. Pushing the Germans back from the very suburbs of Paris, the Allied forces managed to save the French nation but the armies soon found themselves waging trench warfare in the forests and fens of northern France, Alsace, and Belgium. Millions died in futile attempts to move the line forward a few yards. Among these were a number of modernist artists and writers, including the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound’s friend.

The tone of excitement about violence that characterized earlier modernist writing disappeared after the war, for the writers who exalted in the promise of destruction were utterly numbed by the effects of real destruction. Although the soldierwriters like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon have left readers with vivid, horrifying pictures of combat, perhaps the enduring modernist imagery of the war is contained in two poems: Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Pound’s poem addresses the war directly, saying that “There died a myriad, / And of the best, among them, / For an old [b——] gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization.” Eliot’s poem is more evocative of the psychological effects of the war, for it is a collection of fragments, of pieces of culture and society broken apart and without meaning. The poem is perhaps the best...

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