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.

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...

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a collection of fragments, of pieces of culture and society broken apart and without meaning. The poem is perhaps the best verbal portrait ever created of civilized man confronting the possibility that everything has been destroyed.

Literary Style

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Narration Modernism sought to accurately portray the world not as it is but as humans actually experience it. Modernist literature, then, relied especially heavily on advances in narrative technique, for narration (a voice speaking) is the essential building block of all literature. Interestingly, the narrative techniques in modernist poetry and modernist fiction illustrate the same ideas about experience, but they do so in very different ways.

Modernist fiction tends to rely on the streamof- consciousness or “interior monologue” techniques. This kind of narration purports to record the thoughts as they pass through a narrator’s head. The unpredictable connections that people make between ideas demonstrates something about them, as do the things they try to avoid thinking about. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom attempts not to dwell on his knowledge that his wife will cheat on him as he wanders the city, so thoughts of his wife, of Blazes Boylan (her lover), or of sex make him veer quickly in another mental direction. Also, a number of small ideas and images recur throughout the book: an advertisement for Plumtree’s Potted Meat, for instance, and the Greek word metempsychosis. These ideas crop up without any apparent pattern and get stuck in Bloom’s head, just as a song or a phrase might resonate through people’s minds for hours and then just disappear. This narrative technique attempts to record how scattered and jumbled the experience of the world really is, and at the same time how deeper patterns in thoughts can be discerned by those (such as readers) with some distance from them. That humans are alienated from true knowledge of themselves is the implicit contention of the stream-of-consciousness form of narration.

Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, did not delve deeply into the individual consciousness. Rather, they attempted to model the fragmented nature of minds and civilization in their narratives. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has dozens of speakers that succeed each other without warning: the poem opens with the voice of the dead speaking from underground, then shifts quickly to the unattributed voice of Countess Marie Larisch of Bavaria, then shifts just as quickly to a stentorian, priestly voice. The effect is a cacophony of voices, a mass of talking devoid of connection.

In Ezra Pound’s The Cantos or William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, this array of voices is taken to its logical conclusion. The poet speaks in many different voices, but historical figures speak, artworks speak, ordinary people speak. In both of these long poems, the poets transcribed letters (Pound used letters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, while Williams used the letters of his friends and admirers) and included them in the poem. The poet, in this case, is less a writer than a compiler of voices; it is the arrangement of pieces, not the content of each individual piece that is important. The effect is to “decenter” the reader. Readers are no longer sure where the poet (with his or her implicit authority over the text) exists in the poem.

Allusion An allusion is a brief reference to a person, place, thing, idea, or language that is not actually present. Because of modernist theories about the omnipresence of the past, allusions are difficult to avoid in modernist literature. Joyce, Eliot, and Pound—the three authors generally acknowledged as the leaders of the modernist movement in English— included allusion as perhaps the central formal device in their writing. The past is everywhere in the writing of these three, and indeed this is the case with most of the other modernist writers.

But it is in Joyce, Eliot, and Pound that the allusion is particularly important. Indeed, it is essentially impossible to understand their work without tracking down their more important allusions, and scholars have compiled long volumes explaining each reference in Ulysses and The Cantos. Some of their allusions are quite clear: for instance, in “Canto IV,” Pound includes the lines “Palace in smoky light, / Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones.” Most readers would be able to identify those lines as a reference to Homer’s Iliad, which tells the story of the end of the Trojan War. But not all of Pound’s allusions are so clear: “Canto VIII” begins “These fragments you have shelved (shored)”; the allusion is to Eliot’s famous line “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” at the end of “The Waste Land.” Eliot’s line is wellknown, but only those who have studied poetry would know it. And many of Pound’s allusions, indeed most of them, are frankly inaccessible. Pound spends a number of cantos alluding to Sigismondo Malatesta, an obscure Italian warrior-prince from the Renaissance. Only because Pound made him famous does anyone recognize his name.

Joyce structured Ulysses to work on numerous levels. All of the mundane events in Bloom’s day correspond to episodes in Homer’s epic Odyssey, for instance, but the book also works as a retelling of Irish history, of the growth and development of the human fetus, and of the history of the Catholic Church. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” can be read simply as a collection of allusions or “fragments” as he calls them in the last section: appearing in the poem are the Greek seer Tiresias, a pair of working- class women in East London, a number of Hindu deities, Dante, and an American ragtime singer. None of these references are explained; they just appear and the reader must make what sense of it he or she can. In the critical reevaluation of Modernism that has been taking place over the last decade, one of the central questions has been whether one must understand all of the allusions in order genuinely to appreciate the work.

Movement Variations

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Imagism Imagism is the best-known of the dozens of small movements in modernist poetry in the years leading up to World War I. Ezra Pound formulated the “rules” of Imagism, which were essentially a rejection of Victorian poetry. Imagist poets were encouraged to “simply present” an image; the poet “does not comment.” Excessive adjectives and the voice of the poet were anathema. Finally, Pound urged imagists to use the rhythm of the metronome.

From his base in London, Pound published the anthology Des Imagistes in 1914. Other poets in the movement included H. D., William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, and Amy Lowell; H. D.’s poem “Oread” embodies the imagist project. Pound soon moved on from Imagism but Lowell, from Boston, continued to publish imagist anthologies for years after the movement had become irrelevant.

Vorticism After Imagism, Pound moved on to Vorticism. This movement (which consisted primarily of Pound, the writer T. E. Hulme, and the painter/novelist Wyndham Lewis) was published in their magazine Blast: A Review of the Great English Vortex. It took the basic tenets of imagism, combined them with the painting style of Cubism, and injected an aggressive anger. At this time Pound had discovered the Chinese written character and had decided that its unique combination of sound, text, and image created a luminous “vortex” of energy. The movement fell apart as World War I began, for its anger and violence seemed very small and ineffective when compared to the real destruction of the war.

The Objectivists The objectivists were a group of modernist poets who formed relatively late during the modernist period. In a way, they can be considered the descendants of the imagists, but their poems tend to be even starker and flatter. The objectivists drew their inspiration from William Carlos Williams but most of the members of the movement were of the younger (born after 1900) generation. George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and a few others are the best-known poets of the objectivist movement.

The Lost Generation The Lost Generation was a name given by Gertrude Stein to the group of young Americans who migrated to Paris in the 1920s. Ernest Hemingway is the most famous of these Americans (in fact, it was to him that Stein said, “you are all a lost generation”), but there were dozens. Many of these Americans were artists and writers, but just as many were not and were attracted to Paris because of the strong dollar and the bohemian lifestyle. Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is the enduring portrait of this group as they wander from Paris to Spain and back, looking for thrills and occasionally working.

The Lost Generation’s members constantly crossed paths with the European artists who were already living there. Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Stein, Constantin Brancusi, and many others had made Paris their home and had made it into one of the great centers of artistic activity. When the “Lost Generation” arrived, many of the established artists befriended these Americans, took advantage of them, or even worked with them. By the end of the 1920s, though, most of these Americans returned home.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: The United States’ economy expands rapidly as the nation exploits its natural resources. Large corporations in the transportation, steel, oil, meat-packing, and financial industries establish monopolies; as a result, Congress passes the Sherman Anti-Trust Act intended to break up such monopolies.

Today: Dozens of states and the federal government go to trial with the Microsoft corporation. Charged with being a monopoly, the company defends itself on the grounds that standardization is better for consumers than variety.

1914: World War I breaks out when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is assassinated in Sarajevo. The system of interlocking alliances among Europe’s great powers compels these nations to go to war on each other’s behalf. The war drags on until 1918; millions are killed.

Today: After a terrorist attack destroys the World Trade Center in New York, President George W. Bush calls for a war against terrorism and especially against Osama bin Laden. In the first stage of the war, American and British submarines and airplanes bombard Afghanistan, where bin Laden is said to reside.

1915: During the first years of World War I, the United States refuses to join the fighting. In 1915, though, the passenger ship Lusitania is sunk by the German navy, killing thousands of Americans. This incident plays an important part in swaying American public opinion toward joining the war.

Today: After terrorists pilot jetliners into American targets, killing thousands of people, President George W. Bush calls for a “war on terrorism” and begins bombing targets in Afghanistan. As the campaign to find and punish the terrorists responsible continues, American troops fight alongside the local militias to defeat Afghanistan’s Taliban government.

1927: Al Jolson stars in The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” motion picture. The conjunction of recorded sound and recorded image, revolutionary in its time, follows the instantaneous broadcast of sound by radio, which achieved its first transatlantic broadcast in 1901. It is followed by the instantaneous broadcast of sound and images by television in 1939.

Today: The advent of computers in the 1960s has by now changed the nature of recorded sound and images. All of the pre–Worlds War II technologies such as film, magnetic tape, vinyl records, and radio broadcasts are what is known as “analog” information. Modern technologies like compact disks, digital cameras, computer hard drives, and even cable television feeds are based on digital information—a series of instructions to a computer. Many people suspect that this change from analog to digital will change our relationship to reality just as profoundly as did the development of recorded sound and images.

1929: After many years of what is now known as the Roaring Twenties, a period in which the American economy expands rapidly and the United States begins to develop the consumer culture popular today, the stock market crashes on October 29, 1929. The crash is caused by many factors including dramatic economic troubles in Europe and Asia and the tendency, among American consumers, to buy items on credit and then default on payment. The crash leads to the terrible Great Depression of the 1930s.

Today: After many years of unprecedented economic expansion (largely driven by the hightechnology sector of the economy), these seemingly endless good times begin to dramatically slow. Paper fortunes are wiped out overnight as stock options become worthless. Hundreds of Internet companies go out of business, but the slowdown also affects “brick and mortar” industries like automobiles, construction, and travel.

Representative Works

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Call It Sleep Perhaps the most notable example of Joycean prose in American literature is this novel, written in 1934 by Henry Roth, the son of Jewish immigrants to New York. The novel tells the story of David Schearl, an immigrant boy in New York. Using the stream-of-consciousness technique perfected by Joyce in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, readers hear the interior voice of this boy as he grows up poor, watches his parents fight, and struggles with persecution from neighborhood bullies. The novel gained critical acclaim upon publication but was quickly forgotten until its paperback republication in 1964. By this time Roth had given up writing and moved to New Mexico. In the early 1990s, near the end of his long life, Roth returned to writing, producing four sequels to his masterwork.

The Cantos If Ulysses is the most successful and greatest work of the modernist movement, Ezra Pound’s long poem The Cantos is perhaps its most characteristic. Its composition and contents mirror the ideas of the modernists. It is composed of fragments, of different voices from different times and places. It attempts to diagnose the ills of the modern world, comes up with an ultimately failed solution, and imagines a better world that existed once and could exist in fragmentary form again.

Pound began writing his “poem including history,” as he called it, in 1917, when he published early versions of three of the cantos in a litterary magazine. He began working in earnest on the poem in the 1920s after he moved to Italy, and continued working on it, eventually publishing eight installments, until the late 1960s. The poem is an epic, attempting to tell “the tale of the tribe” (civilized humanity) from ancient times to today.

Structured to mirror and include characters from two of history’s great epics (Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy), the poem was originally planned to include 120 “cantos,” or shorter chapters. There is no plot to speak of, but the poem broadly moves from hell (literally but also in the sense of an utterly fallen civilization) to purgatory, where historical figures such as Confucius, Sigismondo Malatesta, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Mussolini are introduced. Pound wanted to highlight moments in history where a just and aesthetically appreciative society existed or could have existed. The poem veered sharply back to Pound’s own life during the 1940s, when Pound found himself working for the Fascists and ultimately was incarcerated in a mental hospital in the United States. As Pound neared the end of his life and of the poem, he discovered and recorded glimpses of paradise on earth.

Public opinion of the work varies dramatically. Many readers can make no sense of the poem; others find that it contains some of the most remarkable passages in English-language poetry. Critics have been similarly divided. Although the poem is solidly in the canon of American literature and is considered one of the central works of modernist literature, many scholars and academics dismiss it as a failed, obscure, and ultimately fascist poem.

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway published A Farewell to Arms in 1929. He was already famous for his portrait of dissolute youth in Paris, The Sun Also Rises, but this novel was a great step forward in terms of sophistication and importance. It tells of Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver during the last days of World War I; his wounding and convalescence and affair with a nurse. More important, though, was Hemingway’s revolutionary technique. His prose was journalistic, stripped of adjectives and any construction that might call attention to itself. Such narration achieved a numbness that reflected the mental brutalization the war visited upon the hero—and the author. Hemingway eschews abstract concepts such as glory, duty, and honor because, like his hero’s, his own experience during the war showed him that these were weapons used by people in power to manipulate ordinary people.

After the popular and critical success of this novel, Hemingway became an international celebrity with literary credibility. He continued to write for much of the rest of his life and produced at least two great novels (For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea) before committing suicide in 1961.

Harmonium The popularity of the work of poet and insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens has continued to grow even as the work of other modernists has fallen in favor. Stevens’s first book of poetry was Harmonium, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1923. While modernist poetry written by Pound and Eliot was allusive, drenched in the fragments of previous cultures and other languages, and overwhelmed by an almost angry melancholy, Stevens’s work was light and lyrical. In Harmonium, Stevens exhibited a verbal dandyism, delighting in the sounds of words and in Elizabethan definitions. He was a direct descendant of Keats and Marvell, whereas other modernists saw Browning, Shakespeare, and Dante as their ancestors.

But Stevens cannot be dismissed as a writer of light verse. His poems exhibit the characteristic modernist fear of nihilism while entertaining the fear that the entire world is simply a projection of his mind. In “The Snow Man,” for instance, Stevens listens to “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” and in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” the narrator questions whether “I was the world in which I walked.” In his later books, Stevens produced longer, philosophical poems that questioned art’s place in human cognition, and by the 1970s and 1980s, Stevens, not Eliot or Pound, was cited as an influence by hundreds of practicing American poets.

The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner, a Mississippian, began his career as a writer heavily influenced by the regionalist Sherwood Anderson, with whom he worked in New Orleans (in the 1920s, the home of American Bohemianism). But Faulkner quickly outdid his teacher. He created an entire fictional world in which almost all of his fiction was set: Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. In this world the past always impinges upon the present, and Faulkner’s fiction is full of narrative devices intended to outflank language’s need to be based in time. His 1929 The Sound and the Fury contains Faulkner’s most successful experiments with time.

The novel is the story of the fall of the Compson family that culminates in the suicide of son Quentin. Told by a series of narrators, the stories in the book provide different perspectives on the same events and the reader must compare all of the different versions in order to understand what “really” happened. Most difficult is the narration of Benjy, a retarded boy who has no conception of time. In his narration there is no differentiation between what happened years ago, what happened yesterday, and what is happening now. Faulkner’s experiments did not gain him a large audience in the United States (in search of income, he moved to Hollywood in a failed attempt to be a screenwriter) but his influence was vast among Latin American writers, especially such “magical realists” as Gabriel García Márquez.

To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf perfected the stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue style in her novels of the 1920s. Her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse depicts the Ramsay family, who is spending the summer in a vacation house on the Isle of Skye. Assorted guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe (a character many readers feel is a stand-in for Woolf herself), also come and go. The novel moves from a focus solely on the personal level of the family to a wider focus; the impending world war appears as a dark cloud on the horizon. The novel then shifts time to ten years later as the family deals with the death of one of its members.

Woolf’s novel delicately and insightfully pulls apart memory, family relationships, and the effects of death. In a movement such as Modernism, generally so focused on the big picture often to the exclusion of the personal, To the Lighthouse stands out as an example of how modernist technique can be applied to the examination of emotion.

Ulysses James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, first published in 1922, is the single greatest work of modernist literature and is considered by many to be the finest novel ever written. Joyce spent ten years writing this book, a meticulously detailed day in the life of three Dubliners. The main characters are Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising salesman; Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, a singer who is planning to cheat on her husband; and Stephen Dedalus, a dissipated young intellectual. The story parallels Homer’s Odyssey but translates that epic journey of ten years to eighteen hours and one city.

Upon its publication—and even before, when fragments were published in magazines—the book was immediately hailed as a work of genius. Joyce’s endless erudition, his command of languages and literature and history, his love and intimate knowledge of one small place at one specific time, are all on display in this book. More than just an intellectual enterprise and a small gem of engineering, though, Ulysses is a genuinely moving story of conjugal and parental love. Because of its frank treatment of sex and its, at times, insulting portraits of religion and Irish nationalism, the book was banned in Ireland and America. In the United States, it took twelve years for the book to be allowed in the country; until then, travelers to Paris would have to hide the book in their luggage from customs inspectors (who were warned to look for its characteristic blue-green binding).

“The Waste Land” T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” published in 1922, is the single most important modernist poem. Essentially plotless, the poem instead attempts to capture historical development to the present day by use of allusion. Characters such as Tiresias, the Smyrna merchant, and an East London housewife, wander through the poem. London, the “Unreal City” in the fog, becomes the synecdoche for the fallen world as a whole. The poem moves from Elizabethan times to the ancient world to the present and ends, finally, with a small failing voice speaking Sanskrit.

Interestingly, in its original version the poem was six times as long and titled “He Do The Police in Different Voices.” When he was still a struggling poet, T. S. Eliot showed the poem to Ezra Pound, asking for his advice. Pound performed what he called a “Caesarean operation” on Eliot’s manuscript, telling him to cut the links between the vignettes so that the poem appeared as a series of fragments. Eliot never called attention to Pound’s central role in creating “The Waste Land” and it was not until the 1960s, when the original manuscript was found, that Pound’s true role became publicly known.

Most critics have seen the poem as expressing a fundamental despair at the sense that, with the loss of all certainties, the world was nothing but “fragments” that are “shored against [our] ruin.” It continues to vex students with its difficulty, but even the most basic reading evokes a sense of desperation and loss.

Media Adaptations

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Historically, most modernist works have not translated well into film or television adaptations. Of the modernist writers, it is Hemingway whose work has been most often filmed. Hollywood produced two versions of A Farewell to Arms, one in 1932 (starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, directed by Frank Borzage) and the other in 1957.

Other modernist writers have seen their novels turned into films. A few attempts have been made to produce Joyce’s work, for instance. In 1967 the director Joseph Strick filmed a version of Ulysses that depicted a bare-bones version of the story. However, since most of the book takes place on a linguistic and allegorical level, most viewers have found the film unsatisfying.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, Yale University Press, 1994.

Brooks, Cleanth, Modern Poetry and the Tradition, University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

—, The Well-Wrought Urn, Harvest Books, 1956.

Eliot, T. S., Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode, Harvest Books, 1975.

Ransom, John Crowe, The New Criticism, New Directions Press, 1939.

Further Reading Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890–1930, Penguin, 1991. This anthology provides more than two dozen essays by the most eminent critics of Modernism. Topics range from the artistic scenes in various cities to the formal characteristics of modernist poetry to discussions of some of the smaller movements within Modernism.

Charters, Jimmie, This Must Be the Place, Herbert Joseph, 1932. Jimmie Charters—“Jimmie the Barman”—tended bar at the Dingo in the Paris neighborhood of Montparnasse, a notorious haunt for such modernist writers as Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. The book provides a portrait of these writers in their leisure hours, written by a man with very little interest in their art but a great appreciation for their personalities.

Douglas, Ann, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995. The artistic scene in New York in the 1920s was a “mongrelized” blend of black and white, urban and rural, male and female, according to Ann Douglas, who suggests that there is a need to understand the important contribution that marginalized groups made to American Modernism. In her book, she portrays the rise of New York City to cultural preeminence and balances the stories of traditional modernist heroes such as Ernest Hemingway with discussions of Harlem Renaissance figures such as Langston Hughes.

Hemingway, Ernest, A Moveable Feast, Touchstone, 1996. Hemingway’s casual memoir of the Lost Generation is the most famous description of Paris in the 1920s. Artists and writers from Picasso to Gertrude Stein to Man Ray appear in this amiable and fascinating book.

Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era, University of California Press, 1973. Controversial and idiosyncratic, Hugh Kenner is the most famous critic who deals with Modernism. In this book, he argues that Ezra Pound, not T. S. Eliot or James Joyce, is the central figure of Modernism and that all of Modernism’s themes and formal devices can be found in Pound’s writings.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide