Modernist literature

Modernist literature
Stylistic origins 19th century Europe
Cultural origins Industrial Revolution
Derivative forms Absurdism
Local scenes
The "Lost Generation" described writers in the Montparnasse Quartier in Paris.

Modernist literature is sub-genre of Modernism, a predominantly European movement beginning in the early 20th century that was characterized by a self-conscious break with traditional aesthetic forms. Representing the radical shift in cultural sensibilities surrounding World War I, modernist literature struggled with the new realm of subject matter brought about by an increasingly industrialized and globalized world.

In its earliest incarnations, modernism fostered a utopian spirit, stimulated by innovations happening in the fields of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political theory, and psychoanalysis. Writers such as Ezra Pound and other poets of the Imagist movement characterized this exuberant spririt, rejecting the sentiment and discursiveness typical of Romanticism and Victorian literature for poetry that instead favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language.

This new idealism ended, however, with the outbreak of war, when writers began to generate more cynical postwar works that reflected a prevailing sense of disillusionment and fragmented thought. Many modernist writers shared a mistrust of institutions of power such as government and religion, and rejected the notion of absolute truths. Like T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, The Waste Land, later modernist works were increasingly self-aware, introspective, and often embraced the unconscious fears of a darker humanity.[1]



Many scholars mark the beginning of the modernist literary movement with the publication of James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses. Joyce's strategies for depicting the events in the life of his fictional protagonist, Leopold Bloom, have come to epitomize modernism's artistic assault on modes of more conventional fiction. The poet T.S. Eliot described these qualities in the American Transcendentalist magazine The Dial in 1923, noting that Joyce's technique is "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.... Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art."[2]

Modernist literature addressed aesthetic problems similar to those examined in non-literary forms of contemporaneous Modernist art, such as Modernist painting. Gertrude Stein's abstract writings, for example, have often been compared to the fragmentary and multi-perspective Cubism of her friend Pablo Picasso.[3]

The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve and protect the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.[4]

The Modernist emphasis on a radical individualism can be seen in the many literary manifestos issued by various groups within the movement. The concerns expressed by Simmel above are echoed in Richard Huelsenbeck's "First German Dada Manifesto" of 1918:

Art in its execution and direction is dependent on the time in which it lives, and artists are creatures of their epoch. The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week... The best and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life, who, with bleeding hands and hearts, hold fast to the intelligence of their time.

The cultural history of humanity creates a unique common history that connects previous generations with the current generation of humans. The Modernist re-contextualization of the individual within the fabric of this received social heritage can be seen in the "mythic method" which T.S. Eliot expounded in his discussion of James Joyce's Ulysses:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him... It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."[5]

Modernist literature attempted to move from the bonds of Realist literature and to introduce concepts such as disjointed timelines. In the wake of Modernism, and post-enlightenment, metanarratives tended to be emancipatory, whereas beforehand this was not a consistent characteristic. Contemporary metanarratives were becoming less relevant in light of the events of World War I, the rise of trade unionism, a general social discontent, and the emergence of psychoanalysis. The consequent need for a unifying function brought about a growth in the political importance of culture.

Modernist literature can be viewed largely in terms of its formal, stylistic and semantic movement away from Romanticism, examining subject matter that is traditionally mundane--a prime example being The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot. Modernist literature often features a marked pessimism, a clear rejection of the optimism apparent in Victorian literature. But the questioning spirit of modernism could also be seen, less elegiacally, as part of a necessary search for ways to make sense of a broken world. An example is A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid, in which the individual artist applies Eliot's techniques to respond (in this case) to a historically fractured nationalism, using a more comic, parodic and "optimistic" (though no less "hopeless") modernist expression in which the artist as "hero" seeks to embrace complexity and locate new meanings.

However, many Modernist works like Eliot's The Waste Land are marked by the absence of a central, unifying figure. In rejecting the solipsism of Romantics like Shelley and Byron, such works also reject the association of the subject with Cartesian dualism, collapsing narrative and narrator into a collection of disjointed fragments and overlapping voices.

Modernist literature often moves beyond the limitations of the Realist novel with a concern for larger factors such as social or historical change. These themes are prominent in "stream of consciousness" writing, notably in Ulysses by James Joyce, whose novel has been called "a demonstration and summation of the entire [Modernist] movement".[6] Other examples can be seen in Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens and Mrs Dalloway, Katherine Anne Porter's Flowering Judas, Jean Toomer's Cane, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and others.[7]

Modernism as a literary movement is seen, in large part, as a reaction to the emergence of city life as a central force in society. Furthermore, an early attention to the object as freestanding became in later Modernism a preoccupation with form. The dyadic collapse of the distance between subject and object represented a movement from means to is. Where Romanticism stressed the subjectivity of experience, Modernist writers were more acutely conscious of the objectivity of their surroundings. In Modernism the object is; the language doesn't mean it is. This is a shift from an epistemological aesthetic to an ontological aesthetic or, in simpler terms, a shift from a knowledge-based aesthetic to a being-based aesthetic. This shift is central to Modernism.

Characteristics of Modernity/Modernism

Formal/Stylistic characteristics

Juxtaposition, irony, comparisons, and satire are elements found in modernist writing. The most obvious stylistic tool of the modernist writer is that it is often written in first person. Rather than a traditional story having a beginning, middle and end, modernist writing typically reads as a long stream of consciousness similar to a rant. This can leave the reader slightly confused as to what they are supposed to take away from the work. Juxtaposition could be used for example in a way to represent something that would be oftentimes unseen, for example, a cat and a mouse as best friends. Irony and satire are important tools for the modernist writer in aiding them to make fun of and point out faults in what they are writing about, normally problems within their society, whether it is governmental, political, or social ideas.

Thematic characteristics

For the first-time reader, modernist writing can seem frustrating to understand because of the fragmentation and lack of conciseness of the writing. The plot, characters and themes of the text are not always linear. The goal of modernist literature is not heavily focused on catering to one particular audience in a formal way. Modernist writing is more interested in getting the writer's ideas, opinions, and thoughts out into the public at as high a volume as possible. Modernist literature often forcefully opposes or gives an opinion on a social concept. The breaking down of social norms, rejection of standard social ideas and traditional thoughts and expectations, objection to religion and anger towards the effects of the world wars, and the rejection of the truth are topics widely seen in this literary era. A rejection of history, social systems, and a sense of loneliness are also common themes. In the interest of elitist exclusivity, past modernist writers have also been known to create their text in a stylistic and artistic way, using different fonts, sizes, symbols and colors in the production of their writing.

Modernist manifestos

The modernist manifesto is a public statement of artistic convictions, normally brief and aggressive. The modernist manifesto was one of the most popular and proclaimed of outcomes of the modernist movement and modernist writing. The word ‘manifesto’ in Latin is ‘to make public’. These authors had no particular audience in mind so long as their manifestos made it into the public eye. Hostility and vulgarity were often styles used within manifestos, as a means of grabbing an audience.

Modernist Writers

See also


  1. ^ "Modernism" (1995). Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. pp. 1236. 
  2. ^ Eliot, T. S. (November 1923). "'Ulysses,' Order and Myth. Rev. of Ulysses by James Joyce". The Dial. 
  3. ^ Dubnick, Randa K. (1984). The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. pp. 16-20. ISBN 0252009096. 
  4. ^ Simmel, George. "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903)
  5. ^ Eliot, T. S.. 'Ulysses,' Order and Myth.. 
  6. ^ Beebe, Maurice (Fall 1972). "Ulysses and the Age of Modernism". James Joyce Quarterly (University of Tulsa) 10 (1): p. 176.
  7. ^ Baron, Christine and Engel, Manfred, ed (2010). Realism/Anti-Realism in 20th-Century Literature. NL: Rodopi. ISBN 978-90-420-3115-9. 

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