What is American Literary Modernism?
When most people hear the term “Modern Art,” certain styles and images spring to mind: Cubism and the lyrical fundamental forms of Picasso, abstract lines and child-like bright colors of Kandinsky or Miro, the raw emotional expressionism of Munch in “The Scream.”
But how do the tenets of Modernism translate to literature? In honor of the unveiling of our new American Modernist Literature Reading List, covering American literature from 1915 – 1945, let’s touch on some of the qualities we’ll find in the works on that list—things like rejection of older forms of literature, invention and experimentation with new forms, minimalism and pastiche, streams of consciousness in narrative, impressionism and subjectivism, a new interest in primitive art and forms of belief, and a drive to make reality appear “new” and “strange.”
We’ll get a little more specific in a second. But first, let’s step back and look at some of the sources of this major change in how writers wrote, and what they wrote about.
The word “Modernism” has many meanings, but it refers generally to a movement in art, literature, and the general culture that took place in the early decades of the 20th century. Modernism is a response by artists and thinkers to many changes in the world, including developments in technology and science that called earlier models of the universe into question and challenged orthodox religious faith.
Freud and others argued for the importance of the unconscious mind in our behavior and beliefs, which challenged former notions that people are in control of their own minds. Increasing urbanization and the dizzying pace of change in technology left people feeling dislocated. Perhaps most significant was the wide involvement of Western nations in WW I, which involved new, dehumanizing types of warfare and destruction on a scale unseen in previous generations.
All of these changes caused artists and thinkers to question their faith in the accomplishments and values of western culture. The old ideas didn’t seem to fit the dislocating truths of modern life. Artists and writers challenged the old styles of art as fit vessels for conveying meaning to a new kind of world.
Make It New! Make It Strange!
Modernist qualities can be seen both in the ideas conveyed in poetry and other literature and in the styles and forms of these works of literature. Modernist poets often wrote of loneliness, despair, and disillusionment. Their poems questioned whether truth can ever be discerned clearly, or whether univocal truth of any kind even exists. But they also sung the glories of mythical stories and primitive cultures as possible substitutes for lost religions.
Poet and critic Ezra Pound was probably the first to publicize the phrase “Make it New,” exhorting writers to turn from traditional methods of writing and experiment widely with new ways of writing: free verse, imagism, vorticism, flashy titles, outlandish metaphors, and more. But curiously, Pound came across the phrase while translating two medieval Chinese texts about Confucius (see Michael North’s article in Guernica).
The origin of this Modernist rallying cry underscores the point that making something new didn’t necessarily mean inventing something totally original. Modernists were also interested in discovering, reviving or re-purposing ancient and medieval literature. They were fond of literature from eastern cultures and from Greek myth. Therefore, “New” can be anything that makes the topic and the experience of reading unusual, startling, and attention-grabbing.
Writer as Meaning Maker
Many poets exalted artists and poets as the new meaning-makers, creating beauty and significance from within the waste of old beliefs. Many modernists urged people to live authentically and fully, to be their own poets, to look at the world as new, strange, and beautiful, and to create their own meaning.
William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore all exalt the power of the human imagination to experience life more powerfully, and to create beauty and meaning from mundane sensory experience. While Williams proclaimed, “No ideas but in Things,” many poets relied on Things, or described images of things, to convey complexes of ideas without abstract explanations older poems relied on.
By the way, if reading poetry is difficult for you, there is “how-to” advice on this site. Check out the index of our “How to Read Poetry Series” here.
For reading Modernist poetry, these posts should be especially helpful:
Step 5 on literal v. figurative language.
Step 6 on metaphor and other figures of speech.
Step 7 on the “mind twist” poets often incorporate.
Modernist Fiction and Drama: Rejecting Old Standards of Beauty and Mimesis
Fiction writers rejected the Victorian story-telling method based on a central narrator who readers relied on to explain the “correct version” of events and characters in a story. Instead, they experimented with presenting fictional events through multiple sources of consciousness. Expect “stream of consciousness,” multiple narrators, sudden shifts and juxtapositions, and frank, dark, or melancholy subject matter. Also expect to get deeper into the heads of other people than you likely can accomplish by any other method.
American dramatists came into their own as writers of serious literature in this era by refusing to prettify reality. Writers like Eugene O’Neill focused on ordinary folk with startling, if not untypical, psychological problems, portrayed in all their gritty realism.
In general, as Aesthetic historian Herbert Grabes and other scholars have pointed out, Modernists self-consciously rejected the two standards for aesthetic expression that underlay most art from Aristotle’s day: Pure Beauty and Mimesis (see Grabes, Making Strange: Beauty, Sublimity, and the (post)modern ‘third Aesthetic.’ Rodopi: Amsterdam-New York, 2008). That is, the goal of art from ancient times was to showcase pure beauty or to imitate or reflect reality. The Modernists rejected Beauty as a standard for Art in favor of Newness, Originality, and Strangeness. They rejected realistic imitation as false on its face, because reality as a set of unquestioned facts and truths did not really exist. Therefore, artists must explore multiple ways of perceiving or constructing reality.
How Do You Feel About All this Modernist Cultural Rejection?
Here I’ll pause a minute to be frank: I have mixed feelings about the Modernist project. As a Baby Boomer raised by practical Midwestern Depression Babies, I have certainly heard more than one person exclaim “That’s not art!” while contemplating Picasso or Pollack. I’ve also heard things like, “Why can’t they write about something with a happy ending?” about an O’Neill play, or “I think poems should rhyme,” when faced with Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
Generations later than mine are more comfortable with Modernism, I think, because it’s so infused throughout the culture. While personally I admire and enjoy Modernist techniques in either visual or literary art, I confess to uneasiness with some Modernist themes. For instance, I don’t agree that nineteenth century values and religion are all outworn, or that truth is never discernible.
But this is important to note: neither does all Modernist literature!
For instance, writers Masters and Anderson may attack the pettiness of American small town life, but the flip side of this theme is to urge people to expand their experience beyond a nine-block radius. Faulkner may show us mean and rapacious folk who make others miserable, but he also shows us plucky survivors who offer hope that humanity will see a better day. Moore or Eliot may confuse us with erudite phrases, but the music of their words and the beauty of their imagery beckons us on to see the world in radically changed and beautiful ways.
For its sharp beauty, its distinct music, its call to expand my mind and perception and to use my creativity, I love reading classic American Modernist literature.
What is my Advice for First Encounters with American Modernist Literature?
1. First, don’t be afraid to be off balance. Don’t fear the initial shock of the unexpected, the strange, or any inability to gather all the meaning right away. Begin by just enjoying the experience of encountering something strange and newly beautiful.
2. Be prepared to participate in partially creating the art as you read, and especially, as you go back and re-read. Minimalist and experimental techniques will bring out the creative side of your own mind as you become a co-creator with the writer or the poet. Readers fill in the blanks and plug in cultural and historical knowledge to bring a written picture or idea into clearer focus.
3. In much Modernist fiction, expect to be submerged in multiple perspectives. In fiction, for instance, transitions and explanations are not always provided. Modernists are interested in capturing the myriad perspectives that different humans have on reality. Usually no narrator steps in to explain the characters or judge the events as good or bad. In fact, narrators may be there just to offer one more partial perspective on a complicated situation. Ultimately readers must help to construct a situation and judge it for themselves from multiple clues, just as we do in real life.
In reading Hemingway, for example, adept readers become alert to the meaning of small signs and gestures, and brief bits of dialogue made by each character to catch on to the whole drama that is unfolding. In reading Faulkner, prepare for sudden shifts into the consciousness of completely different characters, as if whisked behind the eyes and into the minds of different people who are all playing a role in the unfolding story.
Value and Pleasure in Reading American Modernist Literature
Much of the value and pleasure in reading early 20th century literature is to give our brains a little jolt, simply to help us try out different ways to use our minds, to approach human experience from multiple perspectives that may be radically different from our usual way of seeing the world. This is the exact thing Wallace Stevens explores in his famous poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
After all, are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird too many? How can even thirteen be enough?
Link to American Modernist Literature Reading List: 1915-1945
For most photos, go to American Modernist Literature Reading List (link above)
Ezra Pound. By Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966) (National Portait Galley, London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Blackbird Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.
Thanks, MJ. I’m looking into the same subject and starting with the idea that what we call modernism has roots in older literature … Shakespeare and Laurence Sterne come first to mind.
That makes sense–Sterne is modernist-like in many ways, and it’s hard to look into Shakespeare without finding some root of most Western literature that was to come. Come back and let us know what you find out! It’s interesting that even as literary genres are in the early stages of being formed (the novel was still a fairly early form in Sterne’s day), some authors were challenging the boundaries from the get-go. Thanks for commenting.
Where is John Dos Passos?????
Dos Passos! Good point–he is an important American Modernist writer who could claim a spot on the Modernist reading list. I can’t make the reading lists exhaustive, so am focusing on widely acclaimed writers whom I have personally read. I don’t know Dos Passos’s work, so that’s probably why he didn’t make the list.
Why don’t you make the case for reading Dos Passos here? Reply to this comment to tell us a little about John Dos Passos. What one or two works would you recommend newcomers read and why? What kind of themes and styles will they encounter? Hope to hear from you!
what a great lesson for my english class!
Great! Glad you find the article useful. I hope your class will click the link from the article to the American Modernist timeline, where I list and describe important works from the era. Thanks for commenting!