American Literature-American Modernist Literature: 1915-1945
American Literature 1915-1945
Significant Historical Dates:
1914: WW I begins (Archduke Ferdinand assassinated)
1917: Russian Revolution breaks out; U. S. enters WW I
1918: Armistice declared in WW I (stopping the fighting)
1920: 19th Amendment to Constitution gives women right to vote; 18th amendment prohibiting manufacture, sale, and importation of alcoholic drinks goes into effect (Prohibition)
1925: Scopes Tennessee Evolution trial (debating whether schools can teach evolution).
1927: Charles Lindbergh flies solo across the Atlantic
1929: Stock Market crashes, beginning the Great Depression
1933: Prohibition Repealed
1936: Spanish Civil War begins
1939: Hitler invades Czechoslovakia and Poland (starts WW II)
1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor (beginning U.S. involvement in WW II)
1945: Germany and Japan surrender; WW II over.
American Literature from 1914-1945: Some Highlights
The first half of the twentieth century is an extremely rich period for American letters. Whatever I list here will only scratch the surface. But I have tried to include a sampling of the most famous and characteristic works of the most-discussed writers, a great start for anyone who wants to capture the flavor of American Modernist Literature.
Edgar Lee Masters. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
This work is a series of short free verse poems written from the points of view of various residents of the small Midwestern town of Spoon River. The catch: all the poems’ speakers are dead. In just a few short lines, Masters shows how each individual would sum up their lives, revealing the sins, sorrow, and frustrations they hid from others while alive.
Most of the characters were based on real people whom Masters knew in Lewistown, Illinois, where he grew up. Not surprisingly, the locals banned the book when Masters published it, unhappy with Spoon River’s cynical picture of people they recognized, not to mention its jaundiced view of life in small towns. In our day, however, according to an article in Humanities magazine, Lewistown celebrates the work penned by their famous resident. You can read about how Lewistown celebrates Spoon River here.
And indeed, for Modernist-lovers, Spoon River is something to celebrate, since it was inspirational for much work to come, including Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. This work also captures the cramped unhappy lives of small town Americans, but in the form of fiction rather than poetry.
Masters’s work was a favorite of many of my students. I think you will enjoy sampling some of the many poems from the volume.
Ezra Pound, Various works (listed below).
Ezra Pound is now as famous for his fascism as for his poetry. As a supporter of Mussolini in WW II, he was imprisoned in 1945 by American soldiers, and subsequently confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington DC until 1958.
One may disagree vehemently with Pound’s politics, as I do, and yet acknowledge a great debt to him for helping develop the startlingly new aesthetic principles that led to a revolution in poetry writing in the 20th century. Beyond theorizing, Pound actively championed many of 20th century’s greatest Modernist American writers, including T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Williams, H.D., Hemingway, and Moore. For a sampling of his own work, see the following:
“A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts” (1918, 1913)
These two brief excerpts from his writings summarize the principles he and his colleagues thought should govern a new kind of poetry to suit the Modern age. You can read “A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts” here.
“In a Station of the Metro” (an Imagist poem, 1913).
“To Whistler, American,” (1912) (famous line: “You and Abe Lincoln from that mass of dolts / Show us there’s chance at least of winning through”)’ “The Rest” (1913;) “A Pact” (1913).
This set of poems shares one of Pound’s favorite themes: Americans are not refined or educated enough to appreciate great art. “A Pact” explains his longtime quarrel with Walt Whitman, who celebrated democracy and wrote about, and for, the common person, the opposite of what Pound believed in.
“Portrait d’Une Femme” (1912).
In this poem, a woman is critiqued for her lack of original thoughts, testifying to the modernist’s worship for originality and authenticity both in character and in mind.
T. S. Eliot. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” (1915); “The Hollow Men,” (1925); The Waste Land (1922); “Burnt Norton,” 1936.
For the quintessential High Modernist expression of 20th century angst, turn to poet T. S. Eliot. In the first two famous and fairly accessible poems listed here, Eliot explores the shallow meaninglessness of human life, especially within the newly impersonal mechanized culture of the early 20th century. Want to wade deeper? Head next for THE landmark poem of High Literary Modernism, The Waste Land. In addition to a dose of angst-ridden Modernist confusion, Eliot also gives us some of the most unforgettable images and beautiful, musical sounds of any poem ever written, worth experiencing even if his view of life rubs you the wrong way.
In later life, Eliot turned from this view of reality as a meaningless flux of sensation to the idea that within time’s endless parade of change, people can indeed perceive a meaningful Eternal reality, or Logos, an enduring goodness beneath surface realities. He explores that idea in “Burnt Norton.”
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). “Mid-Day,” (1916); “Oread,” (1914); “Leda,” (1919) ; “Helen,” (1924)
Once his girlfriend then later a member of Ezra Pound’s literary circle, H.D. strove to practice many of his precepts for writing modern poetry. She became one of the most accomplished and widely recognized Imagist writers. In Imagist poems, emotions are conveyed through means of vivid pictures, without long verbal explanations or abstract language. This brief sample of H.D.’s works brings you some of the most famous Imagist poems of the era. These works also showcase the Modernist interest in classical mythology.
Amy Lowell. “The Captured Goddess,” (1914); “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” (1919); “Meeting-House Hill,” (1925); “Summer Night Piece,” (1925).
Another practitioner of Imagism, Lowell championed this method of poetry-writing through her work, and by giving talks on the Imagist method of writing poetry. She became so well-known for her ideas that Ezra Pound started calling Imagism “Amy-gism.” I find her poems lovely, less impenetrable than some other high modernist work. In this sample, Lowell’s feminism can also be seen clearly.
William Carlos Williams. Just plunge in and sample! But to cover some of the more well-known poems, read: “The Young Housewife,” (1916); “Queen-Anne’s Lace,” (1921); “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” (1921); “The Red Wheel Barrow,” (1923); “This is Just to Say,” (1934), and ABOVE ALL: “Spring and All” (1923).
When very young, I saw little to admire in Williams’s work, which is written in the plainest language possible, focusing on the most mundane and ordinary objects, like red wagons, plums in a bowl, and wild carrot sprouting in a field. But now, understanding his aesthetic aims, and having experienced more of what life is really like, how I love his work!
In his 1923 book Spring and All, Williams contends that older-style poetry functions only to distance people from a direct experience of actual life. Older poetry perpetuates what he called “the beautiful illusion,” abstract fantasies about the meaning of life that keep actual authentic experiences at arms’ length from readers.
His own work, on the other hand, uses the Imagination to bring himself, and therefore readers, to fully see and experience the exact moment they are living in: “To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force – the imagination.” This poetic quest seems prescient now, when medical science has shown us all the benefits of “Mindfulness,” a set of practices to help people be fully present in the “now,” accepting the sense impressions, emotions, and thoughts of each immediate moment.
Williams pushed back against his High Modernist friends Pound and Eliot when they criticized Americans for being unfit readers, or subjects for, great poetry. Like Walt Whitman, Pound found every-day-ness to be the most magnificent material for poetry, and Americans his favored audience.
“Spring and All” (the poem) is Williams’s answer to Eliot’s The Waste Land, which mourns the death of Western culture. Williams’s answer to The Waste Land‘s view is that culture is not dead, it’s merely sleeping and developing, just as plants hibernate in the winter, but are still in the process of being reborn.
Most of my students really liked reading Williams. Try some for yourself, approaching each work with an open and present mind.
Robert Frost. So Many! Try “Mending Wall” (1914); “Home Burial” (1914); “After Apple-Picking” (1914); “The Oven Bird” (1916); “Birches” (1916); “Desert Places” (1936); “Design” (1922); and “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” (1936). Also take a fresh look at “The Road Not Taken” (1916), because chances are, someone has given you the wrong interpretation.
Everyone has heard of Robert Frost, and most have read some of his works somewhere along their way. Many of his poems are written in traditional forms, such as blank verse (5 iambic units that don’t rhyme, like Shakespeare’s plays), or sonnet form, or other kinds of traditionally structured poems. The language is simple and plain. Topics are about the everyday world, especially people and things around Frost’s New Hampshire farm, where he lived from 1901-09.
However, don’t assume from his poetry’s simple “old-fashioned” surface that Frost is not a thoroughgoing Modernist. The theme of almost every poem is our unending lack of certainty about ultimate truths, despite our human tendency to jump to easy platitudes and explanations for all the phenomena of life.
In “The Road Not Taken,” for instance, the speaker claims that his life has changed because he chose to walk the path that very few people had trod—“the road less traveled.” But what the poem actually says is that the paths were, in reality, almost exactly the same—neither had been traveled more heavily than the other. And though in the future the speaker knows he will be claiming to people that his choice of one path was significant in his life, there is no way to know whether his choice made any difference at all. Certainty is sought but undercut by the nebulousness of life and chance—a common theme in many of Frost’s poems.
Approach Frost’s poems with the idea that in one way or another, most question human certainty, and you may be seeing a new Robert Frost than you have noticed before.
Claude McKay, “If We Must Die” (1919); “America” (1921).
Born in Jamaica, Claude McKay came to America in 1912 in youth, eventually publishing poems about the experience of being Black in America during the first years of 20th century. “If We Must Die,” along with his 1922 book of poetry Harlem Shadows, is considered to have launched the Harlem Renaissance in literature, which was a flourishing of literary expression by African American writers in the 1920s and 30s. As McKay does in these two poems, many Harlem Renaissance writers fearlessly attacked problems of racial discrimination and anti-race violence, including lynching. McKay wrote powerfully of these themes and of others, often by using traditional poetic forms, such as the two sonnets listed here.
Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921); “Mother to Son” (1922), “I, Too” (1925); “Madam and Her Madam” (1943); “Harlem” (1951).
A prolific and innovative writer, Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Though his themes were often similar to McKay’s, his style was quite different. Rather than choosing traditional poetic forms, he innovated his own poetic form, inspired by free-verse writers like Whitman, incorporating cadences with jazz rhythms. Many of the poems feature all different kinds of characters as speakers, fashioned by Hughes to represent different types of African American folk. Both charming and powerful, Hughes’s poems are approachable, poignant, and meaningful, often proving to be favorites of my students.
Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning” (1915); “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” (1923); “The Snow Man” (1931); “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” (1931); “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1931).
Stevens was a rare kind of person, a success both in business and in literature. He was an insurance executive for a company based in Hartford, Connecticut, eventually becoming a vice president, and a Pulitzer prize winning poet. His poetry is thoughtful, intellectual, spare, but with vivid imagery.
His poetry is not transparent upon first reading; rather it teases the mind and rewards multiple re-readings. I just love it, even though I don’t understand all of it. I am nonetheless enchanted with the way his poems expand my mind and heighten my awareness of every moment of life.
A good starting place for reading Stevens: approach the poems while keeping in mind a couple of his major themes. He did not believe in an afterlife, and his poetry often considers how people can get the very most out of the life we do have, by heightening our notice and enjoyment of every moment. He celebrated both sensual and intellectual pleasures.
He also treasured the mind’s ability to consider experience from myriad points of view, within many different contexts and purposes. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a great example of this idea. How many ways can YOU look at a blackbird? Check out Stevens’s poem to see how both the tangible blackbird and the IDEA of “blackbird” can play different roles in the way a mind thinks.
Marianne Moore, “Poetry” (1921); “The Mind is an Enchanting Thing” (1944)
Like Stevens, Moore was a very intellectual poet—some would say, a “poet’s poet” because of her interest in unusual poetic techniques that most untrained readers would miss. (For instance, “Poetry” is structured around how many syllables are in each line, rather than in traditional poetic meter. For explanations of traditional meter, see this post.) However, you don’t have to catch all the technical fireworks to enjoy what she has to say about how the mind works, and what role poetry has to play in even an ordinary person’s life.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Recuerdo” (1922); “I Should Have Loved You Presently” (1922); [“I being born a woman”] (1923); “I Too beneath Your Moon, Almighty Sex” (1939).
A multi-talented writer, Millay became known as a symbol of the liberated independent modern woman of the 1920s and 30s. Typically she wrote using traditional forms of poetry, such as the sonnet, as shown in this sample of her work. In many of her poems she sets out to claim her right as a woman to full sexual expression and to play equal roles to men in love relationships.
e. e. cummings, “in Just- “(1920); “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond” (1931); “anyone lived on a pretty how town” (1940).
Poet e. e. cummings personifies non-conformity—that’s why he declined to use capital letters or follow ordinary punctuation rules. His poetry is highly original, charming, and usually critical of narrow conformity in the modern mechanized age. (Check out “anyone lived in a pretty how town” for an example.) I had a friend once who told me she got through a long-term debilitating illness by reading cummings. Students often love his work; I had one student who had struggled with reading a lot of the poetry in the class, but she fell in love with cummings’s love poem “somewhere I have never travelled” and ended up writing a spectacular analysis of the work. Maybe you will fall in love with it too!
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Read the whole book, or get a taste by reading these selections: “Grotesques” (introduction), “Hands,” “Mother,” and “Adventure.”
Anderson was inspired by Masters’s book of poems Spoon River Anthology, in which the story of a whole town’s residents was revealed piece by piece in a series of poems from the point of view of many different people. Anderson applied the same idea to his innovative series of short stories, each featuring a different resident in the small town of Winesburg, Ohio, based on the real Ohio town of Clyde. Together these individual fragments make up a total picture of small town life at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Like Masters, Anderson focused on the way small town living led to repressed desires and unfulfilled dreams for most of its denizens. As a result, people gradually become so narrowly focused on one unfulfilled longing that they become caricatures of their former selves, which Anderson describes as “grotesques.”
Anderson’s themes and dark view of small town America inspired writers who followed him, such as William Faulkner, who met Anderson when he was living in New Orleans.
Ernest Hemingway. Big Two-Hearted River (1925), The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936); For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
The lean, mean, flat, reportorial style that Hemingway invented has been immensely influential on today’s writing, which largely eschews complex grammar and sticks to short, punchy sentences and everyday vocabulary. This bald style can seem like an affectation, or just become dull, but when Hemingway does it—well, it’s art. You just have to read it to see.
Of the works listed here, The Sun Also Rises is my favorite. Somehow, in this first novel, he took a story where not much happens, with characters almost slavishly copied from real people he knew, and turned it into a symbol of how so many people’s lives were derailed by their experiences in WW I.
Read The Sun Also Rises slowly, because the minimal style asks readers to fill in many blanks, and you won’t want to miss how ordinary objects become freighted symbols and emotional motifs. For instance: how can an empty glass and a drunken woman getting in to a limousine just wrench your heart out? Don’t know, but read the book and see Hemingway at work. If you like The Sun Also Rises, try some of the others. You may not agree with his point of view on some things—I certainly don’t—but when I read Hemingway, I know I’m in the presence of one of the greats. Give it a try.
F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby (1925), “Babylon Revisited” (1931) and Tender is the Night (1934).
Everyone knows about The Great Gatsby; if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen one of the movie versions. Even so, I suggest you read it again, this time keeping in mind that Gatsby is a modernist work of literature. What does that mean? For one thing, expect the story to be presented in fragments, from multiple points of view, with no central authority to assure readers which person sees the whole truth. While Nick Carraway as narrator is mostly a trustworthy observer, even he is circumscribed by his own values and preconceptions, and hampered by the fact that we can never glimpse more than a fragment of anyone else’s life or mind.
Tender is the Night is more highly regarded now than in Fitzgerald’s day. The story is about how glamorous people often have inner identities that are precarious. Rosemary, a young actress, is dazzled by the “golden” rich folk she meets at the French Riviera. She falls in love with the beautiful life lived by Dick Diver, his lovely wife, and his group of friends, not seeing that it’s all a carefully constructed façade. The novel probes the tenuousness of love and career success, and what factors can lead to everything falling apart.
Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life (1929).
North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe’s work is not widely read today, which is why I call him “The Forgotten Modernist.” But my oh my, true aficionados of the American written word are missing out in not acquainting themselves with Wolfe’s prolix, idiosyncratic, dense, lyrical style of written outcry. Wolfe bucked the Modernist trend toward tight minimalist prose; instead he pours out line after line of heartbroken protest at the unfairness of life crossed with the un-killable dream that leads him forward from his childhood and youth.
Look Homeward Angel is an autobiographical novel, a fictionalized description of (and a howl of protest against) his growing-up years in Asheville, North Carolina, a wannabe writer trapped in a town and a family too small to hold his dreams and ambitions. Nor is he the only person in town who is cramped and distorted by its narrow ways.
Wolfe’s descriptions of people and their characteristic manner and conversation is especially gifted. Individuals and their tragic circumstances come alive on the page—for me, alone worth reading through Wolfe’s lava-like flow of language. This may not be to your taste, but give it a try—I know of no other writing quite like this production by a raw uninhibited genius.
William Faulkner. “Barn Burning” (1939); Light in August (1932); The Sound and the Fury (1929); Absalom, Absalom (1936); As I Lay Dying (1930); “A Rose for Emily” (1930).
Hemingway and Fitzgerald were two of the greatest novelists from this era (although Fitzgerald’s problems with alcohol and his wife’s mental illness kept him from being as productive as he might have been).
The third truly great modernist fiction writer was William Faulkner. He is one of my favorite writers of all time.
Reading Faulkner is not easy, since many of his works are written as streams of consciousness from many different characters’ points of view. Readers enter the consciousness of dozens of different characters, most of the denizens of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on the country around today’s Oxford, Mississippi (his home town).
Faulkner’s narrators don’t usually signal when he shifts from one person’s mind to another, so readers must learn to be alert. But with care, you can catch on, and then be rewarded with the chance to do something we can never do in real life: inhabit the mind of another person.
Light in August is easier to read than the others listed here, so I recommend starting with that, and with a couple of his short stories, keeping in mind that he is fascinated by how differently people think, and how hard it is to understand the motivations of another human. He is also fascinated in documenting the way people become bound and disabled by growing up in dysfunctional families and unenlightened cultures. This last theme is still relevant to issues people are struggling with today, problems of racial and class prejudice, as well as fears that cultural values are breaking down.
Faulkner’s characters come from every walk of life, from rich and happy to rich and unhappy to the poorest of the poor. They go through every rotten thing that people can go through, and do every rotten thing that people can do to other people. Yet, paradoxically, I always find his work uplifting in the end, since somewhere, there can always be found some goodness, some human dignity, some hope for humanity in the future. Besides Hemingway, I think Faulkner has had more influence than any other writer on today’s best fiction.
Zora Neale Hurston. Eatonville Anthology (1926), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), “The Gilded Six-Bits,” 1933, and any other short story she wrote.
Once a prominent member of the group of Harlem Renaissance writers, Hurston’s work was forgotten in the 1950s and 60s, but was later rediscovered by writer Alice Walker. Hurston was a trained folklorist as well as a writer. Eatonville Anthology is a collection of vignettes about the residents of the African American town in Florida where Hurston lived until age 13; the tales are a blend of fiction and folklore, capturing authentic dialect. I find all of Hurston’s work a treat to read because of her rich humor, her nuanced observations, and her love for people; it is also very moving to read, because of her empathy for human trouble and striving.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
This is Steinbeck’s famous, thoroughly-researched novel about the plight of the Okies who were run out of Oklahoma’s “Dust Bowl” during the drought in the 1930s. Run off their farms by inability to harvest crops and pay their mortgages, the Joads and their neighbors head to California in search of new land to farm, and instead find only huge labor camps of migrant workers who compete for scarce jobs at subsistence wages. In this powerful story urging and celebrating unity in the face of disaster, Steinbeck makes no secret of his protest against the inhumanity spawned by a faceless capitalist system. The novel makes the case for humane treatment of every American worker.
Richard Wright, “The Boy Who Was Almost a Man” (1939), Native Son (1940).
Richard Wright’s work explains through vivid fiction how America’s 1930s culture of oppression and discrimination created sad and inescapable destinies for African Americans. In the short story “The Boy Who Was Almost a Man,” 18-year-old Dave is treated by family and white employers like a young boy. Forced to drudge endlessly in the fields and turn over his meager pay to his mother, he dreams of owning a gun so people will respect him. Native Son’s Bigger Thomas lives a poor life on Chicago’s south side when he manages to get a chauffeur’s job with a rich white family. Their expectations of him are impossible for him to interpret, so that he feels forced into committing a terrible crime.
Susan Glaspell, “Trifles” (1916).
As co-founder of the experimental theater The Provincetown Players, Glaspell had a huge influence on innovation in American theater, helping to usher in successful serious American drama, such as those written by Eugene O’Neill. “Trifles,” a one-act play, is a murder mystery as well as an indictment of patriarchal culture. The men in the play think their methodical but blunderbuss methods will uncover the evidence to prove that Minnie Wright murdered her husband while “the little ladies” stand by. However, it’s the women, with their more nuanced understanding of Minnie and the clues she leaves, who uncover the true situation and make decisions on behalf of real justice.
Thornton Wilder, Our Town, 1938.
Described by Wilder at “Meta-theater,” this experimental-style play tells the story of small town Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire in a series of widely-spaced vignettes. The play calls attention to the fact that it IS a play, using few props or backdrops, making the Stage Manager a character who speaks directly to the audience, and featuring a dead woman appearing from her grave to speak in the third act.
Eugene O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh (1939); Long Day’s Journey into Night (1940).
Eugene O’Neill is probably America’s first major dramatist. His plays probe the guilt and sorrow that lurk just behind the brave and innocent faces so many people strive to hide behind. In performance, the plays are powerful and emotional.
The Iceman Cometh focuses on longtime patrons of Harry Hope’s saloon, who talk endlessly of pipe dreams they will never act on, but that they use to disguise past guilts. Long Day’s Journey into Night features an aging actor, his wife, and two adult sons. In one long day, each member of the family probes their grief and guilt over their loss of each individual’s dream for their lives. They spend much of the play blaming each other, but come at the end to face the separate addictions and psychological problems that have taken over their lives.
Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1944).
Another of America’s foremost playwrights, Williams became famous for this play based on autobiographical memories. The play features Tom Wingfield, an aspiring poet, and his memory of one evening with his mother, former southern belle Amanda, and his pathologically shy sister, Laura, who wears a brace on her leg.
Mother Amanda tries to push both her children to improve their circumstances, but the children can’t or won’t respond as she hopes. At the time of the incident shown in the play, Wingfield is toiling at a job in a warehouse to help support his mother and sister, his father having left the family years before. At his mother’s insistence, he brings home a potential suitor for Laura; but of course, things go wrong.
Suggestions for the Reading List?
Do you find yourself screaming because your favorite American Modernist work is missing from this list? Leave a comment on our post about American Modernism here!
(FYI: Comments held for moderation.)
Monongahela River Valley, Pittsburgh by John Kane, 1917. Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
William Carlos Williams. By unknown (believed to be passport photograph) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Marianne Moore. By George Platt Lynes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Libido of the Forest by Paul Klee, 1917. Paul Klee [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Hemingway and Friends. Photo Credit on this post.
William Faulkner. Photo Credit on this post.
Zora Neale Hurston. By Florida Memory – Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston: Eatonville, Florida, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Wright. By Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Long Day’s Journey into Night film trailer. Trailer distributed by Embassy Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.