Kandinsky’s 27-Garden of Love. This image was printed on the postcard commemorating the Armory Show of 1913, the art show that introduced Modern Art to the American public.
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.”
The blooms called “Bleeding Hearts.” Apt image for Love?
Wrestling with love–the falling, the feeling, and the losing–has probably sent more pens to paper than any other topic. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, It’s the perfect time to spend half an hour of shivers, sighs, and tears to savor some of our great poems about Love. In this post I’ll share some of my favorites from different poets and eras that offer multiple perspectives on “la grande passion.” If, however, no lucky star presides over your love life right now, and Valentine’s Day finds you in no mood to celebrate, despair not. A couple of selections here may just suit your mood.
Find Free Literature Online!
Certainly, as we’ve been discussing on Readgreatliterature.com, classic literature from the Western tradition can offer thrilling stories, amazing characters, complex themes, and aesthetic wonders. But there’s another great benefit to reading the classics: you can access most of the great works for free, to read online or on your computer, or even to download to your favorite reading device.
Because so many great works from the past are now in the public domain, many websites have made it their mission to offer a multitude of great texts without charge. Yearning for some Shakespeare? No problem. Get access in five minutes. Moby Dick? A click away. Fiction by Zora Neale Hurston or poetry by Langston Hughes? Easy to find and enjoy. Today I’m going to share some of my favorite websites where you can read great literature online for free, and sometimes even find resources to help you enjoy it more.
One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.
To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.
Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.
“A child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*
In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself, first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.
However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher. For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”
I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.
From America’s Gilded Age: The Biltmore Mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet.
Special Announcement! Now available on Readgreatliterature.com: a new reading list covering American literature from the “Gilded Age,” the period from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the beginning of WW I in 1914. Click HERE to see the new reading list—but before you click, you might want to take a moment to read in this post about three important literary trends that happened during these years: Regionalism, Realism, and American Naturalism.
What is the Gilded Age?
First, what is the Gilded Age? These years between the ending of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of WW I in 1914 ushered sweeping changes into American life and culture: rapid industrialization, large numbers of people moving from the country into cities, an explosion in immigration numbers (over 20 million immigrants between 1880 and 1920), increasing wealth, and pursuit of material success shown through conspicuous consumption. The era got its name from The Gilded Age, a novel published in 1873 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel satirized greed and political corruption that suddenly seemed more common in American life than it had before.
Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.*
Note: A few Plot Spoilers!
Wuthering Heights is often billed as a love story, and portrayed sentimentally in old film versions. But readers who come to Wuthering Heights expecting a grand love story won’t just be disappointed; they’ll be shocked. Right from Chapter 1, when readers encounter the Wuthering Heights family for the first time, following alongside the prissy, citified sentimentalist newcomer Lockwood, they are plunged directly into a whirlwind of primitive, raw, elemental emotions. Love is there, though not easily recognizable, along with unbounded vitality and lust for life–but also hatred, selfishness, derision, cruelty, vengefulness. What makes this stormy story a classic, and in the end, believe it or not, a truly uplifting read?
Foremost, Wuthering Heights is a realistically observed, elegantly written work about flawed, often dislikable, yet very powerful people, enough in itself to make it interesting, even informative. More than that: Wuthering Heights is a book about Big Ideas. Emily Brontë’s novel challenges readers to re-frame every common assumption about Love and Hate, Mercy and Revenge, Life and Death, Heaven and Hell. One function of great art is to enable people to witness painful realities and strange ideas by making them in some way beautiful, thus granting us a larger perspective from which to view and consider. And Wuthering Heights does precisely that, making it a work of art on more than one level.
Tune your ear to the sounds of traditional poetry.
Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.
All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls, recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.
Arbury Hall. George Eliot’s father managed Arbury Estate, giving his daughter ample opportunity to observe people from every background.
A Monumental Saga
The Wall Street Journal says we should read Middlemarch. In 2014, the Guardian’s Robert McCrum chose it as one of the top 100 novels written in English, ever. I have told friends for years it’s like a soap opera for smart people–or to update the comparison, let’s say it’s a binge worthy Netflix “town and family” saga. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is bursting with yearning, beautiful young people, dysfunctional marriages, bemused mothers and fathers, business people both honest and shady, medical men of various skill, clergy, manipulative rich uncles, politicians, newspaper publishers, innkeepers–people from every social class and background whose fates and choices form an interconnected web of mutual cause and effect.
The telling of this giant tale is liberally interlaced with gentle humor, empathy, psychological penetration, and philosophical discussion by one of the wisest narrative voices in literature. For these and other qualities, both the light and the deeply philosophic, I have loved Middlemarch for over 30 years. I love it for its humane and intricate presentation of the psychology of so many kinds of people. I love it for its careful analysis of how communities function—how opinions form and spread, whether well-founded or no, and how individual choices impact the larger social network. I love it for understanding how the petty daily-ness of life can chip away at our ability to achieve great and ideal goals, and yet, paradoxically, that’s all right.
Above all, I love Middlemarch for showing us that our individual moral choices matter. Our smallest moral acts, both good and ill, can spread like ripples in a stream, affecting others far beyond ourselves.
Classics are books that yield more treasures every time you reread, especially at different times in life.
What are literary classics, and why should we read them? Some of my ideas on that are spelled out in my post “Four Qualities that Make Great Literature Special.” What do some other prominent thinkers, writers, and literature lovers have to say? A quick survey of famous critics and writers suggests that the classics are the books that are not only good to read, but great to reread. We can come to them again and again, and still reap new pleasures and new ideas from the experience.