Modernism (1910-1930) Historical Contexts in American Literature

When literary critics refer to Modernist literature, they are speaking of a broad range of artist and movements all seeking, in varying degrees, to break with the style, form, and content of the nineteenth century. Old ways of seeing, old ways of making sense of experience, just did not seem to work anymore for twentieth-century writers. "Make it new" was the cry of Ezra Pound, and most other writers of the time worked vigorously and self-consciously to make their poems and plays and novels new and different.

Modern psychology had a profound impact on the period and these artist were interested in the workings of the human mind. Ordinary discourse had always put thoughts in a linear, cause-and-effect order: "If this is true and that is true, then this muse be true." Now cam the recognition that the human mind does not always follow this straight-line pattern; we often think by leaping from association to association in what the psychologist William James called the "stream of consciousness."

Modernists took risks as they wrote in new forms and styles. Eugene O'Neill uses a number of experimental devices to reveal the flow of his characters on stage. In the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T. S. Eliot attempts to duplicate the "stream" of Prufrock's thoughts in a dramatic monologue. The result is a series of fragments that the reader must piece together.

Modernist literature is often fragmentary, reflecting not only the "stream of consciousness" but the Modernist perception of the twentieth century as a jumble of conflicting ideas, new technological developments as well as the results of WWI. Sometimes we are presented with only one fragment, the manner of presentation implying that there is no larger whole; the fragment "is what it is." This is true of Pound's and Doolittle's Imagist poetry, and of most of the poems of Gertrude Stein. William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say" presents only a tine piece of someone's life, but the poem is nevertheless satisfyingly complete; the fragment is enough.

Modernist often insist that their readers participate and draw their own conclusions. Direct statements of abstract ideas or emotions are usually avoided. The modernist show rather than tells. In Imagist poetry, for example, an image is used to capture an emotion; the poet does not tell us, "This is how I felt." In Hemingway's stories painful and moving experiences are coolly recounted by a detached narrator; the reader supplies the emotions and decides why the experiences are significant.

In the attempt to capture the bewilderment of modern life, Modernist literature si sometimes intentionally puzzling. We may sometimes miss the esoteric allusions in the poetry of Pound and Eliot, and we can never be sure why "so much depends" on Williams' red wheelbarrow. The point may be that the mystery itself is the message. If there is something we do not know it but rather to be puzzled by it and so to think about the mystery again and again.
As we read works from this period, focus on discovering some patterns:
  • experimenting with a new literary form;

  • presenting the thoughts of a character in a nonlinear fashion;

  • reader must decode fragmentary content (as well as experimental content);

  • fragmentary content; there is no whole;

  • reader's must participate: add emotion and draw their own conclusions;

  • artist intentionally present puzzling features because the mystery itself is the message;

  • art echoes and portrays a sense of loneliness and alienation;

  • art represents and questions the declining belief in a higher power.

The above text was copied and gleaned from American Literature. Comp. Ed. George Kearns. Glencoe: Illinois, 1997.