modernism in american literature2010.12.20

By Brittany Berry,2014-04-20 19:04
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modernism in american literature2010.12.20


    in American literature





    Modernism, as a literary style, emerged after WWI, beginning in Europe and then progressing into American literature by the late 1920s. It reached its peak in America in the 1920s up to the 1940s. It is a complex term to generalize all

    ththe literary treds appeared in 20 century, including symbolism, imagism,

    futurism ,expressionnism, super realism , stream of conciousness, and blank humor. As a literary style ,it has its origin, characterstics and spirits it showed.

1. Origin of modernism in American literature

    1.1. World War I

    The violence of World War I was unprecedented and terrible, and this conflict helps to shatter all illusions of the romanticism of war. 2.2.Overwhelming technological changes of the 20th Century

    Technological progress in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties gave rise to widespread utopianism, which influenced some modernist artists, while others were skeptical of the embrace of technology. In this context, American modernism marked the beginning of American literature as distinct and autonomous from European taste by breaking artistic conventions that had been shaped after European traditions until then.

    2.3. Urbanization and Industrialization

    Industrialization and urbanization became even larger factors in American society as the nation moved further from its agricultural roots into a new existence as a large factory nation that lived by the products it produced rather than the food it grew. Social theorists, seeking to understand this new urban world, began to apply Darwin’s theories of natural selection to social systems.

    Science developed at an exponential rate, teaching humanity more about themselves and the world around them. Such swift, unbounded changes disoriented Americans, sowing a deep distrust in the old institutions that had guided American life for so long. Many of America’s artists began to question what they could trust in this new world. The church, the family, the government,

    nothing seemed to give sufficient answers to the horrible questions that been raised by the changes of this time.

2. Characteristics of modernism in American


    2.1 Main theme

    2.1.1.Race relations.

     Race relations between blacks and whites, the gap between what was expected of each of the two and what the actual facts were, or, better said, prejudice in the society of the time are themes dealt with in most of the modernist American literature, whether we speak about prose or about drama . In other words, such stereotypes as the lack of education, the poor use of the English language and their portrayal in a dangerous light are not dealt away with, on the contrary, they are still present during the modernist period, as far as literature is concerned. However, with Ernest Hemingway's The Battler, for

    example, there seems to be a reversal of stereotypes. The Afro-American character in this short story proves out to be a kind, calculated and polite man, whose good manners and carefully chosen vocabulary are easily noticeable from the first moment he appears in the story.

    2.1.2. The question of “truth”.

    The “truth” is questionable, as a common theme, After the First World War many people questioned the chaos and the insanity of it all. The world’s “universal truths” and trust in authority figures began to crumble, and

    Modernism was a response to the destruction of these beliefs.

    Americans literature’s discontentment with all of the old facets of life was rapid in growing and comprehensive in scope. Indeed, it now seemed as if one’s own reason, untouched by society’s influence, was the only reliable authority on any question of importance, a theme that can be seen over and over again in the literature of the time. Writers now looked inside themselves to

    answer their own question about religion, sexual mores and any other issue. In a period in danger of dissolving itself into generality, with its vast blending of literary styles and dealings with a variety of topics, this introspection is the true hallmark of the modern period. By attempting to rethink their relationship to society and social institutions, the artists shifted the focus of the art from merely recording the world in which they lived to saying something about that world, as well.

    2.1.3. Gender roles

    The reversal of traditional roles is also the main theme.It is an era under the sign of emancipation and change in society, issues which reflect themselves in the literature of the period, as well. For hundreds of years, women have struggled to gainequality in a world dominated by men. Many female poets in the early nineteen hundreds found it difficult to compete with the men of their time. Modernism and the new feminism that emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century stood for a bold and innovative approach to the future, breaking the intellectual systems of the past. American Modernism was a radical change in linguistic, spiritual, and social conventions as writers journeyed further and further from the world of their foremothers. Authors rejected all artistic efforts that failed to overthrow the existing concepts of beauty and women struggled to gain footing in the world of literature and literary modernism.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for example, deals with such topics as gender interaction in a mundane society.

    2.1.4. War experience

    Influenced by the first World War, American modernist writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, offer an insight into the psychological wounds and spiritual scars of the war experience.His anti-heroic war tales were both controversial yet wildly acclaimed by the reading public. His novels and short stories often dealt frankly with the gross realities of war, while he subtly manipulated his simple, journalistic prose style to express his own bleak view of the world around him, a world outside of simple cause and effect relationships, lacking

    both logic and philosophy. Similarly, the novels and prose works of William Faulkner reflected the Modernist movement, showcasing disjointed images, multiple points of view, complex sentences, and stream-of-consciousness narration as newly accepted literary tools to describe the world. The work of these writers and their contemporaries expressed a new view of the post-war world, a world capable of both amazing technology and incomprehensible cruelty. It was a world of newfound ambiguities, a world with no clear center and no clear distinction between good and evil, black or white. Nevertheless, all these negative aspects led to new hopes and aspirations, and to the search for a new beginning, not only for the contemporary individuals, but also for the fictional characters in American modernist literature.

    2.2. Style

    It was new uncertainty and complete ambiguity that became the true style of modernism in American literature. And this kind of style is manifested through the following features:

    1. More use of the first person narrative, reflecting the lack of universal truth, i.e. there are only individual truths.

    2.Fragmentation in plot, characters, theme, images, and overall storyline. Thus, many modernist works are not in the typical linear sequence. 3. Ambiguous ending; such works often leave a lot of questions with the reader; they don’t tie everything up for you.

    4.Often setting is more than just the setting ,i.e. more meaning to it than just where the story takes place, or, maybe there is no setting at all.

    3. The spirit of modernism in American literature From the above what I have explianed about origin and characterstics of American modernist literature ,we can conclude what spirit is it conveyed in this modernist period.

    1.Conviction that the previously sustaining structures of human life, whether

    social, political, religious, or artistic, had been either destroyed or shown up as falsehoods or fantasies. Therefore, art had to be rennovated.

    2.Modernist writing is marked by a strong and conscious break with tradition. It rejects traditional values and assumptions.

    3.“Modern” implies a historical discontinuity, a sense of alienation, loss, and despair.It rejects not only history but also the society of whose fabrication history is a record. Poetry tended to provide pessimistic cultural criticism or loftily reject social issues altogether.

    4.Literature, especially poetry, becomes the place where the one meaningful activity, the search for meaning, is carried out; and therefore literature is, or should be, vitally important to society. Imaginative vision is thought to give access to an ideal world, apart and above reality, or to contain alternative, higher values than those reigning in the statehouse and the marketplace, which could enrich life. Furthermore, modernists believed that we create the world in the act of perceiving it.

4. Conclusion

    All in all, 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. 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.


    McDonald,Gail. American literaure and culure,1900-1960 Blackwell Pub., 2007.

    郭继德 美国文学研究 山东大学出版社 2002

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