Modernism: 1912-1945
Pablo Picasso “Portrait of Dora Maar”
American Modernism
The greatest single fact about our modern
American writing is our writers' absorption in
every last detail of their American world
together with their deep and subtle alienation
from it.
- Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds, 1942
• Reaction to World War I
– Response to a sense of social breakdown
– Development of cubism and surrealism in the visual arts
– International perspective on cultural matters
• The Jazz Age and The Great Depression
– Investigation of the excesses of the “Roaring 20s”
– Consideration of class and trauma as raised by the Great Depression
• View of the world as “fragmented”
– The usual connective patterns are missing: morals and frameworks are
– Artist’s self-consciousness about questions of form and structure
– Stylistic innovations, disruption of traditional syntax and form
– “These fragments I have shorn against my ruin” (The Wasteland)
The Lost Generation
• Coming out of the destruction of World War I, many
artists and intellectuals were disillusioned with
American politics and culture. Many of them left
America to live abroad, particularly in Paris
• Among the expatriate writers were
Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein,
and F. Scott Fitzgerald
Scientific Thought Sets the Stage for a
New Era
Before Modernism
Aristotelian concept of man as a
social and rational animal
Tabula Rasa “Blank Slate”
Newton's law of motion
Governments exist for the benefit of
their citizens
Darwin's theory of Evolution
Sigmund Freud’s theories about the
conscious/unconscious mind and Carl
Jung’s belief of the collective
Einstein’s theory of relativity -- time is
no longer uniform or absolute
Marx’s concept of government
perpetuating ideology to benefit
• Artists should be the creator rather than the preserver
of traditional styles.
• One example of radical innovation during this time
period includes Pablo Picasso’s cubism, a style of
painting that abandons realism.
The modern artist must live by craft and violence. His gods
are violent gods. Those artists, so called, whose work does
not show this strife, are uninteresting.
(Ezra Pound)
• Authors explored characters’ psyches through stream
of consciousness and interior monologue (Thanks
• Authors mixed slang with elevated language and also
experimented with free verse.
• During this time period we also see an emphasis placed
upon the non-linear– disconnected images and plot.
An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be
afraid to do what he might choose.
(Langston Hughes)
Themes of Modern Literature
Collectivism versus individualism
Anxiety regarding the past
Historical discontinuity
Violence and alienation
Decadence and decay
Loss and despair
Breakdown of social norms and cultural sureties
Race and gender relations
Sense of place, local color
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