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Modernism
Ezra Pound, whose famous exhortation "Make it new" is rightly considered one of modernism's mottoes, was also urging writers to apply new energy to established forms. Alvin Langdon Coburn took this photo in 1913 and published it in his collection MORE MEN OF MARK in 1922.
Although generally called a movement, it is more valid to see modernism as an international body of literature characterized by a new self-consciousness about modernity and by radical formal experimentation. Several literary movements and styles, notably Imagism and Vorticism, were fostered within modernism, which flourished from around 1890 until 1940. There was also a period of so-called "high modernism," 1920-5.

Generally, modernists were driven by the belief that the assurances once provided by religion, politics, or society no longer sufficed. This belief intensified after World War I, when it seemed to many that history itself was coming to an end and that modern life was horrific, chaotic, and ultimately futile. Some modernists, notably T. S. Eliot, expressed a deep sense of loss and despair. However, others responded with a fresh sense of both the freedom and the responsibilities of the artist in a new age. Ezra Pound in particular envisaged the possibility of a new society to which artists would contribute meaningfully. Many modernists shared an ambitious, aspirational belief in the role and place of the artist in contemporary life, believing that art had replaced religion in providing coherence, guidance, and insight into the human condition. For some writers this meant a fresh sense of the possibilities of ancient myths, and a revaluation of the contemporary meanings of myth was typical of high modernism. Others, especially Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Ernest Hemingway, were less convinced by the relevance of myth, believing that the creation of meaning and coherence was the task of the writer, performed in opposition to false and damaging external impositions of order. This overall sense of the serious responsibility of the artist helps to account for the large projects in which many modernists engaged, for instance the long poem or the epic.

The modernist period also saw a radical experimentation in literary form and expression. In part this developed in response to new insights provided by recently established disciplines such as psychology. This was certainly true of the stream-of-consciousness technique, and in many respects modernist prose narrative begins with the complex later novels of Henry James. Experimentation was also partly a response to the new forms of expression that were developing in painting, sculpture, and music; another of modernism's characterizing features was the intense interaction between literature and the other arts. A further reason for modernist experimentation lay in technological innovations, such as the telephone and the cinema, which were changing the forms and the very meaning of communication. New forms were needed, as was the reinvigoration of established forms. Pound's famous exhortation "Make it new" is rightly considered one of modernism's mottoes, but as well as demanding novelty he was urging writers to apply new energy to established forms. A considerable amount of Pound's earlier poetry was written in antiquated forms as part of his attempt to revitalize and update tradition. At the same time, most modernists believed that literature should challenge and unsettle readers, and much modernist work may be demanding and difficult, alluding to a wide range of learning.

American modernism was broadly of two kinds. One was cosmopolitan, and created by expatriate writers, especially Pound, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) (1886-1961), Stein, and Eliot. Based in urban centers such as London and Paris, these writers sought to internationalize literature, often making powerful connections between their work and a broad range of past literature. Generally, they had little belief in the usefulness (or existence) of an American literary tradition. There was also a group of non-expatriate American modernists, even though several of them did spend time abroad. Stevens, Frost, Williams, Marianne Moore (1887-1972), F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Hemingway developed a modernist literature that was connected to American traditions, and the heavy concentration on region and place in the work of Stevens, Frost, Faulkner, and Williams marked them as radically different from Pound, Stein, and Eliot. What all the modernists shared was a belief in literature's importance in the modern world, and the need for it to be continually vital.

Further Reading:
MODERNISM AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE (1987) by Houston A. Baker Jr; THE CONCEPT OF MODERNISM (1990) by Aacute;sraacute;our Eysteinsson; THE POUND ERA (1971) by Hugh Kenner; FOREIGNERS: THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LITERATURE 1900-1940 (1981) by Marcus Klein, and MODERNISMS: A LITERARY GUIDE (1995) by Peter Nicholls.

From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson. Reprinted by permission of the author.


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