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Modernist Principles: “Make it New”. English 255. American Literary Modernism.

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Modernist principles make it new

Modernist Principles: “Make it New”

English 255

American literary modernism

American Literary Modernism

  • Modernism, according to Christ Baldick, The Concise Oxford Definition of Literary Terms is “a general term applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the literature (and other arts) of the early 20th century”

Modernist principles

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th Ed. (1998) by J.A. Cuddar

“…a movement which began … in the closing years of the 19th century and which … had a wide influence internationally during much of the 20th century. [It] reveals a breaking away from established rules, traditions and conventions, fresh ways of looking at man’s position and function in the universe and many…experiments in form and style. It is particularly concerned with language and how to use it … and with writing itself.”

Modernist principles

  • “…the term ‘Modernism’ is not a precise label but instead a way of referring to the efforts of many individuals across the arts who tried to move away from established modes [realistic] of representation”

    Peter Childs, Modernism

Scientific rationalism

Scientific Rationalism

  • During 19th Century, the Enlightenment notion of the world as a machine—something whose parts could be named and seen to function—came back into favor.

  • Positivism—the 19th Century belief that everything, including human nature, could be explained and understood through science.

  • Modernism rejects this idea.

Modernist writing reacts to several changes during the first part of the twentieth century

Modernist writing reacts to several changes during the first part of the twentieth century:

  • industrialization and mechanization

  • rapid technological advances

  • What important changes happened?

An ugly war

An Ugly War

  • WW I was the first “total war” in which modern weapons spared no one, including civilians.

  • The casualties suffered by the participants in WorldWar I dwarfed those of previous wars: some 8,500,000 soldiers died as a result of wounds and/or disease.

  • War was increasingly mechanized from 1914 and produced casualties even when nothing important was happening.



  • It has been estimated that the number of civilian deaths attributable to the war was higher than the military casualties, or around 13,000,000. These civilian deaths were largely caused by starvation, exposure, disease, military encounters, and massacres.

  • The enormity of the war had undermined humankind's faith in Western society and culture.

    • A generation of young men lost.

    • Survivors reexamine bases of certainly, structure of knowledge, systems of belief and authorities.

    • Creating a feeling of hopelessness.

  • Postwar modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation.

Karl marx

Marx’s new explanations of history—dialectical materialism which sees historical progress as the political struggle between two classes resulting in a new socioeconomic order

Karl Marx

Charles darwin

Darwin’s new view of humanity as ascended from apes rather than descended from God— shifts humanity’s conception of its place in the world

Charles Darwin

Ferdinand de saussure

Swiss linguist who argues that language is relative, that words have no direct relationship to the concepts or objects they signify

Ferdinand de Saussure

Albert einstein

Albert Einstein

  • Theory of relativity abandoned the concepts of absolute motion and the absolute difference of space and time.

  • Theories became interpreted in popular culture that we cannot know anything for sure; all knowledge is relative.

  • Einstein: his philosophies of relativity challenge previous scientific notions of stable time and space

Friedrich nietzsche

Nietzsche: when he said “God is Dead” and argued for the power of the human will, he shifted cultural ideologies about religion and philosophy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sigmund freud

Stressed subconscious motives and instinctual drives.

After Freud, impossible to ignore psychological undercurrents of human behaviors.

Writers deal with subconscious motivations.

Employ stream of consciousness technique similar to Freud’s therapeutic tactic of free association.

Sigmund Freud

Alternate spiritualities and religions

Alternate spiritualities and religions

  • The Golden Bough

  • From Ritual to Romance

  • Theosophy

  • Golden Dawn



  • Refused direct representation of reality.

  • Favor of expressing an inner vision, emotion, or spiritual reality.

  • The Scream by Edvard Munch evokes a whole realm of spiritual agony.



  • Aim to bring a fuller awareness of human experience—both conscious and unconscious states.

Key descriptors

Key Descriptors

  • decentered

  • pessimistic

  • disaffected

  • a “literature in crisis”

  • loss and despair

  • violence and alienation

  • race relations

  • historical discontinuity

  • decadence and decay

  • rejection of history

  • unavoidable change

Things modernist writing does

Things Modernist Writing Does

  • Elevation of art over everything else (morality, money, middle-class values)

  • Avant garde—alienated from social reality

Things modernist writing does1

Things Modernist Writing Does

  • Characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19th-century traditions reader: conventions of realism ... or traditional meter.

  • Predominantly cosmopolitan

  • Expresses a sense of urban cultural dislocation

  • Represents psychological time, the stream of consciousness

Things modernist writing does2

Things Modernist Writing Does

  • “Make it New”

  • Art is unique and original, is anti-commercial

  • It explores the human subconscious (think Freud)

  • Relies on and employs myth as a reaction against scientific rationalism, uses sensuality, intuition and a search for “Truth”

Things modernist writing does3

Things Modernist Writing Does

  • Time is circular rather than linear

  • Feels human character can only be known through memories and thoughts versus external description

  • Reacts against Realism and Victorian morality, find sexuality and sexual desire as a subject

  • Modernism is disenchanted

Forms of modernist writing

Forms of Modernist Writing

  • Experiments with point of view and narrative structure.

  • Rejection of chronological and narrative continuity.

  • Literature and language as a game

  • Stream of consciousness

  • Unreliable narrator

Forms of modernist writing1

Forms of Modernist Writing

  • Uses fragments, a non-linear plot

  • Juxtaposition and multiple point of view

  • Psychological realism—seeks to represent the character’s thoughts, feelings, and memories, his or her consciousness

  • ‘Objective correlative‘--Eliot

  • "No ideas but in things," Williams

Modernism s mission

Modernism’s Mission

  • Literature = art object produced by consummate craft rather than as a statement of emotion.

  • Not a set of stylistic features; an impulse to perfect

  • A refusal of clichés; a system of taboos

  • A reaction against degraded Realism, especially in the marketplace

  • A repudiation of monopoly capitalism’s effects on human being (conformity, standardization, repetition, seriality, stupidity)

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