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Modernism. The Movement in American Literature. What is it?. Imagine a world full of contradictions – a world of disillusion and hope, of crumbling traditions and explosive creative energy, of self-doubt and self-discovery.

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The Movement in

American Literature

what is it
What is it?
  • Imagine a world full of contradictions – a world of disillusion and hope, of crumbling traditions and explosive creative energy, of self-doubt and self-discovery.
  • That is the modern world that young European and American writers in the early decades of the century first struggled to come to terms with in their art.
historical context
Historical Context
  • World War I remade the map of Europe, and changed the lives of nations and individuals.
  • 4 year conflict involving a total of 32 nations.
  • The first large-scale modern war, utilizing the savage new weapons of modern technology – poison gas, submarines, armored tanks, airplanes, and machine guns.
  • By the time the war ended in 1918, nearly 10 million soldiers and almost as many civilians had been killed.
uncertainty follows
Uncertainty Follows

The United States enters WWI in 1917, and shared the sense that civilization as they had known it, was being destroyed.

No one knew what would result from the political breakdown of this war.

end of war
End of War
  • Signaled idealism and ushered in economic growth, technological advancement, and new ways to have fun.
  • Roaring 20s – people had more money and more things to buy.
  • Radios bring jazz into homes.
  • Cars become available to more people, giving them mobility and freedom.
  • More people go to nightclubs and to speakeasies, where illegal alcohol was plentiful.
  • Movies became popular.

Political corruption was rampant

Gangsters flourished with the profits from the sale of alcohol

Americans grew distrustful of foreigners and intolerant of political dissent.


This literary movement was a direct response to social and cultural changes.

Creating new ways of writing to respond to the post-World War I realities.

Loss of stability was so strong from 1914-1945 and is reflected in the structure of literature – thus, the LOST GENERATION

important people
Important People

Ernest Hemingway

F. Scott Fitzgerald

William Faulkner

Katherine Anne Porter

T.S. Eliot

Ezra Pound

William Carlos Williams

The Lost Generation

changing structures
Changing Structures
  • Affects storytelling – spare descriptions and sparse dialogue.
  • Little explanation about relationships between characters.
  • Short, fragmentary stories that don’t have traditional beginnings and endings.
  • Artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp visually captures this fragmentary nature in cubist designs, cutouts, and collages.
modernism in art
Modernism in Art

Dadaism – Marcel Duchamp

The world doesn’t make sense and neither should art.

Cubist Technique – Henri Matisse

Cubism – Pablo Picasso

more shared characteristics
More shared characteristics
  • Themes affected as well – alienation, isolation, abandonment, ruin, unresponsive, hurt by unnamed forces, threatened, etc.
  • Writers are more experimental.
  • Stream-of-consciousness becomes a fictional technique to dramatize the interior life of characters.
  • Verse created from fragments of modern experience – pieces of dreams, feelings, dialogue, images, and literary allusions.

The one-story bunk houses, the eating-house, the company store, the mill offices, and the big mill itself stood deserted in the acres of sawdust that covered the swampy meadow by the shore of the bay. Ten years later there was nothing of the mill left except the broken white limestone of its foundations showing through the swampy second growth as Nick and Marjorie rowed along the shore.

- Ernest Hemingway

“The End of Something”

I owed to this woman most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood, and had a reverential affection for her. During the years when I was riding herd for my uncle, my aunt, after cooking three meals…and putting the six children to bed, would often stand until midnight at her ironing board with me at the kitchen table beside her, hearing me recite Latin declensions and conjugations, gently shaking me when my drowsy head sank down over a page of irregular verbs.

- Willa Cather

“A Wagner Matinee”

defining features
Defining Features
  • A rejection of traditional themes and subject matter.
    • Instead of love, many modernists wrote of the inability to commit to, or even communicate with, others. Instead of marriage and the community, they often wrote of broken relationships and broken lives.
defining features1
Defining Features
  • A focus on alienated individuals rather than “heroes” who stood for the values of the society.
    • The protagonist of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not heroic, but an insecure, lonely man who is consumed by self-doubt.
defining features2
Defining Features
  • Frequent themes of impermanence and change.
    • For many modernists, nothing lasted – neither human institutions nor human attachments.
defining features3
Defining Features
  • The use of understatement and irony to reveal important emotions and ideas.
    • The modernists no longer felt confident to state universal truths directly in their works like romantics and transcendentalists had before them.
defining features4
Defining Features
  • The use of symbols and images that suggest meanings rather than statements that explain meanings.
    • Speakers will rarely tell you they are lonely or sad, the imagery in the work will tell you.
defining features5
Defining Features
  • The use of a stream-of-consciousness technique to show what’s going on both inside and outside the characters.
    • Works are structure on the central character’s sometimes disconnected, but revealing, inner thoughts, feelings, and dreams.
the tip of the iceberg
The Tip of the Iceberg
  • Although modernist writers often describe the characters’ actions, feelings, and thoughts, they do not interpret the significance of these for the reader.
  • The reader is left to infer how they feel about characters based on their actions and from what they do not say as much as from what they do say.
  • Hemingway explained such omissions this way: “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows.”
iceberg principle
Iceberg Principle

Overt Details

What must be inferred