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Modern American Fiction and World War I

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Modern American Fiction


World War I

The literature of the Modern American Period (from approximately 1914 - 1946) was greatly influenced by the first World War. The feeling that gripped America post-war was one of pessimism, and this attitude bled over into the literature of the time period.


Trench Warfare

Trench Warfare – type of fighting during World War I in which both sides dug trenches protected by mines and barbed wire.

Cross-section of a front-line trench 


Trench Rats

Many men killed in the trenches were buried almost where they fell. These corpses, as well as the food scraps that littered the trenches, attracted rats.

Quotes from soldiers fighting in the trenches:

"The rats were huge. They were so big they would eat a wounded man if he couldn't defend himself."

"I saw some rats running from under the dead men's greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. My heart pounded as we edged towards one of the bodies. His helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured and from the yawning mouth leapt a rat."


Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backsAnd towards our distant rest began to trudge.Men marched asleep. Many had lost their bootsBut limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hootsOf disappointed shells that dropped behind.GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;But someone still was yelling out and stumblingAnd floundering like a man in fire or lime.--Dim, through the misty panes and thick green lightAs under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.If in some smothering dreams you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori. (“How fitting and sweet it is to die for one’s country.”)


Western Front – over 400 miles of trenches across Belgium and France

Most offenses resulted in heavy casualties but gained little territory.


Military Casualties in World War I: 1914-1918

Germany 1,935,000

Russia 1,700,000

France 1,368,000

Austria-Hungary 1,200,000

British Empire 942,135

Ottoman Empire 725,000

Italy 680,000

Romania 300,000

United States 116,516

Bulgaria 87,495

Belgium 45,550

Serbia 45,000

Greece 23,098

Portugal 8,145

Montenegro 3,000

Japan 1,344


Little Actually Accomplished…….After the war, most Americans were left wondering what was actually accomplished during this horrific war. Few soldiers, who had been raised on their grandfather’s idea of war, felt as if they had acted with bravery or earned honor while serving. Those soldiers who returned home felt isolated and pessimistic. Many American soldiers lingered in Europe rather than return home.


Upon returning HOME, many American soldiers found themselves in a unique position, war had changed them into men while their parents still saw them as boys----Most were unable to support themselves because the war had interrupted their lives. Now they came home after tasting the harsh reality of war and the freedom they found in Europe, and many were dissatisfied with life.


The four major writers of the Modern American Fiction period were all directly involved in the war as soldiers and saw the atrocities first hand…….so it is no wonder that the literature of this time period is so tainted with their experiences.

Ernest Hemingway

William Faulkner

F. Scott Fitzgerald

John Steinbeck


Gertrude Stein actually penned the term

The Lost Generation

to describe her generation and the social ills they faced.


The literature of this lost generation had several common characteristics.

1. The authors tended to develop plots around less than likely heroes.


The writers of this time developed their literature around non-traditional themes.

  • The MAF writers loved to utilize symbolism in their works.
  • The MAF writers tended to experiment with new techniques like stream of consciousness narration.

Writers like Hemingway, in particular, wrote on the principle of the iceberg theory.

  • And finally, many MAF writers followed the lead of Sherwood Anderson who felt that the best plots were left open-ended for the reader to interpret on his/her own.