From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- "In modernist literature, plot is secondary to philosophical introspection, and the prose can be winding and hard to follow." --Sholem Stein
- "Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert are the most commonly cited figures in accounts of modernist literature's originating moment. Baudelaire for poetry, Flaubert for prose." --Sholem Stein
- "The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand—and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as modernism. --John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, p. 16-17
Modernist literature is the literary form of Modernism and especially High modernism; it should not be confused with modern literature, which is the history of the modern novel and modern poetry as one. There is a separate section on modernist poetry.
Modernist literature was at its height from 1900 to 1940, and featured such authors as Knut Hamsun, Vladimir Nabokov, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak.
Modernist literature attempted to move from the bonds of Realist literature and introduce concepts such as disjointed timelines. Modernism was distinguished by emancipatory metanarrative. In the wake of Modernism, and post-enlightenment, metanarratives tended to be emancipatory, whereas beforehand this was not a definite. Contemporary metanarratives were failing with World War I, the rise of trade unionism, and a general discontent. Something had to perform a unifying function, and this was the point when culture became politically important.
Modernist literature is defined by its move away from Romanticism, venturing into subject matter that is traditionally mundane--a prime example being The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. Modernist literature often features a marked pessimism, a clear rejection of the optimism apparent in Victorian literature. In fact, "a common motif in Modernist fiction is that of an alienated individual--a dysfunctional individual trying in vain to make sense of a predominantly urban and fragmented society". However, many Modernist works like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land are marked by the absence of a central, heroic figure; in rejecting the solipsism of Romantics like Shelley and Byron, these works reject the subject of Cartesian dualism and collapse narrative and narrator into a collection of disjointed fragments and overlapping voices.
Modernist literature transcends the limitations of the Realist novel with its concern for larger factors such as social or historical change; this is largely demonstrated in "stream of consciousness" writing. Examples can be seen in Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens and Mrs Dalloway, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and others.
Modernism as a literary movement is seen, in large part, as a reaction to the emergence of city life as a central force in society.
Many Modernist works are studied in schools today, from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, to James Joyce's Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
From Romanticism to Modernism
Albert Gelpi noted that in Romanticism there was a belief in an intrinsic organic triad of correspondence between (i) the subject, (ii) the object (the perceived world), and (iii) the medium of expression. The medium of expression is expected to reveal the subtending spirit which animates this relationship. There is no fracture; no dissonance between subject and object. In contrast, Modernism proceeded not out of a conviction of organic unity, but an awareness of discontinuity between subject and object. The triad of Romanticism was replaced by the dyad of Modernism: (i) the subject (intellectual imagination) and (ii) the object/medium language. The medium of expression becomes itself, the object. In Romanticism the author or language revealed something in the object. Modernism was not about a revelation aesthetic, instead it was the opposite, it was about the dislocation of elements from nature into invention. Gelpi pointed out that in the middle of this dislocation there was still a huge need for order. Wallace Stevens stated that "a blessed rage for order was the motivating force of the Modernist artist." He argued that the work of the imagination itself helps people to live their lives. The imagination was privileged as a creative and organising space...
Romanticism used the language of religious ecstasy and vocation in the secular. In Modernism this becomes ever more explicit. The imagination had a spiritual dimension and a vocational dimension to the life of the artist. In Romanticism language was transformative: the reader was transported by the poem. In Modernism language was formative: the reader was not transported anywhere.
The early attention to the object as freestanding became in later Modernism a preoccupation with form. The dyadic collapse of the distance between subject and object represented a movement from means to is. In Romanticism this relationship means something. In Modernism the object is; the language doesn't mean it is. This is a shift from an epistemological aesthetic to an ontological aesthetic. Or in simpler terms, a shift from a knowledge-based aesthetic to a being-based aesthetic. This shift is central to Modernism. Archibald MacLeish, for instance, said, "A poem should not mean / But be."
Characteristics of Modernity/Modernism
- Free indirect speech
- Stream of consciousness
- Juxtaposition of characters
- Wide use of classical allusions
- Figure of speech
- Unconventional use of metaphor
- Symbolic representation
- Discontinuous narrative
- Multiple narrative points of view
- Breakdown of social norms
- Realistic embodiment of social meanings
- Separation of meanings and senses from the context
- Despairing individual behaviours in the face of an unmanageable future
- Spiritual loneliness
- Rejection of history
- Rejection of outdated social systems
- Objection to traditional thoughts and traditional moralities
- Objection to religious thoughts
- Substitution of a mythical past
- Two World Wars' effects on humanity
- List of English-language first and second generation modernist writers
- Modernist poetry
- Modernist poetry in English
- History of modern literature
- Postmodern literature