The biggest driver for Modernism was World War I, also known as the Great War, and the social and political turmoil that ensued. Much of the innovative work of the Modernist period seemed to follow writer Ezra Pound’s credo of “Make It New!” Whether it was technology, art, architecture, or poetry, Modernism sought to reinvent the world. Uninhibited by the past, the Modernist era redefined America’s political, religious, economic, and social values. From areas of women’s suffrage to the invention of the assembly line, from Harlem to the Deep South, Modernism was a time of social upheaval, extraordinary growth, and accelerated change for America.
5.2.1 The Great War
World War I, which lasted from 1914-1918, was largely a European conflict with Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy serving as the pillars of the Allied Forces, and Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire anchoring the Central powers. Yet it brought turbulent changes to the entire world, America included. Although America did not officially enter the war effort until 1917, many young men already volunteered before then to fight with other detachments, such men including Ernest Hemingway, who was stationed as an ambulance driver on the Italian front.This war was the first global war and, as the world evolved, so did warfare. Additionally, this war was the first fully-industrialized war, featuring shelling, machine guns, mustard gas, and several other kinds of advanced weaponry. Indeed this war was the likes of which no one had ever seen. As such, it was a war of attrition, with over 30 million casualties. Never before in the history of civilization had there been such a large and full-scale military affair. Although in 1918, the Armistice signaled the end to World War I, many tensions and hostilities remained, especially among the combatants who felt disillusioned and used by their country. It’s no coincidence that in 1919, just one year later, riots broke out across the United States. After the dust settled, one thing was clear: the world had changed permanently; this change would be at the heart of Modernist literature and art.
Of course World War I did not end European conflict; tension began to arise when Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1930s and bristled under Germany’s heavy sanctions imposed by the Armistice. Hitler’s rise in Germany would lead to World War II, which the United States tried to avoid using isolationist policies. However, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) served as the catalyst for America’s entrance into World War II. This period between the two wars marks an important time in American life and culture. During this time, America grew and matured, largely in reaction to these events that unified the nation against common enemies. This unprecedented American growth included growth from immigration, industrialization, technological developments, and the development of the modern cities.
5.2.2 Une Generation Perdue...(a lost generation)
If the mantra of Modernism was Pound’s “Make it New,” then the defining characteristic for the generation comes from Gertrude Stein’s comment to young Ernest Hemingway that you are all “une generation perdue” (you all are a lost generation). With the economy at an all-time high due to the increased industrial manufacturing and development of so many new industries came an increase in wealth in America; indeed, the Modernist period is characterized by the boom of a growing economy before the bust of the Great Depression. While overall wealth increased, dissatisfaction with America also increased and a growing number of young people, artists and veterans alike lived as expatriates outside the country largely taking up residence in France and Spain. Most notable among these expatriates were writers T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. This movement is depicted in Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises.
5.2.3 A Modern Nation
The industrial revolution and the meteoric rise of factories helped shift the nation’s economy from its agricultural roots to an industry based economy. World War I (which began in 1914) along with America’s entrance into the war (1917) put pressure on all of the citizens to ration goods and supplies. To meet demand, more factories began to experiment with mass production. This boom led to more jobs and a stronger economy, often referred to as the Boom years. Furthermore, while live music led to the prevalence of nightclubs, Prohibition created an underground industry of bootlegging to supply alcohol for these entertainment and music venues. This instant wealth led to a greater population of the newly rich and encouraged growth throughout the country. Often called “The Jazz Age,” this era of wealth was written about by many different Modernists, but made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
However, the Boom years did not last forever. This age of prosperity came to a sudden halt in October 1929, when the sudden stock market collapse led to the Great Depression. The economic downturn led to more than 10,000 banks shutting down and more than 15 million workers becoming unemployed. Worse still, a series of droughts in the early 1930s, known as the “Dust Bowl,” left 500,000 people homeless, as many of these families moved to California, looking for work. The Great Depression became a major literary theme chronicled, most notably, by John Steinbeck in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
The election of Franklin Roosevelt (1932) ushered in the age of “The New Deal.” During the New Deal era, Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which used Federal funds to put more people to work, building America’s infrastructure. The WPA was responsible for roads, various public buildings, and other projects, most notably the Hoover Dam, using Federal funds. The WPA provided employment for millions, including writers and artists who were sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, featuring the photography of Walker Evans, was an eye-opening book that captured the extent of New Deal poverty in the American South
At the same time, more and more people started migrating out of small rural agricultural areas into cities. Most notable among this time period is the Great Migration, during which African-Americans left the South to escape poverty and Jim Crow laws and moved to larger cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York. The Great Migration included as many as 1.5 million African-Americans and represents the greatest population shift in American history. These cultural and population shifts, along with the freedom of transportation, caused cultural cross-pollination, as people brought their old customs to new places. These shifts helped spark regional cultural revolutions, such as the Harlem Renaissance in Harlem which brought many important African-American artists to the forefront and is captured in works like Zora Neal Huston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Jean Toomer’s Cane as well the Southern Literary Renaissance, also referred to by Southern Writers as the Southern Literary Renascence which foregrounded the creativity of the South and brought authors like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty to national prominence.
New technologies were changing the face of modern life. The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, was a giant suspension bridge which connected Brooklyn with Manhattan. Although it pre-dates Modernism, it was seen as one of America’s greatest technological achievements and was the subject of Hart Crane’s famous Modernist poem The Bridge. The invention of the automobile by inventors like Henry Ford and the development of the assembly line in the early 1920s not only created an industry, but also spurred investments in America’s infrastructure, that is, its roads, highways. Suddenly, all of America was connected and personal travel was more readily available. The mass production of phonographs, projection reels, and telephones made these technologies more accessible to the public and allowed for more recording, making mass culture possible. The same could be said about the publishing industry, which flourished during this time. The paperback book made books more affordable, and the development of Book-of-the-Month clubs and subscription reading programs allowed for mass audiences, giving rise to the modern day “best seller.” The affordability of magazines also made them a popular venue for many writers, as F. Scott Fitzgerald regularly published in The Saturday Evening Post, while many famous Modernist writers, such as Ezra Pound, held editorial positions for magazines, and literary magazines, such as The Dial, became popular venues for Modernist writers to publish.
5.2.4 Modernist Literature
The term Modernism as a literary term is largely used as a catchall for a global movement that was centered in the United States and Europe, for literature written during the two wars, which is said to be the first industrialized modern period. In another sense, Modernism refers to the general theme: much of the literature of the period is written in reaction to these accelerated times. After World War I, many writers felt betrayed by the United States, but even more than that, there was a general feeling of change, of progress, of questioning the ways of the past. Throughout the art of this time period, whether it is painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, all question the truths of the past, all question the status quo. Largely, this attitude goes hand-in-hand with the disaffection with politics caused by World War I.
There is no single style that would encompass all of Modernist poetry; rather, a lot of Modernist poetry could be separated as High Modernism and Low Modernism. These terms are not meant to serve as an aesthetic judgment about the quality of the work, but rather help us understand the range of experimentation occurring during this period. High Modernism features poets who are much more formal, such as T. S. Eliot with his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and who look at the modern era as a period of loss, in some ways, looking at how much America has changed and fearing that the change might be for the worse. Essentially, in high modernist works, the authors realize that society has shifted so much, it will never be possible to return to the old ways, so they often represent the world as fragmented, disjointed, or chaotic. High Modernist poetry also maintains a traditional structure and form and often contains explicit allusions to history, myth, or religion, such as the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno which begins T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Low Modernism is much less formal, experimenting with form. The poetry of William Carlos Williams, the doctor turned poet, is a great example of Low Modernism. His poetry like “This is Just to Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” often plays with the traditional structure of a poem. These writers tend to be so different that first-time readers often questioned whether these works Williams’s “This is Just to Say”; Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”; Cummings’s “In Just” are poems. Ezra Pound did not even consider himself a poet; rather, in his essay, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” he refers to himself as an imagiste, or one who creates images.
Experimentation was not limited to Modernist poetry, as prose (fiction and non-fiction) writers were also challenging form, style, and content, that is, what you could or could not write about. Authors such as Faulkner experimented with how to tell a story, especially by using a rotating cast of characters often set in the same county of Yoknapatawpha, while Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons experimented with what exactly was a story. Sherwood Anderson’s book, Winesburg, Ohio, was able to blur the line between short stories and the novel by writing a book of short stories that fit together as a novel. In much the same way, Jean Toomer’s Cane combined poetry, prose, and drama in one strange and beautiful book, foregrounding the dangerous racial politics of the time. Modernist prose was much more than just experimentation, though, in that it also introduced new subject matter. Writers no longer felt the need to veil their opinions; instead, many were explicit in their political critiques. The Great Depression gave rise to Communism among many artists, especially in the works of Ellison and Baldwin, while the Women’s Suffrage Movement highlighted early feminism. Furthermore, thewidespread distribution of easily affordable magazines and paperbacks meant that these writers were reaching a wider audience with a more radical message.
The Modernist period was perhaps the birth of the American playwright. Before Modernism, theater consisted of largely vaudeville or productions of European works. However, the success of Eugene O’Neil paved the way for several other successful American playwrights, such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Although theirs was a time of great change, the common thread that ties the Modernist writers together whether they write poetry, prose, or drama is the techniques they invented. Writers such as Faulkner, whose novel The Sound and the Fury offered an entirely new way to narrate a book, or Langston Hughes, whose poetry blended music and verse, developed entirely new ways of telling a story. Modernist writers radically rejected previous standards in an attempt to “make it new” and, in the process, changed the course of literary history.
5.2.5 Further Reading: Additional Secondary Sources
Modernism: A Very Short Introduction
The Concept of Modernism
After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism
The Pound Era
The American Adam
The Turning Word