The modernism movement has many credos: Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “make it new” and Virginia Woolf’s assertion that sometime around December 1910 “human character changed” are but two of the most famous. It is important to remember that modernism is not a monolithic movement. There are, in fact, many modernisms, ranging from the “high” or canonical modernism of a few Avant-garde authors such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce to the African-American modernism embodied in the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Modernism was a global phenomenon, but it had different impacts in Europe, Britain, and the United States, and it was reflected differently in writing and in the plastic arts (especially painting, sculpture, and architecture). Further, no consensus exists concerning the period that modernism is said to cover. Sometimes it is said to have begun at the turn of the 20th century with Joseph Conrad and W. B. Yeats; other times it said to have begun with World War I. It could perhaps end in the 1930s or at the end of World War II, or it might continue today, for the theorist Frederic Jameson has claimed that so-called Postmodernism is actually just another form of modernism. Such writers as Raymond Carver or Toni Morrison might be considered to write in a kind of modernist style. Despite the divergent opinions, most critics probably would agree that modernist expression is epitomized in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land, both published in 1922, and that modernism is the name put to the new paradigm for presenting the diverse facets of 20th century culture.
Some of the shared characteristics of modernism can be identified. In the aftermath of post-Enlightenment culture, there was a call for a distinct gesture that could describe the quality of living. In other words, modernism inscribed a particular sense of radical rupture with the past and a perception of cultural crisis. Modernity, as Jurgen Habermas says, “revolts against the normalizing functions of tradition: modernity lives in the experience of rebelling against all that is normative.” The normative changes associated with modernity include a sense of cultural crisis brought on by World War I and the sense that the new 20th century put the world closer to the apocalypse; Western notions of progress and superiority were breaking down. Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud all offered so-called master narratives that helped to explain history and to produce a new historical self-consciousness. Well-held precepts and norms for religion, sexuality, gender, and the family of the past Victorian world were also collapsing. Conflicts over racial, gender, class, religious, and colonial systems of oppression were moving to the fore. Large-scale migrations from rural areas into overcrowded urban centers and technological change also were causing cultural dislocation, and a preeminent modernist figure became the alienated and nihilistic self in a usually urban world. The numb and dislocated protagonists of Ernest Hemingway’s fiction provide good examples.
These very real historical and cultural exigencies resulted in aesthetic crises and compensatory strategies. This radically new modern world could be reflected adequately only in a new order of art, and writers reacted with various formal innovations. This search for order was also a response to what many artists perceived as a lack of coherence in Romanticism, the “movement” that preceded modernism. Romanticism’s “soft” or emotional expression and its valuing of sensibility and imagination over reason and the actual, of nature over culture and art, was inadequate to express a rhetoric of loss and new beginning. The search for order in the modern world can be seen in the private mythologies of T. S. Eliot, which in turn hearken back to a classical world and in Joyce’s reworking of the tale of Ulysses; this kind of self-conscious use of myth to organize the details of a work reflected a new literary self-consciousness. William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi also might be a kind of private modernist landscape populated with Faulkner-invented mythical families of the Sartorises and the Snopeses; even Hemingway’s macho heroic codes of behavior are modernist versions of ancient paradigms of honorable behavior.
In a kind of aesthetic attempt to purify culture by purifying language, modernist writers emphasize the role of language and form as, for instance, in much of Hemingway’s spare prose and Gertrude Stein’s poetry or her famous assertion that “a rose is a rose is a rose.” Other times, instead of seeming simplicity, artists relied on elitist, purposefully dense, and almost impenetrable prose and poetry; many would point to Faulkner’s novels, Ezra Pound’s cantos, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as examples. Literary personae and masks in literature became very self-aware and self-reflexive; the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, for instance, clearly contain many of their creators’ traits as well as their biographical details, and Eliot’s speaker in the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shares many similarities with the writer himself. In addition to self-referentiality, the search for luminous epiphanies and moments of insight and intersection with the transcendent are omnipresent in modernist fiction.
Perhaps it is useful also to consider modernism in terms of both content and form. Thus a short story such as Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” may not seem so obviously innovative in its language and form as a Hemingway story, but its refl ection of postwar spiritual and moral crisis gives it a distinctly modernist content and tone. Modernism also might be accused of less innovation than its proponents pretended: After all, Eliot’s formalism was neoclassical; Faulkner’s natural world was very romantic in its own way. Modernism was thus double voiced, double visioned: It stepped free of the past and announced the new aesthetic era, yet simultaneously it failed to encompass or adequately survey the past, which perhaps accounts for the involvement of many modernists with political fascism and intellectual elitism. Attempts at impersonality and formality emerged from a modernist belief that superior, more realistic art comes from knowledge born of reasoned discrimination and rationality. In a self-conscious enactment of nihilism and artistic self-possession, the modernist seems to say that there is a transcendent order out there, and he or she can write it.
Eysteinsson, Astradur. The Concept of Modernism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Cambridge, Mass.: Polity, in association with Basil Blackwell, 1987. Reprint, Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1990.
Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Knopf, 1975.