Modernism

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The Modernist Period in English Literature occupied the years from shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century through roughly 1965. In broad terms, the period was marked by sudden and unexpected breaks with traditional ways of viewing and interacting with the world. Experimentation and individualism became virtues, where in the past they were often heartily discouraged. Modernism was set in motion, in one sense, through a series of cultural shocks. The first of these great shocks was the Great War, which ravaged Europe from 1914 through 1918, known now as World War One. At the time, this “War to End All Wars” was looked upon with such ghastly horror that many people simply could not imagine what the world seemed to be plunging towards. The first hints of that particular way of thinking called Modernism stretch back into the nineteenth century. As literary periods go, Modernism displays a relatively strong sense of cohesion and similarity across genres and locales. Furthermore, writers who adopted the Modern point of view often did so quite deliberately and self-consciously. Indeed, a central preoccupation of Modernism is with the inner self and consciousness. In contrast to the Romantic world view, the Modernist cares rather little for Nature, Being, or the overarching structures of history. Instead of progress and growth, the Modernist intelligentsia sees decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse. War most certainly had a great deal of influence on such ways of approaching the world. Two World Wars in the span of a generation effectively shell-shocked all of Western civilization.

In its genesis, the Modernist Period in English literature was first and foremost a visceral reaction against the Victorian culture and aesthetic, which had prevailed for most of the nineteenth century. Indeed, a break with traditions is one of the fundamental constants of the Modernist stance. Intellectuals and artists at the turn of the twentieth century believed the previous generation’s way of doing things was a cultural dead end. They could foresee that world events were spiraling into unknown territory. The stability and quietude of Victorian civilization were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was essentially the triggering event of the First World War, a conflict which swept away all preconceived notions about the nature of so-called modern warfare.

In the world of art, generally speaking, Modernism was the beginning of the distinction between “high” art and “low” art. The educational reforms of the Victorian Age had led to a rapid increase in literacy rates, and therefore a greater demand for literature or all sorts. A popular press quickly developed to supply that demand. The sophisticated literati looked upon this new popular literature with scorn. Writers who refused to bow to the popular tastes found themselves in a state of alienation from the mainstream of society. To some extent, this alienation fed into the stereotype of the aloof artist, producing nothing of commercial value for the market. It’s worth mentioning that this alienation worked both ways, as the reading public by and large turned their backs on many “elitist” artists. The academic world became something of a refuge for disaffected artists, as they could rub elbows with fellow disenfranchised intellectuals. Still, the most effective poets and novelists did manage to make profound statements that were absorbed by the whole of society and not just the writer’s inner circles. In the later years of the Modernist period, a form of populism returned to the literary mainstream, as regionalism and identity politics became significant influences on the purpose and direction of artistic endeavor.

The nineteenth century, like the several centuries before it, was a time of privilege for...
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