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Modernism in American Literature

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Kai Stephenson

on 5 January 2017

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Transcript of Modernism in American Literature

Modernism in Other Media:
Visual Art
Visual American modernist art is much more difficult to define. Overall, American modernist artists explored different techniques of artistic expression. Abstract depictions of violence, heartache, and love were expressed heavily throughout the period. Robert Henri and John Sloan emphasized diversity within cities in their works, while jazz music heavily influenced Stuart Davis's bold and colorful paintings. Georgia O' Keeffe, also referred to as the mother of American modernism, was best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes.
John Sloan: Sixth Avenue Elevated at
Third Street, 1928
In literary terms, the Modernist movement saw a break from traditional and established thematic elements in American literature. Much like the more general philosophical movement it is associated with, literary modernists rejected the common cultural and thematic standards present in earlier literature. Rather than representing mainstream cultural and societal norms of the past, modernist writers disillusioned by the horrors of the first World War questioned the very way in which we viewed the world. The trust in "universal truths," authority figures, and even religion fell apart as writers around the globe expressed their detachment with the status quo through their novels. However, Modernism was much more than a literary movement, as it was seen in many forms of artistic expression in America and throughout the world.
What is Modernism?
American Modernism
Modernism broke into the U.S. during the late 1920's. Economic and technological progress in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties influenced artists who began to realize the changing times through their writing. Up until the twentieth century, Caucasian males were at the forefront of, well, everything. Women, minorities, and the poor had been systematically and socially degraded to differing degrees for centuries. Modernism ushered in a new standard between gender and cultural groups. More and more cultural groups were represented in mainstream media. African-Americans such as Langston Huges and Zora Neal Hurston took part in the Harlem Renaissance, the artistic, cultural, and social explosion that centered around African American expression. While racism and sexism are still far from over in America, the diversifying of mainstream literature during the modernist period propelled the acceptance of cultures we see today.
Widely beheld as one of the great American texts, F. Scott Fitzgerald's
The Great Gatsby
is one of the most iconic representations of the fallacies associated with the American Dream. The Great Gatsby presents a devastating narrative that sees its characters destroyed by their carelessness and material excess.
The Great Gatsby
Kai Stephenson, Julia Zimmerman, and Miranda Creagan
Modernism in American Literature
Stylistic Characteristics of
Modernist Literature
Some common characteristics of Modernism include
Fragmentation of the overall storyline - Many modernist works are not typically linear in structure
A first person narrative - In line with the mentality that there is no universal truth, only individual beliefs that come from experience
Ambiguous endings - Authors commonly left their works open-ended
Breaking rules of syntax and structure
The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner's
The Sound and the Fury
requires great patience and concentration to understand. Faulkner splits the narrative between four different voices and tells the story out of chronological order. Faulkner's novel is the perfect example of the fragmented and complex narratives of the Modernist period. The novel also takes on gender norms. The destruction of gender norms in the rural Southern Compson family ultimately results in the protagonists losing a hold on the reality of the world around them.
Zora Neal Hurston's
Their Eyes Were Watching God
is praised for its use of language. Breaking the rules of syntax and structure, Hurston uniquely divides her novel between elaborate literary narration and colloquial slang. The voices of the novel represent a new age in American literature in which more and more cultures were proudly represented in the arts.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
The Sun Also Rises
, Hemingway explores physical and psychological destruction, themes common in much of Modernist literature. Many people shaken by the senseless destruction of the war were left homeless and separated from their families. PTSD and depression infected the lives of many Europeans, soldiers and civilians alike. The protagonists of Hemingway's novel take to drinking, partying, and debauchery to escape their harsh realities.
The Sun Also Rises
by Zora Neal Hurston
by William Faulkner
by Ernest Hemingway
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Thematic Characteristics of
Modernist Literature
Some common characteristics of Modernism include
Themes revolving around the subconscious
Exploration of the physical and physiological devastation of war
Corruption or interrogation of the American Dream
Destruction or reversal of traditional gender and racial norms
Movement away from religion
Settings often added more to the narrative than simply acting as the backdrop

Let's expand more on a few examples of Modernist Literature and how they fit into the period.
Modernism In Other Media: Jazz
One form of music widely held as distinctly American is Jazz. According to Lawrence Levine, "jazz was, or seemed to be the product of a new age ... raucous, discordant ... accessible, spontaneous ... openly an interactive, participatory music." Improvisation during live performances was common during jazz's golden age. Modernist poets such as Langston Huges and Sterling Brown took inspiration from jazz, and jazz music inspired the paintings of Aaron Douglas, Miguel Covarrubias, and many others. Some of the most iconic jazz musicians include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane.
Duke Ellington - It Don't Mean a Thing
Louis Armstrong - Hello Dolly
Stuart Davis: Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors, 1940
Patrick Henry Bruce, 1929
Georgia O' Keeffe: Pineapple Bud, 1939
What's Next?
There is much debate about where exactly Modernism ends and Post-Modernism begins.
The end of the second world war signified a change in the movement of modernism. Some scholars argue this is where Modernism ends and where beginning of what we now somewhat ironically refer to as post-modernism. Others argue that the time from 1940-1970 are the Second Wave of Modernism. Post-modernism builds upon the tenants of most modernist philosophy but adds that knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, and political and interpretation, and are therefore contextual and constructed. Modernism set the stage for much of today's popular culture and media, while its philosophy broke down barriers between genders and cultures. Much of what we appreciate today can be attributed to modern artists, writers, and musicians.
Works Cited
Hassan, Ihab, The Postmodern Turn, Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture, Ohio University Press, 1987.

Levine, Lawrence W. "Jazz and American Culture." Ed. Robert O'Meally. The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Lynes, Barbara. "Georgia O'Keeffe." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Morley, Catherine.
Modern American Literature.
1 March. 2012.

Stanley, Morgan. "Stuart Davis: In Full Swing." Stuart Davis: In Full Swing | Whitney Museum of American Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Thompson, J. M. "Post-Modernism," The Hibbert Journal., July 1914. p. 733

"Their Eyes Were Watching God." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

"The Corruption of Southern Aristocratic Values." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

"The Aimlessness of the Lost Generation." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

"The Decline of the American Dream in the 1920s." SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Wormser, Richard. "The Harlem Renaissance." PBS. PBS, 2002. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.

“1914-1945 | Norton Anthology of American Literature: W. W. Norton StudySpace.” Accessed November 10, 2016.
Modern Philosophies: Empiricism
The principle that knowledge derives from the sensory experience
Also, empiricism emphasizes sense-perception through taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. Many think empiricism and rationalism have similarities because they theorize individual experience/knowledge.

Modernism in Other Media: Visual Art
Surrealism and Dadaism
Surrealists had the intention of blurring the lines between the conscious and the unconscious. The artwork was characterized by the distortion of reality in an almost fantastical fashion. Surrealism was most famous for its painters, such as Salvador Dalí and André Masson.
De Stijl and Suprematism
Dutch for "The Style", de stijl is the result of influences from artists such as Mondrian and the Cubism movement. De stijl was created from a group of Dutch artists in Amsterdam, and it focused on abstract work with random, straight-lined shapes. This style, paired with simplistic primary colors, serve as an artistic representation of the presence of equilibrium in life.
Constructivism and Vorticism
Another primarily Russian movement, Constructivism was the result of the expansion of Cubism and Futurism westward. This movement held the ideas that art should be more industrious in nature and consist of pieces made from industrial materials, such as metals and glass. Constructivists place a high importance on the concept of functionality over the ideas of abstract statement pieces and believed that painting was a dead artform that needed to be replaced by built sculptures.
Modern Philosophies: Rationalism
The principle that reason serves as the authority for opinions, acts, and behaviors
Also, rationalism stresses the beliefs of
1) Innate knowledge
2) Intuition/Deduction
3) Innate Concept

Modern Philosophies: Existentialism
The principle that proposes existence is solely controlled by the individual
Existentialism stresses individuals’ freedom and choice by determining their own lives.
Existentialism can be seen through many U.S. institutions today (i.e university).

Modern Philosophies: Nihilism
The principle that rejects all notions of meaning
Nihilism can be defined as extreme skepticism of existence or as the rejection of life’s intrinsic meaning.
Many associate nihilism with extreme pessimism because it fundamentally believes that there is no purpose to life.

Modern Philosophies: Idealism
The principle that reality is mentally constructed
Idealism can be defined as: existence is fundamentally structured by human thought
Human knowledge is determined by individual thought of pursuing ideals
Many criticize idealism because it’s unrealistic or impractical for reality to be perfected.

The Modernist era gave way to many of the most well-known artists and artworks in history. The title of Modernism expands over a large array of art sub-movements, ten of which are the most prominent and influential in the art world: Surrealism, Dadaism, De Stijl, Suprematism, Constructivism, Vorticism, Futurism, Cubism, Fauvism, and Post-Impressionism.
A Brief History of Modernism
Modernism originated as a school of thought in British society as a protest against strict social constructs, such as class and race. This kind of thinking originated from Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The movement soon spread throughout Europe and found its way into American society. The popularity of Modernism exploded in the 1910s after the horrors of the First World War caused people to lose faith in humanity and the power of reasoning. The Modernist period can be framed by the horrific and seemingly senseless events of both World Wars, beginning with the start of World War 1 in 1914, and ending with the end of World War 2 in 1945. These wars marked a period of modernization in the United States as the country's industrial sector expanded in response. Europeans who experienced the war first-hand felt a strong distrust of authority. The war had quite literally shaken Europe to its core, and many Europeans felt betrayed by the institutions designed to prevent these atrocities from happening. British and Irish authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf expressed some of the common attributes of Modernist literature in their works.
Dalí's Most Famous Painting, "The Persistence of Memory"
Masson's "In the Tower of Sleep"
The goal of Dadaist art was to unveil the most truthful perceptions of society and to criticize societal practices. This movement is one that is not characterized by similarity of style but by the similarity of thoughts and morals. Dadaists were known globally for protesting against the oppressive and discriminatory nature of societies; they openly protested against the Nazi party after its rise began following WWI. Above all, Dadaism spoke out against violence, war, and the poisonous nature of rationality.
Work by Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp
Work by Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp
One of Mondrian's many explorations of the primaries
Architect Gerrit Rietveld's Shroder House
Suprematism was a purely Russian submovement of Modernism, emphasizing abstract paintings. The movement is characterized by its use of solely geometric shape. Suprematists sought to bring art back to its roots by using basic shapes paired with primary colors. In a way, it was the Russian parallel to the Dutch de stijl. The movement came to a grinding halt as the Soviet Union became increasingly oppressive.
Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument for the Third International"
Piece by American Constructivist, Sidney Gordin
Vorticism stems from the increased emphasis on mechanics that accompanied the the time both preceding and following WWI. The war was exceedingly modern in nature, making weapons of mass destruction that resulted from new technological advances. Vortcists were exclusively English, as the movement originated in London and remained within the city's walls. The abstract art was specifically crafted in a way to separate themselves from the stuffy, Victorian society of the time. They are independent from other similar movements, such as Futurism, that swept through the rest of Europe. However, they are like other movements in the fact that they as artists and writers struggled with making sense of the aftermath of the war.
"The Mud Bath" by David Bomberg
"Composition" by Wyndham Lewis
Cubism and Futurism
Futurism is the red-headed stepchild of the Modernist era in that instead of fighting against misogyny, violence, and warfare, it encouraged it. At first glance, the movement seems to simply be a comparison of man and machine, but a closer look reveals a more shocking revelation. In style, painters combined the linework of Cubism with the colorful elements of Fauvism to create their unique style. The most common art from of this movement was sculpture, but it did also gain ground in literature. Futurism died along with the soldiers of WWI as the followers slowly realized what their endorsement of war really meant.
Picasso made Cubism the most well-known Modernist movement. Their main goal was to do away with previous art styles of capturing images in natural ways. Instead, they wanted to play on the two-dimensional nature of painting and play up those properties. The most defining characteristic of Cubism is the exploration of multiple perspectives on a flat plane.
Work from Picasso's Cubism Period
Work from Picasso's Cubism Period
Sculpture by Umberto Boccioni
Painting by Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero
Fauvism and Post-Impressionism
Much like Impressionism, Fauvism attempted to portray landscapes through the use of bright color schemes. Quite contrastingly, however, fauvists used more raw brushstrokes, doing away with clean, thin lines altogether. Fauvists desired to capture more emotion in their pieces and reverted back to basic techniques of haphazard brushstrokes and unmixed colors. .

Post Impressionists immediately followed the Impressionist movement of the late 1800s, retaining the Impressionists' use of bright colors. They more extensively followed their predecessors' explorations of different techniques, such as Georges Seurat's use of pointillism and Paul Cézanne's distinct patches of color. Vincent van Gogh was perhaps the most famous of the Post Impressionists.
Paul Cezanne
Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Cypresses"
André Derain's "Portrait of Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse's "The Open Window"
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