Life stinks and then you die.
Shmoop's Modernist Literature course has been granted a-g certification, which means it has met the rigorous iNACOL Standards for Quality Online Courses and will now be honored as part of the requirements for admission into the University of California system.
All aboard the modernism train! Yeah, modernists were super impressed by trains. And wouldn't you know it? We're super impressed by modernism. We're talking prose, poetry, and historical events in Britain and America between 1900 and 1955. You know what that means: the Great Depression, two Worlds Wars, and a whole lot of existential angst.
This course will get you thinking about how the events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a sense of "mourning" that wriggled its way into almost all modernist writing. You'll also learn how all modernist writers, in one way or another, responded to this general sense of mourning—whether it's Thomas Hardy, who threw up his hands and said we were all doomed; or Ernest Hemingway, who basically told people like Hardy to man up or shut up.
Sure, this stuff is tough to read, but it's tough to read for a reason. We promise.
Unit 1. I Believe in a Thing Called...Uh...
It shouldn't come as a surprise that modernist writers didn't think too much of the modern world and what it was doing to people. In this unit, we're going to focus on the feeling that laid the groundwork for pretty much all modernist literature: the universal despair that spread across the Western world at the start of the 20th century. Our authors of choice? Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, George Santayana, Wallace Stevens, and William Faulkner.
Unit 2. Newer Viewers
We know that the modernists were a bit bummed out by the stuff that was going down around the start of the 20th century—not the least of which was the decline of traditional religious authority and people's belief in God. As a reaction, some people tried to use literature as a way of repairing their shattered past. But others felt like art in general could do a better job of capturing the modern world if it experienced a shattering of its own. In this unit, we'll see how authors like Ezra Pound ("Hugh Selwyn Mauberley") and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) tackled this issue.
Unit 3. You Can't Give In
This unit will show you that modernists—British and American alike—weren't just whiners. They were actually concerned with the fate of the human world. We'll read "To Build a Fire," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Waste Land," excerpts from the Cantos, and last but not least, Brave New World to see how modernist authors were trying to make a change.
Unit 4. Voices
This unit all about voices that challenge the traditional (read: old white man) view of modernism. And these voices? They often come from people who didn't enjoy the same privileges as Eliot, Hardy, Pound, and company. We're talking about folks like Charlotte Perkins Gilman ("The Yellow Wallpaper"); Stevie Smith, Langston Hughes, and Marianne Moore (lots o' poetry); Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God); and James Baldwin ("Sonny's Blues").
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 6: T.S. Eliot and Ulysses S. Grant. Wait...That's Not Right.
In case you thought Santayana was way too easy to understand, we thought we'd toss a little T.S. Eliot your way. Don't worry, we're not going to make you read "The Waste Land."
(At least not just yet...mwahaha.)
This time around, we're going to show you a short (but really dense) review that Eliot wrote in 1923 for James Joyce's then-recent novel, Ulysses.
Eliot's piece, called "Ulysses, Order, and Myth" takes issue with a dude named Richard Aldington, who didn't think so much of Joyce's book. That just didn't fly with our buddy T.S.
To understand what Eliot is praising about James Joyce, you need to know how Joyce structured Ulysses. Basically, he based the entire book on the voyage of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey, which was written nearly three millennia ago. Joyce's take is about a single day in Dublin, Ireland, and it follows two main characters: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Every event in the book's plot is directly tied to the events of Homer's Odyssey, and Joyce even names each chapter after an episode of Homer's epic poem.
Eliot spends a good deal of this short review talking about his issues with Mr. Aldington (in his classic, crusty way). But we want you to pay special attention to the two closing paragraphs of the review, where Eliot says stuff that would become very influential for the Modernist movement. More specifically, watch for the spot where he says that Joyce's use of Homer "is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."
Sound familiar? In this quote, Eliot sounds a whole lot like Santayana, arguing that the modern world has gotten to a point where human life seems totally random and chaotic (we're looking at you, Hardy), but modern literature has the power to step up and try to give meaning to modern experience.
Fair warning: this piece isn't easy to read or understand. But trust us: when you get to "The Waste Land," this one will seem like nothing. Oh, that doesn't help? Then… good luck.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.6: "Ulysses, Order, and Myth"
Here's the full text of Eliot's super-important review, titled "Ulysses, Order, and Myth." You'll notice as you read that Eliot spends a good chunk of the article referring to people you've never heard of and to books you probably haven't read. Don't worry, Shmoopers. We'll explain these references as we go.
"Ulysses, Order, and Myth" by T.S. Eliot
Mr. Joyce's book has been out long enough for no more general expression of praise, or expostulation with its detractors, to be necessary; and it has not been out long enough for any attempt at a complete measurement of its place and significance to be possible. All that one can usefully do at this time, and it is a great deal to do, for such a book, is to elucidate any aspect of the book—and the number of aspects is indefinite—which has not yet been fixed. I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape. These are postulates for anything that I have to say about it, and I have no wish to waste the reader's time by elaborating my eulogies; it has given me all the surprise, delight, and terror that I can require, and I will leave it at that.
The language here gets a little effusive, but basically what Eliot's saying is that this book is a truly incredible work of art and there's no point in writing a traditional review about it. The best thing he can do is simply to "elucidate" some aspect of it, meaning, that he's going to do his best to make the book clearer, because it has never been said that Ulysses is an easy book. In fact, it's one of the most deliberately difficult ones to come to mind. Lucky for us we aren't going to be reading it.
Among all the criticisms I have seen of the book, I have seen nothing—unless we except, in its way, M. Valery Larbaud's valuable paper which is rather an Introduction than a criticism which seemed to me to appreciate the significance of the method employed—the parallel to the Odyssey, and the use of appropriate styles and symbols to each division. Yet one might expect this to be the first peculiarity to attract attention; but it has been treated as an amusing dodge, or scaffolding erected by the author for the purpose of disposing his realistic tale, of no interest in the completed structure. The criticism which Mr. Aldington directed upon Ulysses several years ago seems to me to fail by this oversight—but, as Mr. Aldington wrote before the complete work had appeared, fails more honourably than the attempts of those who had the whole book before them. Mr. Aldington treated Mr. Joyce as a prophet of chaos; and wailed at the flood of Dadaism which his prescient eye saw bursting forth at the tap of the magician's rod. Of course, the influence which Mr. Joyce's book may have is from my point of view an irrelevance. A very great book may have a very bad influence indeed; and a mediocre book may be in the event most salutary. The next generation is responsible for its own soul; a man of genius is responsible to his peers, not to a studio full of uneducated and undisciplined coxcombs. Still, Mr. Aldington's pathetic solicitude for the half-witted seems to me to carry certain implications about the nature of the book itself to which I cannot assent; and this is the important issue. He finds the book, if I understand him, to be an invitation to chaos, and an expression of feelings which are perverse, partial, and a distortion of reality. But unless I quote Mr. Aldington's words I am likely to falsify. 'I say, moreover,' he says, 'that when Mr. Joyce, with his marvellous gifts, uses them to disgust us with mankind, he is doing something which is false and a libel on humanity.' It is somewhat similar to the opinion of the urbane Thackeray upon Swift. 'As for the moral, I think it horrible, shameful, unmanly, blasphemous: and giant and great as this Dean is, I say we should hoot him.' (This, of the conclusion of the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms—which seems to me one of the greatest triumphs that the human soul has ever achieved. It is true that Thackeray later pays Swift one of the finest tributes that a man has ever given or received: 'So great a man he seems to me that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling.' And Mr. Aldington, in his time, is almost equally generous.)
Here's where we finally learn the real reason for Eliot's review: a one Mr. Aldington has delivered something of a smackdown of Ulysses, in which he calls the novel a "libel on humanity." Yeah, he went there. And Eliot's having none of it.
Aldington's review, according to Eliot, fails in one crucial way: it doesn't recognize the importance of the book's parallels to Homer's The Odyssey. These parallels are very important because they provide scaffolding and narrative structure. Without them, the novel really would be "an invitation to chaos," just like Aldington says.
But it isn't. Aldington's review is likened to what William Makepeace Thackeray once said about Jonathan Swift: "'So great a man he seems to me that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling.'" To which we say: ouch. (Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair, which was very popular and very mean, and JSwift wrote Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal, which is our favorite satire about eating babies to end famine. Eliot evidently didn't like Thackeray, because he thinks both his and Aldington's review are inappropriate.)
Whether it is possible to libel humanity (in distinction to libel in the usual sense, which is libelling an individual or a group in contrast with the rest of humanity) is a question for philosophical societies to discuss; but of course if Ulysses were a 'libel' it would simply be a forged document, a powerless fraud, which would never have extracted from Mr. Aldington a moment's attention. I do not wish to linger over this point: the interesting question is that begged by Mr. Aldington when he refers to Mr. Joyce's 'great undisciplined talent'.
Back to this thing about being a libel to humanity. "Libel" is a legal term that refers to a specific type of defamation that gets written down. Eliot's first response is to say he's not sure it's even possible to libel all of humanity (try bringing that one to court). His second response is to say it couldn't possibly be libel, because then it would have to be untrue.
I think that Mr. Aldington and I are more or less agreed as to what we want in principle, and agreed to call it classicism. It is because of this agreement that I have chosen Mr. Aldington to attack on the present issue. We are agreed as to what we want, but not as to how to get it, or as to what contemporary writing exhibits a tendency in that direction. We agree, I hope, that 'classicism' is not an alternative to 'romanticism', as of political parties, Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat, on a 'turn-the-rascals-out' platform. It is a goal toward which all good literature strives, so far as it is good, according to the possibilities of its place and time. One can be 'classical', in a sense, by turning away from nine-tenths of the mater¬ial which lies at hand and selecting only mummified stuff from a museum—like some contemporary writers, about whom one could say some nasty things in this connection, if it were worth while (Mr. Aldington is not one of them). Or one can be classical in tendency by doing the best one can with the material at hand. The confusion springs from the fact that the term is applied to literature and to the whole complex of interests and modes of behaviour and society of which literature is a part; and it has not the same bearing in both applications. It is much easier to be a classicist in literary criticism than in creative art—because in criticism you are responsible only for what you want, and in creation you are responsible for what you can do with material which you must simply accept. And in this material I include the emotions and feelings of the writer himself, which, for that writer, are simply material which he must accept—not virtues to be enlarged or vices to be diminished. The question, then, about Mr. Joyce, is: how much living material does he deal with, and how does he deal with it: deal with, not as a legislator or exhorter, but as an artist?
To understand this paragraph, you're going to need some definitions.
- Classicism is a branch of philosophy that expresses itself through the appreciation of classical artworks and the techniques that produced them.
- Romanticism was a movement in the 18th and 19th Centuries that rejected the modes of classicism and focused instead on beauty, emotion, and a heightened sense of self.
So what do these things have to do with Ulysses? Well, it's complicated. Eliot is trying to argue that what Joyce is doing with Ulysses (using The Odyssey for its structure) is itself a form of classicism, even though the novel isn't written in the style of (what Aldington would call) classical or classicist literature. Joyce has taken a classic of literature and added a whole host of modern ideas and emotions to it.
The question Eliot asks is: "Is it art?" We know from his tone that the answer is yes.
It is here that Mr. Joyce's parallel use of the Odyssey has a great importance. It has the importance of a scientific discovery. No one else has built a novel upon such a foundation before: it has never before been necessary. I am not begging the question in calling Ulysses a 'novel'; and if you call it an epic it will not matter. If it is not a novel, that is simply because the novel is a form which will no longer serve; it is because the novel, instead of being a form, was simply the expression of an age which had not sufficiently lost all form to feel the need of something stricter. Mr. Joyce has written one novel—the Portrait; Mr. Wyndham Lewis has written one novel Tarr. I do not suppose that either of them will ever write another 'novel'. The novel ended with Flaubert and with James. It is, I think, because Mr. Joyce and Mr. Lewis, being 'in advance' of their time, felt a conscious or probably unconscious dissatisfaction with the form, that their novels are more formless than those of a dozen clever writers who are unaware of its obsolescence.
In this paragraph, Eliot answers our implicit question: why did Joyce write the novel this way? We wish we could call him up and ask him, but alas, he died in 1941, so we're just going to have to take Eliot on his word when he says Joyce had to. That he was ahead of his time and saw both the limitations and the possibilities of the novel as an art form.
Eliot has a hard time referring to Ulysses as a "novel" because, at that time, the form was considered simultaneously too formal and too simple.
In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious. It is a method for which the horoscope is auspicious. Psychology (such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art, toward that order and form which Mr. Aldington so earnestly desires. And only those who have won their own discipline in secret and without aid, in a world which offers very little assistance to that end, can be of any use in furthering this advance.
At the end of the review, Eliot gives his highest praise of the novel: that it's written in a style that will open up new possibilities for literature. He stops just short of saying that Joyce has ushered in the era of Modernist literature, conceding that the poet W.B. Yeats had been writing in a Modernist style for years, and that the social sciences, have made this kind of structurally innovative, psychologically acute work possible." We may now use the mythical method," Eliot says. Sound familiar?
Yep. There are echoes of Santayana in this piece, and that's why we had you read it. The "mythical method" is a way of exploring the world and the nature of consciousness that would elevate prose, as well as poetry, to the level of religion. Pretty cool, right?
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.6a: Order in Eliot's Court
It can be hard to relate to the idea that classical literature can be used to help make sense of the modern world. Let's face it—none of us are running to our copy of The Aeneid when we get our hearts broken. But where do we run?
That's right, Shmoopers: this activity is all about pop culture.
Your task is to write a story of at least 500 words about a time you used a piece of pop culture to make sense of something that happened in your real life. That piece of pop culture could be a TV show, a song, a video game—even a board game. Your pieces will need to:
- Cite two or three specific examples of how the piece of pop culture helped you to understand the situation.
- Using at least two quotes from the readings, describe two to three ways in which this piece of pop culture/pop culture in general can be likened to Santayana's view of poetry.
Here's a short example:
We didn't understand what was happening to us. We were tired. We were irritable. The smell of red meat was like victory to us. Then we saw the movie Underworld and we understood: We were Lycans.
Upload your version below.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.6b: A Method to Our Madness
In the last activity, you wrote about how popular culture helped you understand the world in the same way classical literature helped Modernists make sense of what was happening in their day. Now you're going to get a chance to do what the Modernists did and mine a piece of classical literature yourself.
Specifically, you're going to write a short story of about 800 – 1000 words that adapts an old story from classical mythology. Sort of like what they did with the Helen of Troy myth in Troy but, you know, good. You can update the plot of the Apollo and Daphne story and set it in high school. You can rewrite the labors of Heracles so he's facing modern obstacles. It's up to you. Feel free to draw on any set of myths, whether they be Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Etruscan, Chinese, Hindu, Navajo, or whatever else you can think of—we're pretty open-minded.
As you write, you're going to need to
- identify the narrative and emotional arcs in your myth. You're going to build your stories around them, so they're important.
- think about who these characters would be if you met them in the modern world. For instance, what would Narcissus be like if he lived in Hollywood instead of Ancient Greece?
- update the stories with modern settings and problems. Weapons should be guns and technology, not slings and arrows.
- limit the talk of guns and violence. Your stories should be rated Teen. Sorry.
Here's the beginning of a story we're working on, based on the Orpheus myth:
I've always been a musician. A drummer. A cellist. Hand me an instrument and I can play it. On our first date, my wife took the comb out of her hair and told me to play her a song. Orpheus, she called me, though that isn't my name.
Did you like that? Boom. In the set-up of our story, we
- hooked you in from the first line with an engaging first sentence and varied sentence structure.
- made a direct parallel to a legend. The legend of Orpheus is about a man who travels to the underworld to bring his wife back from the dead. He makes a deal with Hades, the God of the Underworld, who allows Orpheus to take his wife back to the land of the living on one condition: he can't look at her on the way there.
Based on the way we started it, we might complete this Orpheus-inspired story by having the narrator attempt to wake his wife up from a coma by playing her favorite song for her in the hospital. The doctors had said that she might be able to hear him while she was asleep, and he thinks that if she hears his music, she'll come back; but then she dies before he finishes. In the actual myth, Orpheus loses faith and looks over his shoulder on the last stretch of the journey from the underworld. His wife is lost forever. It's so sad.
We're going to dry our eyes, Shmoopers. You start working on your stories. Upload them below.
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12, College
- Course Type: Elective
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1