Life stinks and then you die.
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 9: T.S. Eliot and Ulysses S. Grant. Wait…That's Not Right
In case you though 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 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: 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 1.9: "Ulysses, Order, and Myth"
Here's the full text of Eliot's super-important review, titled "Ulysses, Order, and Myth." If you find you're having trouble following Eliot, don't turn into Thomas Hardy and collapse into despair. It's probably because Eliot spends part of the article referring to people and books you might not have read. Keep on keepin' on, but pay special attention to Eliot's closing paragraph and its connection to George Santayana.
"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.
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.)
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'.
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 material 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?
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 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.
Shmoopy Commentary (I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends):
Okay, so this probably wasn't the easiest thing you've ever read. But now that you've done a once through, go back and reread the final paragraph. It basically contains the most important points that you need to know about modernism from here on out. Give special focus to what Eliot says about the importance of using the art of the past to give shape to modern existence. Eliot thinks that Joyce's method is "a method which others must pursue after him"—and guess what? They do.
Clearly there's a connection between Santayana's and Eliot's beliefs about poetry and literature giving order and meaning to modern experience. The main difference, though? Eliot thinks modern literature should draw on the great art of the past to help make sense of the modern world. For Eliot (like for Hardy), life will never have a sense of deeper meaning if people don't feel connected to the past. Santayana doesn't spend much time talking about our need to connect to the past; but for Eliot, this connection is a majorly Big Deal.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.9: Order in Eliot's Court
It might be a little hard to relate to Eliot's claim that ancient myths and classical poetry can be used to help give a sense of order to the chaos of the modern world. Because, let's be honest—no one's running to their copy of the Aeneid when they get their heart broken.
But we do have our own version of this, right? What do we run to when we get our hearts broken? That's right: pop culture.
In 500 words (upload below) write about 2 to 3 times when you used a TV show, song, movie, or other pop culture phenomenon as a point of reference to make sense of your own experience. Don't worry about putting together a formal essay—just think about your personal experience and let it flow.
And make sure to tie your own examples back to direct quotes from Eliot's text. If possible, talk about how making these comparisons between your life and pop culture helped you to give meaning to your experience or communicate your experience to others. And remember, no one's judging. We've compared our lives to Dawson's Creek one too many times to judge other people for their pop culture go-tos.
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12, College
- Course Type: Elective
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