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Modernist Literature

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.

Course Breakdown

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.

Who knew Homer was a modernist? [The Return of Odysseus by Pinturicchio, 1508-1509]

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.