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Literature Glossary

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Modernism

Definition:

Fair warning, fair Shmoopers: this one's a doozy. The word modern has a whole boatload of different meanings, and what constitutes modernism has been hotly debated for decades.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Some scholars argue that the world became modern just after the Medieval period, right around the time Europe came out of feudalism. Some argue that the modern world started with the Enlightenment, when thinkers like John Locke revolutionized the world, and reason took a firm hold on public thinking. And finally, some view the modern period as emerging out of the Victorian era, in the early part of the 20th century.

To keep things simple, Shmoop's gonna go with the last group. See, the early part of the 20th century was marked by some big changes (many of which had been brewing for centuries, and have their roots in earlier times—hence the debate). There were lots of technological advancements (cars! telephones! airplanes! duct tape!), but there were also some significant political changes, like the sun setting on the British empire. Oh, and then there was World War I. That was kind of a big deal.

In fact, you might say that World War I is the hub around which the whole modernist wheel turned. Literary Modernism emerged as a result of changes in the cultural, political, and artistic sensibilities that occurred in the years before, during, and after that war. When you combine the massive growth of fancypants industrial technologies with the all-out devastation of the Great War, you get a recipe for some major angst and major upheaval.

See, the world wasn't quite the same anymore, and writers and artists were struggling to find new ways to create art that reflected those big changes. When it came to style, that meant that writers began to play games with time and order, perspective, point of view, and form. You began to see a lot more novels with fragmented plots than, say, ones with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. In poetry, that meant strange metaphors stacked on top of each other, mixing meters and free verse, and allusions to the past.

Writers chucked linear narratives and chronology out the window in favor of confusing stories that jumped around. They dumped distant, third-person narrators in favor of stream of consciousness and angsty confessionals like, say, that of Prufrock. They referred to traditional works of the past in an effort to outstrip them.

It was all about defying expectations, shaking things up, and knocking readers off their stodgy old Victorian feet. Of course all of these stylistic qualities make modernist literature notoriously difficult. Spend an hour reading Absalom, Absalom! and you'll see what we mean.

But before you go thinking that literary Modernism was all style and no substance, we should tell you that it has some major ideas at work, too. It all started with four dead white guys:

  • Charles Darwin, who forwarded a theory of evolution and natural selection
  • Sigmund Freud, who pioneered psychoanalysis and revolutionized the way people thought about the brain
  • Karl Marx, who analyzed class inequalities (to say the very least)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, who turned the world on its head when he proclaimed that "God is dead." Yowza.

This fearsome foursome changed a great many things about the way folks thought about the world. And that's actually an understatement. Our point here is that all this revolutionary thinking was unsettling to say the least, and writers wanted their work to be unsettling, too. Let's buck tradition, they said, in favor of new, innovative writing that reflects all the changes being thrown our way.

Literary modernists wanted to start a "tradition of the new," as Richard Weston called it, so they threw out the bathwater, the baby, and the sofa, too.

Famous modernist writers include T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens in poetry; Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and James Joyce in the novel; Bertholt Brecht in drama, and artists like Pablo Picasso and Duchamp. If you spend a few hours poking around these masters' works, you'll see what we mean about bucking tradition. And then some.

The impact of literary Modernism can't be exaggerated. Well, it could be. We could say it killed the dinosaurs. But honestly, it came pretty close. It completely changed the way writers thought about form, style, content, genre, and just about everything in between. Authors today are still writing under the shadow of Modernism; in fact, much of what we read today is considered Postmodern. When everything that comes after you is named "post-you," you know you're pretty stinkin' important.