Study Guide

Modernism Characteristics

  • New Paradigms

    Talk about weird science.

    The early 20th century signaled a massive explosion in scientific innovation. We're not just talking about motorcars and the telephone—although those were huge—we're talking about Einstein.

    Yup: the era of the Modernist writers saw tremendous leaps in physics that shook the world. Modernists were equally influenced by the shiny new science of their time and by new discoveries about ancient civilizations. Sound confusing? Yeah, that's the idea—Modernists were living in an age where both the new (the Theory of Relativity, y'all) and the old (King Tut!) were changing the way people thought about everything.

    Religious belief started to give way to science as the predominant way of understanding the universe (leading to several notable clashes) but allusions to Judeo-Christianity, Eastern religions, and ancient mythology were popping up everywhere. How do you deal with this topsy-turvy world? You write about it, naturally.

    That "Whoa, what's going on here" change of public perception has an SAT-caliber name: a shift in the dominant paradigm. And it turns out that a massive shift in the way people think leads to some awesomesauce—albeit confusing—writing.

    Chew On This:

    Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," leans on the (spooky!) Book of Revelation in its language and imagery, but reads more like a political prophesy. There are plenty of detailed Biblical references in this poem. But Yeats adds to these his own mystical and historical elements. Yeats, true to his Modernist roots, is looking both backward (towards Biblical language) and forward (at a particularly nasty political and religious apocalyptic future).

    Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway creates a network of perspectives on a single day in London. Perspective, like Einstein's universe, is proved to be relative.

  • Avant-garde

    Etymology time, Shmoopers! This brain snack is cool: the term "Avant-garde" comes from French military terminology. It refers to the front line of soldiers, the vanguard, who are out in front of the rest (which is a super-dangerous place to be).

    It also refers to creating new art. This was also dangerous, both figuratively and sometimes even literally. Writers were taking their positions on the battle lines, fighting against the forces of the outmoded traditions to offend, upend, and destroy the surviving vestiges of the old order. Out with the old, in with the new.

    Artistic experimentation wasn't just about getting attention, but about creating a new role for art and artists and helping to bring a new order into being. These guys were playing for pretty high stakes.

    We're supposed to be talking about literature here, but Modernism tends to blur the lines between media. Maybe that's because Modernist writers hung out with visual artists all the time, and these kinds of art tended to cross-pollinate.

    Crazy-pants artistic movements like Cubism and Surrealism definitely influenced writers. If visual artists could paint from all angles at once, or paint their dreams, what was stopping their literary pals from doing the same?

    Nothing but tradition, that's what. And Modernists weren't keen on the same ol' same ol'.

    Chew On This

    Heard of Finnegan's Wake? Notice we said, "heard of" not "read": it's generally acknowledged to be unreadable (something that didn't keep the authorities, ever suspicious of such subversive efforts, from claiming that it was obscene!). It's almost impossible to read Joyce's book without a dozen reference texts and dictionaries in several languages. What could the point of such dizzying confusion-making be?

    Take a gander at the strange poems in Gertrude Stein's collection Tender Buttons. It's crazy-weird, and, like Finnegan's Wake, it requires its own Wiki to contain all the references it makes to other (older) literature. If Avant-garde works like this require knowledge of conventional literary history, are they really as new as they pretend to be?

  • The Unconscious

    No, not what happens when you bonk your head on a brick wall. We're talking Freud's idea about the stormy seas of desire and animal need that are crashing about in the back of your mind right now. Wow. Just writing that makes up realize we want a chocolate-covered cheeseburger, with a side of fist fighting. How's that for animal instincts?

    Sigmund Freud was kind of a big deal. And he knew it, too. Though strictly speaking, he wasn't the first or only psychologist of his time, he single-handedly founded psychoanalysis, and in the process changed the way we think and write. Dang, Freud.

    One of Freud's most important theories was that the mind is divided into three parts: 

    1. ego, or conscious mind; 
    2. superego, the in-house censor that cuts out all the nasty bits from dreams and thoughts so they won't offend the delicate sensibilities of the ego; and 
    3. id, the wild unconscious mind where primitive drives and instincts rule. 

    Sounds like it's pretty crowded in your skull, doesn't it?

    Freud believed that the development of an individual human being tells us about the overall development of the entire human race. Freud thought that human beings had become civilized by repressing primitive drives.

    He also wanted to understand why people act and think as they do, so he thought that the main task was to decode the language of dreams, where the id speaks most freely. But that isn't so simple, because dream language is not based on logic. Maybe that's why people don't make much sense in the morning before they've had their first cup of coffee.

    His ideas greatly influenced artists and writers who emphasized the life of the mind over the everyday existence of human beings in the world. That's one reason that the Modernists can be so dang difficult to decipher… although, compared to deciphering dreams, even Mrs. Dalloway is easy-peasy.

    Chew On This

    Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness contains Kurtz's famous last words: "The horror, the horror!" What are you talking about, Kurtz? The horror of what, exactly? Conrad's not going to tell you, because he knows you can fill in the blank by referring to the storehouse of fears locked in your unconscious.

    In Kafka's novel The Trial the narrator K has been charged with a crime, but no one will tell him what it is. Kafka—who was generally acknowledged to have been a pretty miserable guy—is letting the reader fill in the blank with whatever they think their own personal most despicable deed was. And chances are that deed is coming straight from the unconscious.

  • Stream of Consciousness

    Freud's theories about the unconscious definitely changed the way people thought about the mind. But William James' theories about the nature of consciousness that had a much greater influence on the way Modernist literature was written than most people realize.

    Wait. William who now?

    Willy James' had a little theory called Radical Empiricism (which kind of sounds like a metal band), which sheds doubt on the existence of a unified self. In normal-people speak, this means that the "I" you were five years ago or even five minutes ago is not the same "I" you are now. We are all a series of selves and that the self cannot be disentangled from the world. In other words, we are what we see.

    Mind. Blown.

    He shared with his brother, the novelist Henry James (how much do you want to go to the Jamesfamily Thanksgiving?!), a preoccupation with consciousness. He described the flow of thought, in a phrase that would launch a thousand works of fiction, as "a stream." The rest is history… Modernist literary history.

    Who employed stream of consciousness writing techniques? Um, everyone who was anyone in Modernism. Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce… and that's just the tip of the stream of consciousness iceberg.

    Not surprisingly, Henry James was the earliest novelist whose work reflects his bro William James' theories. The books Henry James published after the appearance of his brother's Principles of Psychology (1890) seem to turn upon the issues related to consciousness. In novels like What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Golden Bowl (1904), readers have to ask themselves how the narrators' perspectives account for what they see.

    Gertrude Stein also was tight with William James. He was her mentor at Radcliffe, where she studied from 1893-97. In fact, the story goes that Stein wrote nothing at all in her examination booklet in the final exam for James' class (didn't feel like taking an exam that day, it seems), but he gave her an A in the class anyhow. Official Shmoop Disclaimer: We do not suggest taking this same approach to acing your exams.

    As Judith Ryan argues in her book The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism, even though critics often call Stein's work Cubist, it is William James' theories that account for Stein's Avant-garde techniques.

    Stream of consciousness reminds us of a technique in film that, not coincidentally, was also introduced about this time. That's "montage," developed by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. When a camera cuts from the door to a shot of a person looking frightened, we get the idea that something or someone dangerous is about to come through that door. Eisenstein was the first filmmaker to cut from one shot to another seemingly discontinuous one so that the viewer had to draw an inference about their connection.

    This method seems super-obvious today (and we also think of montages more about scrappy underdog athletes training for the Big Day in feel-good 80s movies than anything else), but back then, it seemed revolutionary… and definitely the cinematic equivalent of stream of consciousness writing.

    Chew On This

    James Joyce's novel Ulysses not only gives us access to the thoughts of its characters, but also presents each chapter in the style of a different writer and work. This novel is a whole delta of streams of consciousness.

    In the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf plays up stream of consciousness while emphasizing the uniqueness of the characters, creating a web of connection between them.

  • The Lost Generation

    Gertrude Stein reportedly quoted the mechanic who fixed her car when she branded the young group of artists and writers who attended her Paris salon as "a lost generation." Ernest Hemingway borrowed that line (cause it's awesome) for the epigraph of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

    This super-wise repairman based his view on the idea that the ages of 18-25 generally marked the period during which individuals became civilized members of society. But the soldiers returning from WWI, which ended in 1919, had missed this crucial "becoming a good citizen" period. They also returned traumatized by crazypants modern warfare: poison gas and trenches don't exactly make for happy memories.

    Modernism marked an age of accelerated technological change—both on and off the battlefield. Some of this change we would probably list as positive (cars! movies!), but also there were also a whole lot of check marks in the "Technology Is Evil" side of the list.

    Airplanes are awesome, right? Sure, until they're used in warfare in WWI. The same goes for automobiles, which brought tanks to the battlefield. Aerial photography made bombing from the air more accurate, which was good if you were on the right side of the camera but not so hot if you weren't. Basically, war was more brutal than ever before.

    So it's no shocker that young men began to question traditional wisdoms and new innovations. The authorities (a stand-in for traditional wisdoms) sent these men into battle, and new innovations in weaponry helped kill, maim, or haunt them. No wonder this generation didn't trust anyone. And if you don't know who to trust, it's pretty easy to feel, well, lost.

    Chew On This

    Though Hemingway's writing style seems much more straightforward and conventional than other Modernist writers' (although that's not saying much!) it still captures the spirit of the period: Hemingway refuses to tell us how to feel.

    Trench warfare, perhaps made possible by the invention of barbed wire, was its own sort of hell, as the World War I British poet, Isaac Rosenberg testifies in his poem, "Dead Man's Dump." Rosenberg's poem is like a close-up lens that gives us an individual's view of the war.

  • Make it New

    One of the most influential poets of the period was Ezra Pound, who proclaimed the maxim "Make it New!" on frequent occasion and even made it a title to one of his books.

    Pound and his buddies disagreed with the Futurists and Dadaists, who wanted to jettison everything from the past. In fact, Pound & Co. sought out ancient traditions and used them in their work.

    A scholar as well as a writer, Pound researched the latest scholarly work on the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions and produced "translations" (more like poems influenced by these traditions than literal translations) of classic Chinese works.

    Pound felt that rather than throwing out every outmoded idea and tradition, poets and artists had to gather up odds and ends of the past and repurpose them. The resulting works would preserve civilization, even in an age where everything seemed to be up for grabs.

    Chew On This

    Pound's poem "The River Merchant's Wife" is a Chinese translation, relic of a tradition thousands of years old. Then how is Pound following his own advice—is he making this poem new?

    T.S. Eliot's technique in The Waste Land sticks bits of this and that into the text of his poem. It's a verbal Pinterest page. Wait a sec… is this "making it new," or is just "making it a collage"?

  • Imagism and Vorticism

    As well as being among the most significant poets of his time, Pound had a talent for attracting attention. This gift served him well in the early years, when he could pretend to discover rules for making immortal poetry. What he was actually doing was describing the poems he liked and that he and his immediate circle had already written. Clever guy.

    In 1912-1913, Pound embraced or invented imagism. Imagism had three major criteria: It had to be 

    1. direct and unornamented,
    2. economical in its language,
    3. and composed in free verse (or at least not in any forms of the immediate past).

    Pound first branded his lover, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), who had grown up with him in Pittsburgh, as an "Imagiste." Notice the pretentious spelling! By his criteria, her poems seem to fit. But we can't really say that of others who associated themselves with this short-lived school of poetry.

    Though we might tend to use the word "image" interchangeably with "metaphor" or "simile," Pound had something much larger and more complex than this in mind. Pound's definition of an image as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." D-dang, Pound.

    So basically: in a very small space of time an artwork should connect many different ideas that had not been connected up to that point in a new way that would spark emotional and psychological insight. It should also totally change the way people would view the world and the way they would feel about it too. Not too tall an order, right? Sounds easy enough?

    By 1914, Imagism (though not the images themselves) had lost its luster for Pound. Too many boring people he'd rather not be associated with were flying this banner. So he cut himself loose from Imagism and now proclaimed himself and the visual artists, musicians, sculptors, and writers he embraced to be Vorticists.

    Pound founded a journal, Blast, in June of 1914 to present the works associated with this movement.

    The characteristics of Vorticism—which sounds kind of sci-fi to us—sound a lot like those of Imagism, though the description of Vorticism referred to all the arts, and not just poetry. Pound described a vortex as "a radiant node or cluster […] from which and into which ideas are constantly rushing." Sounds like a hurricane or a black hole.

    What's our takeaway from all this (besides that the all-important strategy of rebranding can apply even to poets)? Simple: cram as many ideas, as beautifully as possible, into your artwork.

    Chew On This

    With some judicious editing by Pound, the poem "Oread," by H.D. becomes the definition of an Imagist poem. In fact, it was while Pound was reading through H.D.'s poetry that he first got the idea for Imagism in the first place. Psst: also, H.D. and Pound were totally smooching.

    Compare "Oread" to H.D.'s poem to Pound's "In a Station of the Metro." Do the language and imagery of these poems seem to work similarly to you? In what way?

  • The City

    Ever ride a bus in New York City full of the cacophony of people speaking in half a dozen languages? Or drive the streets of metropolitan Southern California, where the street signs morph every few miles from Spanish to Vietnamese to Chinese to Thai to Korean to Hindi? Modern cities are melting pots of various cultures and languages, full of fermenting ideas as a fusion restaurant or ethnic market.

    Modernist writers and artists not only congregated in major cities like Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Chicago, and New York, but also frequently focused their work on these places. Think about Joyce's Ulysses, which juxtaposes figures and fables of classical mythology to the mundane world of Dublin and the people who inhabited it.

    Or about William Carlos William's Modernist epic, Paterson, which is an amalgamation of bits and pieces set in unlikely place—a highly industrialized and not at all glamorous town in New Jersey. And that was way before Bruce Springsteen was putting his poetic spin on Joisey.

    Modernism blew raspberries at the idea that everyday places, people, and language were unfit for art. These artists insisted that any subject, location, or language could be turned to an artistic purpose.

    The city formed the central focus of these writers' world. Whether they celebrated or complained about the city, it was generally a major feature of their work.

    Chew On This

    Have a look at the famous opening poem to The Bridge, "To Brooklyn Bridge." What is Crane's overall attitude toward the bridge in this poem? What relationship to the human beings around it does the bridge seem to have?

    In his dystopian novel We, Russian novelist Evgeny Zamyatin creates the image of a nightmare city where a totalitarian government controls every aspect of residents' lives. Blegh. Can you think of any other writers of the period with a more positive (or at least neutral) view of cities?

  • The Jazz Age

    Gangsters. Flappers. Speakeasies. Bathtub gin. Sexual freedom. Oh, yeah, and hot, hot jazz music: the 1920s was a time for pushing the envelope in all ways possible.

    Jazz was considered the first truly American art form. It represented not just a form of music but an entire way of life: a diverse and freeing alternative to stuffy Edwardianism.

    History time: jazz marks the merging of African-American culture into the mainstream of American culture. Because of vicious Jim Crow laws thousands of African Americans left the economically depressed American South for urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest. African Americans brought with them culture that prompted the rise of jazz music. Jazz clubs (like the Cotton Club in Harlem) allowed musicians like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and many others to gain fame.

    But jazz itself was only part of the Jazz Age. There was also alcohol. Or, more specifically, there was no alcohol… no legal alcohol, that is. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1920, put a stop to legal distribution of the strong stuff, but opened the door to bathtub gin and smuggled Canadian whiskey.

    People left the bars and headed into speakeasies, and private parties like those described in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby ruled the day. And here's the weird, awesome thing: this meant that women could play the drinking game as well. Bars had traditionally been men only, but illegal speakeasies couldn't be so choosy. That meant that women got to throw back a few with the menfolk, for the first time in history.

    Chew On This

    The Great Gatsby is considered the quintessential text on the Jazz Age. We've seen that Modernism for many of the writers and artists of the period aims to leave the past behind. Where does this novel stand on this issue?

    The writers of the Harlem Renaissance are often considered separate to Modernism. But they're responding to some of the same cultural phenomena that inspired other writers of the period. What do the writers of the Harlem Renaissance have in common with Modernists? How are they different?

  • Revolution

    You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

    The Modernist heyday was a time not only for revolutionary scientific and philosophical theories… it was also a time of literal revolutions and uprisings.

    Over in Russia, Czar Nicholas was a weak and ineffective leader. His government was corrupt and Russian soldiers fighting in WWI were unprepared and died in large numbers. Oh, yeah, and the poor were horrifically poor while the rich were absurdly, disgustingly rich. People weren't too happy… leading to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

    In the good old US of A, the women's suffrage movement caught on like wild fire. This movement culminated in the passing of the 19th Amendment of 1921, finally giving women the vote. 

    Around the world, the working classes formed labor unions. After the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire called the public's attention to the need for reform. 

    And the Modernist writers weren't plugging their ears and singing "Happy Birthday" while all this political unrest heaved about them. Nope, they took sides.

    Ernest Hemingway went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War as a journalist… and ended up writing one of his most famous novels.

    German playwright Bertolt Brecht and Vladimir Mayakovsky in Russia were both loud n' proud Marxists. Yeats and Joyce were Irish Nationalists.

    Chew On This

    Andrei Bely's famous novel, Petersburg, manages to create a literary equivalent of the Bolshevik Revolution using modernist narrative techniques. How does the influence of contemporary revolutions (or uprisings) appear in other Modernist works?

    Pound and Eliot were both fairly politically conservative. Can this conservatism be seen in their work? How so?