Study Guide

Modernism Texts

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Modernism Resources

Primary Resources

Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (1908)
An ekphrastic poem is one that takes its subject from a work of art. That's what's going on here in this sonnet by German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: he examines an ancient Greek sculpture. This poem contains the awesome line, "You must change your life."Apollo is the god of poetry, music, and intellectual pursuits, but he has a dark side, and is sometimes connected also with the plague and a threatening sort of sexual power. Although we normally view ancient Greek and Roman artworks as exemplifying calm rationality, Rilke clearly is inspired by Apollo's dark side in his poem.

T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919)
How is the job of a modern poet more difficult than that of his earlier predecessors? In this essay, Eliot explains the burden of the literary tradition these poets must shoulder and how Modernist work (though it has to be different in form from earlier works of poetry) continues this tradition rather than erasing it.They have to juggle more balls than the other guys, so they have to be better poets… or at least that's how the argument goes. The essay also famously makes the controversial claim that poems owe nothing to the individual being of the poet. Rather, that person is just a sort of a mouthpiece through which the tradition speaks.

Gertrude Stein, "Composition as Explanation" (1925)
In her odd and witty way, Gertrude Stein explains that it is the role of modern art to be "irritating, annoying, and stimulating" at the time it is created because it represents a new perspective on the world and on art, one makes people feel uncomfortable because they are not used to it. Because of this feeling of discomfort, new work seems ugly and even obscene. It's only after some time has passed and academics have given their seal of approval to these works that their beauty becomes evident. Then the public flocks to see this "classic" work and to proclaim its superiority. Sounds reasonable!

George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (1912)
G.B. Shaw was a very clever guy. His plays show off the wide range of his learning while being thoroughly entertaining at the same time. This Nobel Prize winning dramatist takes up social problems, obscure linguistic theories, gender, and politics in his work, but unlike many high modernist novelists and poets of the period, he does it with wit and a smile. In Pygmalion, the playwright brings to life the idea that a person's way of speaking determines his fate. This play later became a film with a script written by Shaw himself and was still later made into a Broadway musical, My Fair Lady.

Robert Frost, "Dust of Snow" (1923)
Frost may not seem to fit in with the company of innovative poets we've met so far. He appears pretty old school, in fact. But take a look at his earliest juvenile poems, which are full of archaic language, ornamentation, and generally very stodgy and old-fashioned verse. Frost's homespun New England plainness in this poem and most of the poems we know him for actually does represent an innovation, a turn toward the American-ness of American poetry, embracing the rhythms and diction of American English as well as its subject matter without sacrificing depth and richness.

Langston Hughes, "The N**** Speaks of Rivers" (1920)
This poem, written in 1920, when Hughes was only 17, may be his most famous work. Although he produced a bunch of awesome poems and stories and wrote a compelling memoir later in his life, this early poem more than holds its own among these later works with its characteristic directness. Whether others liked it or not (and they frequently didn't—Hughes was scorned at the time both in his own community and outside it), Hughes did not hesitate to speak out as a representative of his culture when others feared to do that.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, "Manifesto of Futurism" (1909)
A double-dog dare document by the founder of Futurism, this manifesto gleefully embraces violence and misogyny, mostly for the sake of shocking readers out of complacency. Though Marinetti was an Anarchist who embraced revolution—theoretical, aesthetic, and actual—we can certainly see some Fascist tendencies in these proclamations.

Walter Gropius, "Manifesto of the Bauhaus" (1919)
Why don't we find grandma's macramé in a museum? It all comes down to the idea that fine or "professional" art differs in kind and quality from these sorts of crafts. But not all artists accept this view.In his founding document of the German Bauhaus movement of artists, architects, and scientists, architect Walter Gropius aimed to erase the distinction between fine arts and crafts, embracing medieval-style arts guilds.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
In this novel, readers can live vicariously in his world of rich guys and hot gals, gangsters and gamblers, boozers and wannabes.

Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning," (1923)
In this poem, Stevens meditates on the idea of paradise and comes to the conclusion that "death is the mother of beauty." Without death, things would be (pardon the pun and the paradox) pretty lifeless.

Mikhail Bulgakov, Heart of a Dog (1925)
A Russian parody/science fiction work: the kind that early 20th-century Russians—who were expert at getting around censors—were so good at writing.In this son-of-Frankenstein short novel, Bulgakov tells the story of Sharik, a dog transformed against his will into a human of sorts, though not the sort you'd want to hang around with.Bulgakov pokes fun at the Communists' ideal of "the New Man," and walks a very fine line in this work between being a successful writer and ending up in Siberia.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance. She was also an anthropologist, who studied folkways and was determined to record the culture she saw around her in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town in the Jim Crow South.She chose to write in dialect because as an anthropologist and linguist, she felt that was the only way to reproduce the language as it was spoken in her community.In this novel, her most popular work, she tells the story of a woman seeking love in a world that seems determined to thwart her.

Ezra Pound, "Sestina: Altaforte" (1909)
A sestina is a really hard form to write in, composed of six stanzas with a pattern of repeating rhymes. Yikes.In this poem, Pound writes from the perspective of a persona, the 12th-century troubadour Bertran de Born. The zesty language here suggests that Pound himself felt some attraction to de Born's militaristic views. The poem's epigraph asks us to judge the poem's perspective on this figure, who Dante had put in Hell. So what do you think? Does Pound have sympathy for this devil?

Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (1936)
Nabokov is one of those writers who truly had two different careers—one as a Modernist/Silver Age poet and writer in Russian known as Sirin (a mythological creature), and later as an American writer in English.This is a parable along the lines of Kafka but influenced also by Dostoevsky, in which an artist defies the laws of his unnamed country and of physics.

Ernest Hemingway, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" (1926)
Classic Hemingway. This spare (1500 word) story perhaps highlights Hemingway's strengths even better than his novels, since it allows him to pack a big punch into the clipped style of a very few sentences.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice (1912)
This writer is one of those transitional figures whose subject matter seems to put him in the Modernist camp, even though his style seems to belong more in the past century.

Secondary Resources

Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971)
Gertrude Stein collected the art and artists of the Modernist era, and scholar Hugh Kenner passes down his own gallery of these figures to a later generation. Kenner is known as one of the "creators of Modernism" because he assembles a group of select writers of the period who seem to him to represent this movement. This eccentric but brilliant work is as much a modernist work of art itself as a work of criticism.

Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism: 1890-1930 (1978)
Where can you start if you want to learn even more about Modernism? This is a good go-to guide: a comprehensive anthology of the various movements and topics of importance related to this period.

Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidou, eds. Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (1998)
Lots of good stuff can be found in this anthology of the period's most significant aesthetic statements and manifestos, both written by writers of the time as well as precursors.

Judith Ryan, The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism (1991)
Get deep into the brainpans of psychologists and Modernists alike and see what makes them tick.

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