Study Guide

Postmodern Literature Timeline

How It All Went Down

1759-1767: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is published

This multi-volume work may have been published way before postmodernism was a thing, but it has since been named repeatedly as one of the earliest—maybe the earliest—works to use postmodern techniques.

1941: Commercial TV is Introduced in the U.S.

Though TV had already been experimented with before this point, 1941 stands out as the year when commercial TV—including CBS and NBC—was first broadcast in the U.S. (Trivia alert: the world's first official commercial was for Bulova watches. Check it out here.)

1945: End of World War II

The start of postmodernism is hard to pin down, and it's not like postmodernism is big on pinning things down anyway…but when folks do try to narrow it down, they most often list the end of WWII as the time when modernism came to an end and postmodernism put its name on the map.

1946: The Cold War Begins

Once World War II had ended, Bernard Baruch (a multimillionaire and financier) described the frosty relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as a "Cold War," a term that was immediately picked up by the media and created a sense of paranoia and general bad vibes.

1947: Arnold J. Toynbee Uses the Term "Post-modern" in A Study of History

Toynbee wasn't the first to use the word, but he was the first to bring it to public attention and use it in the way we do today. For him, though, it was a time of disruption and irrationality that needed to be worked through rather than embraced.

1952: Charles Olson Mentions "The Post-modern" in "The Present is Prologue"

While some theorists used the term in a negative way, American poet Charles Olson gave it a positive spin, ending this mini-essay by welcoming in the age of "the post-modern, the post-humanist, the post-historic."

1955: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita Is Published

Controversial as it may be, Lolita has become part of our pop culture vocabulary and is still held as a classic of both postmodernism and 20th-century literature in general.

1959: William S. Burroughs's The Naked Lunch Is Published

This first edition wasn't a hit with the censors, and it even became the subject of a legal trial (check out this site for more). The complete, uncensored edition was kept under lock and key until 1962.

1961: The Berlin Wall Is Built

With Germany having been divided up post-WWII and the Soviets controlling the East side, some folks found that life in the East was far from ideal and started moving to the West side—that is, until the Soviets built a wall that not only stopped anyone from leaving/entering the East but also became a symbol of the Cold War.

1961: Joseph Heller's Catch-22 Is Published

It may not have been a U.S. bestseller or award winner on its release (like many postmodern texts, it was a love it or hate it affair), but this book quickly established a cult following and is now seen as one of the major novels of the 20th century.

1966: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 Is Published

Seen by critics as a classic postmodern text and a parody of postmodernism, this book is stuffed with multiple plots and cultural references, along with a strong sense of paranoia.

1968: John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse Is Published

This short story collection has come to be seen as a classic example of metafiction, with one critic singling out the title story, "Lost in the Funhouse," as "the most important, progressive, trend-defining American short fiction of its decade" (source).

1969: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five Is Published (1969)

Despite being banned in some schools and libraries due to its adult content, Slaughterhouse-Five was a big counterculture hit, and according to one source, "so perfectly caught America's transformative mood that its story and structure became best-selling metaphors for the new age" (source).

1971: Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Is Published

Described as "a custom-crafted study of paranoia, a spew from the 1960s and—in all its hysteria, insolence, insult and rot—a desperate and important book" (source), this gonzo journalism classic had its finger on the pulse of society and remains a classic slice of American literature.

1973: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow Is Published

Some of the folks on the Pulitzer Prize advisory board saw this novel as "overwritten" and "obscene" (source), but for many, it's both one of the greatest post-WWII novels and the ultimate example of postmodern fiction.

1979: Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Is Published

Seen by many as a "playful postmodernist puzzle" (source), this novel is a prime example of experimental fiction and has been used by some academics as a way of getting students thinking about narrative structure.

1985: Don DeLillo's White Noise Is Published

White Noise was a big hit when it was released, and it reflects DeLillo's belief that writers should stand up against "power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments" (source).

1989: The Berlin Wall Falls

Having long stood as a symbol of Soviet control, the Berlin wall fell when the Soviet system finally collapsed—a major cultural event that signaled the end of the Cold War.

1996: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest Is Published

This novel was released to major hype, with one reviewer singling the novel out as "a profound study of the postmodern condition" (source) and Rolling Stone sending a reporter to tag along with Wallace during the book tour (the first time in 10 years that the magazine had done this sort of thing).

2007: Postmodernism in the Past Tense?

Raymond Federman had already referred to the "death of postmodernism" in 1993 (saying it died with Samuel Beckett in 1989); in 2007, Brian McHale asked "What Was Postmodernism?", and the journal Twentieth Century Literature published an issue titled "After Postmodernism."