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Modernism: Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot

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Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes a set of cultural tendencies and movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s. The term encompasses the activities and output of those who felt the “traditional” forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialized world. The first half of the 20th century is then normally referred to in literary histories as ‘Modernism’, a very general term used to talk about a series of different movements and tendencies (impressionism, expressionism, imagism, futurism, Dadaism, surrealism…) that tried to break with old tradition and the realistic concept of art.

Modernism challenged the assumption of reality which is at the roots of realism: that there is a common phenomenal world that can be reliably described. Psychoanalysis, Darwinism, Nietzche and Marxism questioned traditional assumptions and so did World War I and the skeptical spirit it brought about. They all helped to shatter traditional beliefs. (((Regardless of the specific year it was produced, modernism is characterized primarily by a complete and unambiguous embrace of what Andreas Huyssen calls the “Great Divide.”[7] That is, it believes that there is a clear distinction between capital-A Art and mass culture, and it places itself firmly on the side of Art and in opposition to popular or mass culture. (Postmodernism, according to Hussein, may be defined precisely by its rejection of this distinction.

The artistic response to all these changes took place both in the realm of form and content. From the point of view of content, the horrors of WW I and the arrival of the ideas mentioned before brought about a general spirit of pessimism, disillusionment and skepticism (reflected in The Waste Land, for instance). There was an important group of American writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos , e.e.cummings, Hart Crane) who shared this spirit of post-war alienation and lived in Paris for some time, who came to be known as the Lost Generation.


Just as in painting artists were looking for a new form of expression, in literature writers were trying to experiment and find a new vocabulary and new techniques. Poets dislocated grammar and punctuation looking for new images and ways of expression, and novelists experimented with new points of view and a different conception of time and plot to try to reflect the hidden consciousness of the characters. The term ‘HIGH MODERNISM’ is sometimes used to describe a group of writers particularly interested in this formal revolution. With the exception of William Faulkner, this group is more European-based than American. The two masterpieces in English that best represent this movement are probably T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, both first published in 1922. These are some of the FORMAL INNOVATIONS introduced by these writers:

In poetry, the concept of ‘image’ (Imagism): the writer’s response to a visual object or scene.

Obscurity, opacity. The reader is required to make an effort to understand the works. In Eliot’s and Pound’s poetry, for example, there are all kinds of cultural references the reader must work hard to understand.

Time is not presented in chronological order. Flashbacks and flash-forwards are used instead.

Fragmented plots, sometimes without a beginning or an end are also frequent.

Disappearance of the traditional omniscient narrator in the novel. In their search for different ways to represent reality, they replaced this narrator by partial points of view or by interior monologues or soliloquies that try to reproduce the ‘stream of consciousness’ of the characters. A few theoretical considerations will probably be welcome: bearing in mind the distinction between focalization and narration (‘who sees?’ versus ‘who speaks?’), we can establish different kinds of narrators:

First person narrator (major participant, as in Huck Finn; minor, as in The Great Gatsby; or even non-participant, as in The Scarlet Letter). In some cases, the narrator is unreliable, and therefore everything that s/he tells is suspect and must be interpreted by the reader (for example, children telling stories where adults do things they don’t really understand. Huck Finn might be a good example).

Second person narrator. Quite uncommon. An example: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter Night a Traveller.

Third person narrator. When the narration is in the third person, the focalization becomes extremely important. We can then talk about an omniscient point of view (typical of 19th century realist novels. The voice that tells the story is in total control, knows everything and has authoritative value), a dramatic or objective point of view (Hemingway’s short stories: the narrator is like the lens of a camera that simply records what s/he sees), or a selected or limited point of view (also called ‘Jamesian’ after Henry James: a character is the ‘focus’ or ‘center of consciousness’, and the reader sees the action through the focus of that character).

Modernist fiction became extremely interested in characters’ psychology and the concept of ‘stream of consciousness’ that psychologist William James had developed. This term refers to the thoughts, memories and feelings that exist in our mind in what he called the Pre-Speech level. They are not censored, rationally controlled or logically ordered and are formed instead by a method of free association. Modernist writers tried to show the hidden aspects of a character’s personality through the representation of this level of consciousness, and the different techniques they developed were:

Description: the narrator describes with his/her own language the hidden thoughts of a character.

Interior Monologue: reproduction of these thoughts in the character’s own language.

Soliloquy: Its purpose is not only to communicate psychic identity (like the interior monologue), but also to advance the plot. It communicates ideas and emotions which are related to plot and action.

This period has sometimes been described as the ‘coming of age’ of American Literature, and it is certainly an extraordinarily productive time with an outstanding number of excellent writers in English, whether British, Irish or American.

JAMES JOYCE (1882-1941) might the best modernist writer in the English language. Born in Dublin, he left his native city never to come back, but he kept writing about it for all his life. He wrote Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1917), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Ulysses is probably the most characteristic novel of this period. It was published in Paris and for a long time was censored in Ireland. It has no real plot, following instead the wanderings and thoughts (stream of consciousness in interior monologues) of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on a single day (Bloom’s day). Each chapter corresponds to an episode in Homer’s Odyssey and has a distinct style of its own (for instance, in the Maternity Hospital scene the prose imitates all the English literary styles starting with Beowulf, symbolizing the growth of the foetus in the womb in its steady movement through time). It is one of the most ambitious novels of the century as well as one of the best achievements of modernist literature.

GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1948) lived in Paris and her poetic work and her role as mentor and art collector made her essential for the development of American modernism. Her experimental poetry is a mixture of extravagance and genius. She tries to describe reality in a completely new way, sometimes almost impossible to understand. Tender Buttons (1914).

But the most important poets of the group were EZRA POUND (1885-1972) and T. S. ELIOT (1888-1965), who were both born in America but spent most of their lives in Europe. EZRA POUND (1885-1972). From 1909 through the 20s, he was involved in most of the major artistic movements. A leader of the ‘Imagist’ school of poetry, where an image is described as the writer’s response to a visual object or scene. His poetry is full of allusions to works of literature and art from many eras and cultures. Influenced by Asian literature, he edited Eliot’s The Waste Land and was an important link between the United States and Britain. His main works are Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and the Cantos (1925-1972).

T. S. ELIOT (1888-1965) went to England early and stayed there, where he became a major figure. The Waste Land (1922) is probably the most important American poem of the 20th century both formally (because of its modernist techniques) and thematically (because of the disillusionment, skepticism and decadence of the modern world shown). Like Pound, he was influenced by Eastern philosophy and literature and he made references to all kinds of works of literature and art.

VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1841) was an English novelist, part of the so-called “Bloomsbury group”. Author of Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928).

Other important American poets of this movement are:

· WALLACE STEVENS (1879-1955). Wrote abstract, difficult poetry, with very deep meanings: “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully”, he said. One of his most famous poems is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

· HILDA DOOLITTLE or H.D. for short (1886-1961) and MARIANNE MOORE (1887-1972) were influenced by Pound and imagism and wrote excellent poetry.

· e. e. cummings (he never wrote capitals in his name) (1894-1962). A member of the ‘Lost Generation’. Innovative verse distinguished for its humor, celebration of love and eroticism, and the experimentation with punctuation and visual format on the page. “O sweet spontaneous”

· WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS (1883-1963). Influenced by Eliot and Pound, but more interested in the language and scenes of everyday life. Warmer feeling for real people and real life. Colloquial language. Easier to understand. “The Young Housewife”, “The Dead Baby”. ► See Poems in “Twentieth Century Poetry”, pp. 177 & 178, by Ezra Pound, H.D. Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens and cummings.

There was an important group of American writers (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, e.e.cummings, Hart Crane) who shared this spirit of post-war alienation and lived in Paris for some time, who came to be known as the Lost Generation (term used by Gertrude Stein talking to Hemingway). They were ‘lost’ because they had lost their ideals, ‘lost’ to America because they lived abroad, and ‘lost’ because they did not accept older values but couldn’t really find the writer’s place in this new society

FRANCIS SCOTT FITZGERALD (1896-1940) found rapid success in the 20s with his novel This Side of Paradise (1921) and his Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), with which he became the official spokesman of the ‘Jazz Age’. The Great Gatsby (1925) was also received with enthusiastic reviews, but soon afterwards his literary eclipse started. He went to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter, but did not find success and in 1940 died poor and forgotten. The Great Gatsby is his masterpiece, an excellent novel about the American Dream and the failure associated with success. Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, the narrator, we see both the glamour and the moral ugliness of the twenties. Gatsby is possibly a criminal, but also a true romantic, someone able to pursue a dream, even if it is impossible to achieve. The novel combines symbolism and psychological realism in a way that has been described as a “symbolist tragedy”. Fitzgerald also dealt with similar topics in his short stories, some of which are also worth mentioning, like “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” or some of the Pat Hobby stories about his Hollywood failure.

WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897-1962) is probably the best representative of ‘high modernism’ in the American novel. His use of different narrative voices and focalizations, interior monologues and soliloquies, or use of ‘continuous present’ (mixture of past, present and future actions) make novels like The Sound and the Fury (1929) or As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932) or Absalom, Absalom! (1936) stand out as some of the best of 20th century world literature. Faulkner was also the first writer to create a fictional territory (Yoknapatawpha County) in which all his stories take place. This territory was based on Oxford, Mississippi (where Faulkner had been born) and is the background for characters that appear and reappear in different novels creating a complete fictional world of mythical proportions. In his novels and short stories, Faulkner analyzes individual psychology as well as social conflicts, particularly racial problems in the South that had lost the war. He received the Nobel Prize in 1949 and is universally acclaimed as one of the best writers of the century.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899-1961) was a very different kind of modernist. He developed a sparse, concise style which he combined with what has been called the ‘Dramatic’ or ‘Objective’ point of view, that is, the perspective of an impartial observer who describes everything from the outside, without explanations or comments. Hemingway says as little as possible, and he then lets the characters speak. Therefore, his use of dialogue becomes fundamental to understand both the action and the characters’ motives. He also described his technique of implying things rather than explaining them using the metaphor of an iceberg (“There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows”). All these techniques are typically modernistic, because they put the reader in an uncomfortable position: he/she has to make an effort to guess what exactly is going on and what the implications and possible deeper meanings are. Hemingway lived in Paris between 1921 and 1928 and this is the time when he wrote some of his best short stories (“Hills like White Elephants” and “The Killers” among them), collected in In Our Time and Men Without Women.

His experience in Spain was reflected in The Sun Also Rises (Fiesta) (1926). Death in the Afternoon (1932) and For Whom the Bells Toll (1940). In these and his other novels and stories (like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, A Farewell to Arms or “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber”) we see the development of the typical Hemingway hero: a stoic man of few words who may be sensitive but never shows it, and who frequently shows a misogynistic attitude. He liked to put his heroes in situations between life and death (bullfighters, soldiers, hunters) where they would show their real self. His last novel was The Old Man and the Sea (1952), after which he received the Nobel Prize. He was probably the most popular American novelist at the time, but the misogynistic attitude of some of his works has put Hemingway in an uncomfortable position in the American canon in these days of political correctness.

SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1876-1941) was a precursor of Modernism. Considered by Faulkner “the father of [his] generation of writers”, his best work is Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a series of interconnected short stories taking place in the same town and narrated by the same character. Thematically it is part of a movement called the ‘Revolt from the Village’ which tried to show the many ways in which people were damaged by the narrowness of life in small-town America. But the book is also modernist because of its use of time, the importance of form over content and its emphasis on the problems of perception and communication. There isn’t really a plot, and instead the writer attempts to capture special and significant moments in the lives of the citizens of Winesburg, moments that are like windows into the true nature of a character (a concept similar to Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’).

JOHN DOS PASSOS (1896-1970). A left-wing radical in the beginning, he combined a realistic use of language with modernist techniques to try to show the daily life of citizens in Manhattan Transfer (1925) or the evolution of the recent history of his country in U.S.A., a trilogy that included The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). He shared with the ‘Lost Generation’ the spirit of disillusionment, with the naturalists before him a strong sense of fate and a realistic style, and with the modernists the ideas about the difficulty of perceiving reality. His solution to try to reflect the complex reality of life is to use strategies coming from the movies, like the combination of whole scene ‘shots’ with ‘close-ups’ to show the feelings of individual people. He also used ‘collage’ techniques, mixing popular songs with newspaper headlines, phrases from advertisements, short biographies of contemporary public figures and impressionistic visions of reality (that he called ‘camera eye’).


There are other excellent writers who shared the spirit of the times but were not part of any group and did not attempt a formal revolution. In the United States, these are some important poets:

· CARL SANDBURG (1878-1967) is probably the clearest heir of the Emerson-Whitman spirit, and shares with them his faith in America and natural optimism. His best well-known poem is Chicago (1914).

· ROBERT FROST (1874-1963). Very popular poet. A farmer in New England, most of his poems deal with farming and nature. He uses ‘unliterary’ direct language, but behind their apparent simplicity his poems hide deeper meanings (for him, a good poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom”). Some famous poems by Frost are “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Mending Walls”.

· Harlem Renaissance. A movement of African American writers connected with the Harlem jazz clubs of the 20s and 30s who vindicated their own literary identity. LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967), JEAN TOOMER (1894-1967) and COUNTEE CULLEN (1903-1946) are the three most important poets of the movement.

And some American novelists:

SINCLAIR LEWIS (1885-1951). A socialist, his writing is more realistic than modernistic, but shows a new spirit: instead of portraying the typical realistic fight for life, his characters have everything they need from a material point of view, but they show a kind of spiritual dissatisfaction. Main Street (1920) satirized monotonous, hypocritical small-town life. Babbit (1922) is the story of a frustrated businessman. In 1930, he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

JOHN STEINBECK (1902-1968). A late heir of the Naturalist movement, his work is a response to the Depression era after the 1929 Stock Market Crash. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is probably the book that has best pictured the spirit of the times. It’s another story of a trip to the west and a sweet-and-sour portrayal of the American Dream, a mixture of realism and deep concern about other human beings. Also a Nobel Prize, other important works of Steinbeck are Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952). He is part of a movement called Proletarian Realism, to which JAMES AGEE (1909-1955) and MICHAEL GOLD (1896-1967) also belong.

Apart from the ‘sacred cows’ (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner) and the writers described above, there are other novelists that don’t fit exactly within any of the movements mentioned but that should at least be mentioned: THOMAS WOLFE (1900-1938), whose autobiographic ‘anti-novels’ were years ahead of his time; HENRY MILLER (1891-1980), a big rebel whose ‘obscene’ novels, like Tropic of Cancer (1934), could not be published in the USA until the 60s, when he became a kind of guru for the ‘beats’ and ‘hippies’; and NATHANIEL WEST (1902-1940), whose Days of the Locust (1939) is an inversion of the American Dream set in Hollywood.

In the American South, a movement called ‘The Fugitives’ (J, C. RANSOM, ALLEN TATE AND ROBERT PENN WARREN) criticized the business and commercial base of American society and praised the agrarian traditions of the Old South. Also from that part of the country, KATHERINE ANN PORTER (1894-1980) combined the false world of dreams and fantasies with the cruelty of real experience. In her works, tradition and the nostalgic longing for a romantic past create a suffocating atmosphere.

In ENGLAND, there are several important novelists that shared time and ideas with the modernists, but did not take part in their deep formal experimentations:

– D. H. LAWRENCE (1885-1930). Author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Sons and Lovers (1913). He showed physical love and human passion in his novels, which meant that some of his novels could not be published in the UK for a long time.

– E. M. FORSTER (1879-1979) wrote ironic, well-plotted novels examining class difference and hypocrisy and also the attitudes towards gender and homosexuality in early 20th-century British society. A Room with a View (1908), A Passage to India (1924), Howard’s End (1910).

– JOSEPH CONRAD (1857-1924) is another important literary figure, frequently considered a precursor of Modernist literature. Born in Poland, he learned English as an adult and managed to write excellent novels like Lord Jim (1900) and Nostromo (1904). Heart of Darkness (1902) is a symbolic novella of a journey into the Congo river as well as into the human psyche. It is the origin of the film Apocalypse Now.

– EVELYN WAUGH (1903-1966) wrote satires of British high society. ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894-1963) is the author of the dystopia Brave New World (1932). KATHERINE MANSFIELD (1888-1923) was born in New Zealand but developed her short literary career in England. A very good short-story writer.

Poets from the British Isles

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS (1865-1939), an excellent Irish poet and dramatist, he has been considered one of the twentieth century’s key English language poets. Received the Noble Prize in 1923. A master of traditional forms and symbolism. DYLAN THOMAS (1914-1953) was born in Wales and wrote only in English. Images from the Bible and from Welsh folklore. W. H. AUDEN (1907-1973) was born in England but later became an American citizen (“Funeral Blues”).

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