Study Guide

Modernism Introduction

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Modernism Introduction

Some rules were totally meant to be broken—not waiting three days before calling someone back after an awesome first date, eating dessert last, mixing plaids and stripes. And if you were a Modernist, well, all rules were meant to be broken. The Modernists definitely lived by Bender's "being bad feels pretty good" ethos.

Outside the Lines

Modernists: coloring outside the lines (because lines were meant to be crossed) from 1900-1930. Approximately. Because Modernists don't care about your arbitrary year markers. Anything you tell them to do, they won't. Whatever people say they are, that's what they're not.

The Modernists were some extremely edgy lads and ladies, who made a point of offending as many sensibilities as they could in order to explore new territory in their work. It isn't surprising that one important journal that published these writers' works was called Blast. Three, two, one, Blast off: these guys meant to clear out the old as quickly and violently as possible to make way for new ways of seeing and being.

Out With the Old and in With the New

And what was this "old" that needed to be eradicated? Well, all the old forms of art, from novelistic and poetic structures to characterization and imagery. They were fusty old relics of a world that was definitely bygone.

Horses? Who cares about horses? The Modernists had motorcars and planes. Victorian morals and uptight society? Psssssh. That was old hat. Innocence? Ha! What room was there for innocence in a world first transformed by modernity and then decimated by WWI?

World War I brought Americans to Europe, exposing them to ideas and influences that probably seemed pearl-clutchingly shocking to their sheltered sensibilities and, yeah, shattering their faith in humanity with the horrors of war.


So how do you thumb your nose at history when you're a young and brilliant Modernist? Well, for starters, you take a cue from that slick new science, psychology, and start writing books that zoom in (sometimes way too close for comfort) on characters' points of view. If you're Virginia Woolf, Henry James, or James Joyce, the idea of "personal space" doesn't apply to your characters' psyches. You're getting down n' dirty in those character brainpans.

Then you slap the term "stream of consciousness" on this wacky new work and let the fanboys drool and the critics critique (because the modernists knew that the haters were going to hate, hate, hate) and go on doing your devil-may-care Modernist thing.

And you don't stop at implementing a brand spankin' new way of expressing characters' innermost thoughts. If you're a Modernist you throw away linear stories in favor of those that jump around in time and space like demented bunnies. You pooh-pooh rhyme and meter in exchange for free verse. You put violence and sexytimes front and center (where they belong IOHO). You confuse and frighten your reader and you don't even apologize.

In short, the Modernists thought freedom was just another word for nothing left to lose…and that the world had lost its innocence (and everything else) post-WWI. They turned the literary scene upside down and had an awesome time doing it.

And, unlike some literary schools that may seem a little ho-hum to us in the 21st century—did someone say Romanticism? Oh, wait, we've already forgotten—the Modernists stay awesome. Bewildering, sure. But also no holds barred, go-for-the-jugular, blow your mind awesome.

What is Modernism About and Why Should I Care?


Modernists were the original bad boys of art, whose self-appointed task it was to break—no, scratch that: blow to smithereens—everything that came before them. What were they rebelling against?


These guys were hardly rebels without a cause, though. Oh, they had causes. They had manifestos. They had ideals. They had vision, and they weren't going to let any stodgy old Victorian-holdover beardos stop them. And they were crazy prolific.

But that didn't mean that the Modernists were stuck in a garret being sad all the time. Even today, we love hearing stories about their wild party lifestyle. Their sexual inhibition. Their "Who's going to stop us?" attitude.

Any stereotype you might have of the bohemian artist living in Paris owes its beret-wearing, Pernod-drinking image to the Modernists who gathered at Gertrude Stein's house in the early years of the 20th century, partying with the world's up-and-coming new writers and painters. Jeez, that sounds glamorous.

...And Kinda Like Us

But besides just secretly envying sexy rebels, we love this period so much because the world these artists inhabited had quite a bit common with our own.

The Modernists were so rebellious because they lived in an age of crazy technological upheaval—things were changing at a breakneck pace, bringing about (gasp!) motorcars and (double gasp!) airplanes and (triple gasp!) the telephone. And we can relate to that—technological innovation hasn't exactly slowed down since the dawn of the 20th century. It's revved up.

The Modernists were also grappling with not only the mind-scrambling influence of new technology, but also new psychological theory. This lead to some serious confusion: not only was man now an animal capable of flight (thanks, the Wright brothers!); man was an animal with a creepily mysterious unconscious. But again, we in the 21st century can relate to all of this. Replace the subconscious with theories of what it means to be an individual in the age of the digital footprint. Whoa, Nelly. Talk about an identity crisis.

Then throw into the Modernist mix some pee your pants-caliber wartime terror (like poison gas and trench warfare). Those poor early 20th-century Modernists saw man not only as besieged by exciting new technology and gifted with a weird subconscious, but also capable of creating true horror. What was WWI if not an innocence-shattering nightmare? But—the pattern continues!—we have this today. Just replace "poison gas" with "drone strikes." When the implements of warfare change, so does the understanding of what war, death, and life means.

Yup: Modernism is still pertinent today. None of the stuff they were writing about—sex, the inner recesses of the mind, war, terror, technology—is even remotely stale. In fact, it's gotten even fresher. So what are you waiting for? Pour yourself a cold juice, turn on some jazz, settle your James Joyce glasses on your nose, and sink into the unconscious of Modernism.

Modernism Resources


Internet Archive: Universal Access to Knowledge
Here's a source of free online texts—many by Modernist writers—for all you broke aspiring Parisian writers out there (Hemingway would be proud of y'all).

American Masters: The American Novel
PBS Website offering information, links, and other resources on Modernism. PBS: It's not just for Mr. Rogers.

Paris, The Luminous Years: Toward the Making of the Modern
PBS made a film on the role the city of Paris played in this movement. Berets for everyone!

The Modernism Lab
Here's a clearinghouse for research on Modernist writing… because no one could get through Finnegan's Wake without an academic guiding them.

Website of literary critic Marjorie Perloff
Perloff is the author of a respected book on Modernism and has written many papers on individual Modernist texts and writers. Check her out.

Franz Kafka Online
Here's a creepy good time: an archive of many works by Kafka in English.

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