1901-1939 Modernism


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The movement known as English literary modernism grew out of a general sense of disillusionment with Victorian era attitudes of certainty, conservatism, and objective truth. The movement was greatly influenced by the ideas of Romanticism...



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Lecture 13

1901-1939 Modernism

The movement known as English literary modernism grew out of a general sense of disillusionment with Victorian era attitudes of certainty, conservatism, and objective truth. The movement was greatly influenced by the ideas of Romanticism, Karl Marx's political writings, and the psychoanalytic theories of subconscious - Sigmund Freud. The continental art movements of Impressionism, and later Cubism, were also important inspirations for modernist writers.

Although literary modernism reached its peak between the First and Second World Wars, the earliest examples of the movement's attitudes appeared in the mid to late nineteenth century. Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, and the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy represented a few of the major early modernists writing in England during the Victorian period.

The first decades of the twentieth century saw several major works of modernism published, including the seminal short story collection "Dubliners" by James Joyce, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", and the poetry and drama of William Butler Yeats.

Important novelists between the World Wars included Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse and D. H. Lawrence. T. S. Eliot was the preeminent English poet of the period. Across the Atlantic writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost developed a more American take on the modernist aesthetic in their work.

Perhaps the most contentiously important figure in the development of the modernist movement was the American poet Ezra Pound. Credited with "discovering" both T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, whose stream of consciousness novel "Ulysses" is considered to be one of the century's greatest literary achievements, Pound also advanced the cause of imagism and free verse, forms which would dominate English poetry into the twenty-first century.

Gertrude Stein, an American expat, was also an enormous literary force during this time period, famous for her line "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."

Other notable writers of this period included H.D., Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, William Carlos Williams, Ralph Ellison, Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas and Graham Greene. However, some of these writers are more closely associated with what has become known as post-modernism, a term often used to encompass the diverse range of writers who succeeded the modernists.

English literary modernism developed out of a general sense of disillusionment with Victorian era attitudes of certainty, conservatism, and belief in the idea of objective truth. The continental art movements of Impressionism, and later Cubism, were also important inspirations for modernist writers.

The significant late 19th-century novelist, Henry James (1843-1916), continued to publish major works into the 20th-century. James had lived in Europe since 1875 and became a British citizen, but this was only in 1915, and he was born in America and spent his formative years there.

Another immigrant, Polish-born modernist novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) published his first important work, Heart of Darkness in 1899 and Lord Jim in 1900.

Irishman W. B. Yeats's (1865-1939), career began late in the Victorian era. Yeats was one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman so honoured Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers who completed their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929).

J.M. Synge (1871-1909) were influential in British drama. Synge's plays belong to the first decade of the 20th-century. Synge's most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World, "caused outrage and riots when it was first performed" in Dublin in 1907.

An important dramatist in the 1920s, and later, was Irishman Sean O'Casey (1880-1964). Also in the 1920s and later Noël Coward (1899-1973) achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. Many of his works, such as Hay Fever (1925), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1932), Present Laughter (1942) and Blithe Spirit (1941), have remained in the regular theatre repertoire.

In the 1930s W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood co-authored verse dramas, of which The Ascent of F6 (1936) is the most notable, that owed much to Bertolt Brecht. T. S. Eliot had begun this attempt to revive poetic drama with Sweeney Agonistes in 1932, and this was followed by The Rock (1934), Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and Family Reunion (1939). There were three further plays after the war.

Forster's most famous work, A Passage to India 1924, reflected challenges to imperialism, while his earlier novels, such as A Room with a View(1908) and Howards End (1910), examined the restrictions and hypocrisy of Edwardian society in England.

Strongly influenced by his Christian faith, G. K. Chesterton was a prolific and hugely influential writer with a diverse output. His best-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday published in 1908 is arguably his best-known novel. Of his nonfiction, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906) has received some of the broadest-based praise.

Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917) is sometimes treated as another Georgian poet. Thomas enlisted in 1915 and is one of the First World War poets along with Wilfred Owen (1893 -1918), Rupert Brooke (1887 -1915), Isaac Rosenberg (1890 -1917), Edmund Blunden (1896 -1974) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886 -1967). In Parenthesis, a modernist epic poem by David Jones (1895 -1974) first published in 1937, is probably the best known contribution from Wales to the literature of the First World War.

Among important early modernists were the American poets T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972). Eliot became a British citizen in 1927 but was born and educated in America. His most famous works are: "Prufrock" (1915), The Wasteland (1921) and Four Quartets (1935–42). Ezra Pound was not only a major poet, first publishing part of The Cantos in 1917, but an important mentor for other poets, most significantly in his editorial advice for Eliot's poem The Wasteland. Other important American poets writing early in the 20th-century were William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), Robert Frost (1874-1963), who published his first collection in England in 1913, and H.D. (1886-1961). Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), an American expatriate living in Paris, famous for her line "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," was also an important literary force during this time period.

Among novelist important early figures were Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957), whose novel Pointed Roof (1915), is one of the earliest example of the stream of consciousness technique and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), who published The Rainbow in 1915, though it was immediately seized by the police. Then in 1922 Irishman James Joyce's important modernist novel Ulysses appeared. Ulysses has been called "a demonstration and summation of the entire movement". Set during one day in Dublin, in it Joyce creates parallels with Homer's epic poem the Odyssey. William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) is another significant modernist novel, that uses the stream of consciousness technique.

The modernist movement continued through the 1920s and 1930s and beyond. During the period between the World Wars, American drama came to maturity, thanks in large part to the works of Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953). O'Neill's experiments with theatrical form and his use of both Naturalist and Expressionist techniques had a major influence on American dramatists. His best-known plays include Anna Christie (Pulitzer Prize 1922), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Strange Interlude (Pulitzer Prize 1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). In poetry Hart Crane published The Bridge in 1930 and E. E. Cummings and Wallace Stevens were publishing from the 1920s until the 1950s. Similarly William Faulkner continued to publish until the 1950s and was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1949.

 Important British writers between the World Wars, include the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), who began publishing in the 1920s, and novelists Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), E. M. Forster (1879-1970) (A Passage to India, 1924), Evelyn Waugh (1903–66), P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) (who was not a modernist) and D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was published privately in Florence in 1928, though the unexpurgated version was not published in Britain until 1959. Woolf was an influential feminist, and a major stylistic innovator associated with the stream-of-consciousness technique in novels like Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Her 1929 essay A Room of One's Own contains her famous dictum; "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction".

An important development, beginning really in the 1930s and 1940s was a tradition of working class novels that were actually written by writers who had a working-class background. Among these were coal miner Jack Jones, James Hanley, whose father was a stoker and who also went to sea as a young man, and other coal miner authors' Lewis Jones from South Wales and Harold Heslop from County Durham.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) published his famous dystopia Brave New World in 1932, the same year as John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer then appeared in 1934, though it was banned for many years in both Britain and America. Samuel Beckett (1906–89) published his first major work, the novel Murphy in 1938. This same year Graham Greene's (1904–91) first major novel Brighton Rock was published. Then in 1939 James Joyce's published Finnegans Wake. In this work Joyce creates a special language to express the consciousness of a character who is dreaming. It was also in 1939 that another Irish modernist, W. B. Yeats, died. British poet W. H. Auden was another significant modernists in the 1930s.


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