Modernism & Experimentation (1914-1945) in American

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      Many American historians have characterized the period (1914-1945) of literature between the two World Wars as the United States traumatic “coming of age,” despite the fact that U.S. direct involvement in War was relatively brief (1917-1918) and its casualties fewer than those of its European Allies and foes. This significant period between the Wars is full of political disturbance and economic crises and the human loss on a large scale. There is a widespread frustration, depression and dejection among the youth. Several problems cropped up after the end of wars in all countries involved.

      John Dos Passos expressed America’s postwar disillusionment in the novel Three Soldiers (1921) when he noted that civilization was a “vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.” Shocked and permanently changed, the Americans returned to their homeland but could never regain their innocence. Nor could soldiers from rural America easily return to their roots. After experiencing the world war, many now yearned for a modern, urban life. New farm machines such as planters, harvesters, and binders had drastically reduced the demand for farm jobs; yet despite their increased productivity, farmers were poor. The crop prices, like urban workers’ wages, depended by unrestrained market forces heavily influenced by business interests. The Government subsidies for farmers and effective workers’ unions had not become established. “The chief business of the American people is business,” President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed in 1925, and most agreed. In the postwar “Big Boom,” business flourished, and the successful prospered beyond their wildest dreams. For the first time, many Americans enrolled in higher education in the 1920s; college enrollment was doubled. The middle class was prospered, Americans began to enjoy the world’s highest national average income in this era, and many people purchased the ultimate status symbol - an automobile. The typical urban American home glowed with electric lights and boasted world, and perhaps a telephone, a camera, a typewriter, or a sewing machine. Like the businessperson protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922), the average American approved of these machines because they were modern and because most were American inventions and American-made.

      The Americans of the “Roaring Twenties” fell in love with other modem entertainments. Most people went to watch the movies, at least, once a week. Although Prohibition - a nationwide ban on the production, transport, and sale of alcohol instituted through the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - began in 1919, underground “speak-easies” and nightclubs proliferated, featuring jazz music, cocktails, and daring modes of dress and dance. Dancing, movie-going, automobile touring, and radio were national crazes. The American women, in particular, felt liberated. Many had left farms and villages for home front duty in the American cities during World War I, and had become resolutely modern. They cut their hair short (“bobbed”) wore short “flapper” dresses, and gloried in the right to vote assured by the 19th Amendment to the constitution, passed in 1920, They boldly spoke out their Mind and took public roles in society.

      The Western youths were rebelling, angry and disillusioned with savage wai, the older generation they held responsible, and difficult post-war economic conditions that, ironically, allowed Americans with dollars - like writers F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound - to live abroad handsomely on very little money. Intellectual currents, particularly Freudian psychology and to a lesser extent. Marxism (like the earlier Darwinian theory of evolution), implied a “godless” world view and contributed much to the breakdown of the traditional values. The Americans abroad absorbed these views and brought them back to the United States where they took root, firing the imagination of young writers and artists. William Faulkner, for example, a 20th - century American novelist, employed Freudian elements in all his works, as did virtually all serious American fiction winters after World War I.

      Despite out outward gaiety, modernity, and unparalleled material prosperity, the young Americans of the 1920s were “the lost generation” - so without a stable, traditional structure of values, the individual lost a sense of identity; the secure, supportive family life; the familiar, settled community; the natural and eternal rhythms of nature that guide the planting and harvesting on a farm; the sustaining sense of patriotism. Moral values inculcated by religious beliefs and observations - all seemed undermined by World War I and its aftermath. Numerous novels, notably Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), evoke the extravagance and disillusionment of the lost generation. In T.S. Eliot’s influential long poem The Waste Land (1922), Western civilization is symbolized by a bleak desert in desperate need of rain, (spiritual renewal).

      The world depression of the 1930s affected most of the population of the United States. Workers lost their jobs, and factories were shut down; the businesses and banks foiled. The farmers were unable to harvest, transport, or sell their crops; they could not pay their debts and lost their forms. Midwestern droughts turned the “breadbasket” of America into a dust bowl. Many farmers left the Midwest for California in search of jobs, as vividly described in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). At the peak of the Depression, one-third of all Americans were out of work. Soup kitchens, shantytowns, and armies of hobos - unemployed men illegally riding freight trains - became part of national life. Many saw the Depression as a punishment for sins of excessive materialism and loose living. The dust storms that blackened the mid-western sky, they believed, constituted and Old Testament judgment: the “whirlwind by day and the darkness at noon.”

      The Depression turned the world upside down. The United States had preached a gospel of business in the 1920s; now, many Americans supported a more active role for government in the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Federal money created jobs in public works, conservation, and rural electrification. The artists and intellectuals were paid to create murals and state handbooks. These remedies helped, but only the industrial build-up of world War II renewed prosperity. After Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, disused shipyards and factories came to bustling life mass-producing ships, airplanes, jeeps, and supplies. War production and experimentation led to new technologies, including the nuclear blast, Robert Oppenheimer, leader of an international team of nuclear scientists, prophetically quoted a Hindu poem: “I am become Death, the chatterer of worlds.”


      The large cultural wave of Modernism, which gradually emerged in Europe and the United States in the early years of the 20th century, expressed a sense of modern life through art as a sharp break from the past, as well as from Western civilization’s classical traditions. Modern life seemed radically different from traditional life-more scientific, faster, more technological, and more mechanized. Modernism embraced all these changes.

      In literature, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) She and her brother Leo purchased works of the artist's Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, and many others. Stein once explained that she and Picasso were doing the same thing, he in art and she in writing. Using simple, concrete words as counters, she developed an abstract, experimental prose poetry. The child like quality of Stein’s simple vocabulary recalls the bright, primary colors of modern art, while her repetitions echo the repeated shapes of abstract visual compositions. By dislocating grammar and punctuation, she achieved new “abstract” meanings as in her influential collection Tender Buttons (1914), which views objects from different angles, as in a cubist painting:

“A Table A Table means does it not my/ Dear it means a whole steadiness. / Is it likely that a change. A table / Means more than a glass / Even a looking glass is tall.”

      Meaning in Stein’s work, was often subordinated to technique, just as subject was less important than shape in abstract visual art. Subject and technique became inseparable in both the visual and literary art of the period. The idea of form as the equivalent of content, a cornerstone of post-World War II art and literature, crystallized in this period.

      Technological innovation in the world of factories and machines inspired new attentiveness to technique in the arts To take one example: Light, particularly electrical light, fascinated modem artists and writers. Posters and advertisements scrapers and light rays shooting out from automobile headlights, movie houses, and watchtowers to illumine a forbidding outer darkness suggesting ignorance and old-fashioned tradition.

      Photography began to assume the status of a fine art allied with the latest scientific developments. The photographer Alfred Stieglitz opened showing the latest European works, including pieces by Picasso and other European friends of Gertrude Stein. Stieglitz’s salon influenced numerous writers and artists, including William Carlos Williams, who was one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century, his aesthetic dictum was “no ideas but in things.” Vision and viewpoint became an essential aspect of the modernist novel as well. No longer was it sufficient to write a straight forward, third-Person narrative or (verse yet) use a pointlessly intrusive narrator. The way the story was told became as important as the story itself.

      Henry James, William Faulkner and many other American writers experimented with fictional points of view (some are still doing so). James often restricted the information in the novel to what a single character would have known. Faullmer’s novel The Sound and the Fury (1929) breaks up the narrative into four sections, each giving the viewpoint of a different character (including a mentally retarded boy). To analyze such modernist novels and poetry, a school of “New Criticism” arose in the United States with a new critical vocabulary. New Critics hunted the “epiphany” (moment in which a situation, a tenn derived from a holy saint’s “clarified” a work, hoping to “shed light” upon it through their “insights”.


      Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Hamilton College in New York State. In 1906, he took up a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania and then taught briefly at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. His academic career was short lived as he sailed for Europe in February 1908 and went to live in Venice. His first volume of poetry A Lume Spento, was published in Venice in June 1908. In September, he traveled to London and where he renewed his friendship with W.B. Yeats. While in London he also became the friend of Ford Madox Ford, T.E. Hulme, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. His two collections of poems Personae and Exultations appeared in the same year. The Spirit of Romance (1910), a volume of critical essays appeared. His next two collections of poems - Provenca (1910) and Canzoni (1911) again showed the influence of the medieval literature. His translation of The Sonnets and Ballads of Guido Cavalcanti and his volume of poems Ripostes (1912) marked the beginning of his association with movement called “Imagism.”

      From 1908 to 1920, he resided in London where he not many writers, including William Butler Yeats, for” whom he worked as a secretary, and T.S. Eliot, whose Waste Land he drastically edited and improved. He was link between the United States and Britain, acting as contributing editor to Harriet Monroe’s important Chicago Magazine; Poetry he spearhead the new school of poetry known as “Imagism”: he championed various poetic approaches. He eventually moved to Italy, where he became caught up in Italian Fascism. Pound furthered Imagism in letters, essays, and an anthology. In a letter to Monroe in 1915, he argues for a modem sounding, visual poetry that avoids “cliches and set phrases.” In “A Few Don’ts of an Imagist” (1913), he defined “image” as something that “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound’s 1914 anthology of 10 poets, Des Imagists, offered examples of Imagist poetry by out standing poets, including William Carlos Williams, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Amy Lowell Pound’s next collections are - Lustra (1916) and Quia Pauper Amavi (1919). Pound’s poetry is best known for its clear, visual images, fresh rhythms, and muscular, intelligent, unusual lines, such as in Conto LXXXI, “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world”, or in poems inspired by Japanese haiku, such as “In a station of the Metro” (1916). His most known poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly was published in 1920. This was followed by Personae: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound (1926), Selected Poems (1928), a Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), Eleven New Cantos (1937) and Cantos LII-LXXI (1940). Because of his meeting of Mussolini, he was not permitted to enter America and so he returned again to Europe.

      The Americans at Pisa held him for treason. He was declared to be unfit for trial based on his insanity and was hospitalized in St Elizabeth’s Hospital. His confinement came to end in 1958. He was himself uncertain of his achievements but was considered as one of makers of modern poetry. His interests and reading were universal. His adaptations and brilliant, if sometimes flawed, translations introduced new literary possibilities from many cultures to modem writers. His life work was the Cantos, which he wrote and published until his death. They contain brilliant passages but their allusions to works of literature and art from many ears and cultures made them difficult. He returned to Italy and died in Venice at the age of 87. He was one of the most influential American poets of this century.


      Although American fictional prose between the wars experimented with viewpoint and form, the Americans wrote more realistically on the whole, than did Europeans, the novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote of war, hunting, and other masculine pursuits in a stripped, plain style; William Faulkner set his powerful southern novels spanning generations and cultures firmly in Mississippi heat and dust. Sinclair Lewis delineated the bourgeois lives with ironic clarity.

      The importance of facing reality became a dominant theme in the 1920s and 1930s. Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and the playwright Eugene O’Neill repeatedly portrayed the tragedy awaiting those who live in flimsy dreams.

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