Modernism and Experimentation

USA Literature in Brief - Kathryn VanSpanckeren 2007

Modernism and Experimentation

Many historians have characterized the period between the two world wars as the United States’ traumatic “coming of age,” despite the fact that U.S. direct involvement was relatively brief (1917-1918) and its casualties many fewer than those of its European allies and foes. Shocked and permanently changed, American soldiers 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, many now yearned for a modern, urban life.

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 doubled. The middle class prospered; Americans began to enjoy the world’s highest national average income in this era.

Americans of the “Roaring Twenties” fell in love with modern entertainments. Most people went to the movies once a week. Although Prohibition—a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol instituted through the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—began in 1919, illegal “speakeasies” (bars) and nightclubs proliferated, featuring jazz music, cocktails, and daring modes of dress and dance. Dancing, moviegoing, automobile touring, and radio were national crazes. American women, in particular, felt liberated. 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 their mind and took public roles in society.

In spite of this prosperity, Western youths on the cultural “edge” were in a state of intellectual rebellion, angry and disillusioned with the savage war, as well as the older generation they held responsible. Ironically, difficult postwar economic conditions in Europe allowed Americans with dollars—like writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound—to live abroad handsomely on very little money, and to soak up the postwar disillusionment, as well as other European intellectual currents, particularly Freudian psychology and to a lesser extent Marxism.

Numerous novels, notably Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), evoke the extravagance and disillusionment of what American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein dubbed “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 large cultural wave of Modernism, which emerged in Europe, and then spread to 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 modern machinery had changed the pace, atmosphere, and appearance of daily life in the early 20th century, so many artists and writers, with varying degrees of success, reinvented traditional artistic forms and tried to find radically new ones—an aesthetic echo of what people had come to call “the machine age.”


T.S. Eliot 1888-1965

Courtesy Acme Photos

Thomas Stearns Eliot received the best education of any major American writer of his generation at Harvard College, the Sorbonne, and Oxford University. He studied Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy, which influenced his poetry. Like his friend, the poet Ezra Pound, he went to England early and became a towering figure in the literary world there. One of the most respected poets of his day, his modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had revolutionary impact.

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), the ineffectual, elderly Prufrock thinks to himself that he has “measured out his life in coffee spoons”—the image of the coffee spoons reflecting a humdrum existence and a wasted lifetime. The famous beginning of Eliot’s “Prufrock” invites the reader into tawdry urban alleyways that, like modern life, offer no answers to the questions of life:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table…

Similar imagery pervades “The Waste Land” (1922), which echoes Dante’s “Inferno” to evoke London’s thronged streets around the time of World War I:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many

I had not thought death had undone so many...


Robert Frost 1874-1963

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Robert Lee Frost was born in California, but raised on a farm in the northeast until the age of 10. Like Eliot and Pound, he went to England, attracted by new movements in poetry there. He wrote of traditional farm life in New England (part of the northeastern United States), appealing to a nostalgia for the old ways. His subjects are universal—apple picking, stone walls, fences, country roads. Although his approach was lucid and accessible, his work is often deceptively simple. Many poems suggest a deeper meaning. For example, a quiet snowy evening by an almost hypnotic rhyme scheme may suggest the not entirely unwelcome approach of death. From “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923):

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Although American prose between the wars experimented with viewpoint and form, Americans wrote more realistically, on the whole, than did Europeans. 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.


F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896-1940

Courtesy Library of Congress

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s life resembles a fairy tale. During World War I, Fitzgerald enlisted in the U.S. Army and fell in love with a rich and beautiful girl, Zelda Sayre, who lived near Montgomery, Alabama, where he was stationed. After he was discharged at war’s end, he went to seek his literary fortune in New York City in order to marry her.

His first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), became a best-seller, and at 24 they married. Neither of them was able to withstand the stresses of success and fame, and they squandered their money. They moved to France to economize in 1924, and returned seven years later. Zelda became mentally unstable and had to be institutionalized; Fitzgerald himself became an alcoholic and died young as a movie screenwriter.

Fitzgerald’s secure place in American literature rests primarily on his novel The Great Gatsby (1925), a brilliantly written, economically structured story about the American dream of the self-made man. The protagonist, the mysterious Jay Gatsby, discovers the devastating cost of success in terms of personal fulfillment and love. More than any other writer, Fitzgerald captured the glittering, desperate life of the 1920s.


Ernest Hemingway 1899-1961

Courtesy Pix Publishing, Inc.

Few writers have lived as colorfully as Ernest Hemingway, whose career could have come out of one of his adventurous novels. Like Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and many other fine novelists of the 20th century, Hemingway came from the U.S. Midwest. He volunteered for an ambulance unit in France during World War I, but was wounded and hospitalized for six months. After the war, as a war correspondent based in Paris, he met expatriate American writers Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Stein, in particular, influenced his spare style.

After his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) brought him fame, he continued to work as a journalist, covering the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the fighting in China in the 1940s. On a safari in Africa, he was injured when his small plane crashed; still, he continued to enjoy hunting and sport fishing, activities that inspired some of his best work. The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a short, poetic novel about a poor, old fisherman whose huge fish, caught in the open ocean, is devoured by sharks, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1953; the next year he received the Nobel Prize. Discouraged by a troubled family background, illness, and the belief that he was losing his gift for writing, Hemingway shot himself to death in 1961. Hemingway is arguably the most popular American novelist. His sympathies are basically apolitical and humanistic, and in this sense he is universal.

Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway became a spokesman for his generation. But instead of painting its fatal glamour as did Fitzgerald, who never fought in World War I, Hemingway wrote of war, death, and the “lost generation” of cynical survivors. His characters are not dreamers, but tough bullfighters, soldiers, and athletes. If intellectual, they are deeply scarred and disillusioned. His hallmark is a clean style devoid of unnecessary words. Often he uses understatement: In A Farewell to Arms (1929) the heroine dies in childbirth saying “I’m not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick.” He once compared his writing to icebergs: “There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows.”


William Faulkner 1897-1962

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Born to an old southern family, William Harrison Faulkner was raised in Oxford, Mississippi, where he lived most of his life. Faulkner re-creates the history of the land and the various races who have lived on it. An innovative writer, Faulkner experimented brilliantly with narrative chronology, different points of view and voices (including those of outcasts, children, and illiterates), and a rich and demanding baroque style, built of extremely long sentences.

The best of Faulkner’s novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), two modernist works experimenting with viewpoint and voice to probe southern families under the stress of losing a family member; Light in August (1932), about complex and violent relations between a white woman and a black man; and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), perhaps his finest, about the rise of a self-made plantation owner and his tragic fall.


American drama imitated English and European theater until well into the 20th century. Not until the 20th century would serious American plays attempt aesthetic innovation.


Eugene O’Neill 1888-1953

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Eugene O’Neill is the great figure of American theater. His numerous plays combine enormous technical originality with freshness of vision and emotional depth. O’Neill’s earliest dramas concern the working class and poor; later works explore subjective realms, and underscore his reading in Freud and his anguished attempt to come to terms with his dead mother, father, and brother.

His play Desire Under the Elms (1924) recreates the passions hidden within one family. His later plays include the acknowledged masterpieces The Iceman Cometh (1946), a stark work on the theme of death, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956)—a powerful, extended autobiography in dramatic form focusing on his own family and their physical and psychological deterioration, as witnessed in the course of one night.