Introduction - Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945

The dawn of the 20th century was characterized by an almost worldwide feeling of optimism that this was a cultural turning point — a stately progress from the pessimism that typified the end of the 19th century toward a more vibrant, modern era. Industrialization and empire-building had brought prosperity — to the Western world at least — and with it the hope of creating a better, fairer society. At the same time, new scientific ideas, such as Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unconscious and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, influenced the way that people thought about themselves and the world.

However, the new century turned out to be a turbulent one, as hopes for the future were first shattered by the catastrophic carnage of World War I, and then, after a brief period of hedonistic confidence, dashed by a global economic depression and the rise of Nazism and fascism, which resulted in World War II.



In the world of literature, the new century was characterized by a move away from gritty realism to distinctly modern forms and genres. Taking their cue from the French symbolists, poets such as Ezra Pound developed a new style that stretched the conventions of verse. In 1922 The Waste Land, by Anglo-American poet T S Eliot, captured the disillusionment of the age.

Novelists also found a variety of new means of expression. Influenced by existentialist philosophy and the new theories emerging in the field of psychology, Franz Kafka created a fantastic and often nightmarish world of the alienated individual in modern society, while in Japan Natsume Sōseki pioneered a similar genre of first-person “I-novel”.

Another form that was adopted by modernist novelists was the “stream of consciousness” novel. Although this approach was not a new idea, it was given a particular boost by psychological theories, and it provided Irishman James Joyce with the framework on which he built his modernist style, first in Ulysses and then more experimentally in Finnegans Wake.

Modernism also featured in more conventional prose narratives. German author Thomas Mann, for example, took the Bildungsroman, or formative, rite-of-passage story, and reshaped it into a modern form, first in the novella Death in Venice, and later in his masterpiece The Magic Mountain.

A warring world

It was not only ideas that shaped the literature of the 20th century, but also events. The Great War of 1914—18 inevitably had a profound effect, which is most obviously seen in the work of poets, such as Wilfred Owen, who served in the forces. However, there was also the “lost generation” of US writers who had come of age during the war, which included T S Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and F Scott Fitzgerald. Although writing ostensibly about the heady days of the 1920s, Fitzgerald portrays the world beneath the superficial and ephemeral Roaring Twenties in The Great Gatsby, evoking a mood that anticipates the Great Depression of the coming decade. The 1920s also saw the rise of a generation of African-American writers, whose authentic depictions of their lives contrasted with the popular portrayal of the black entertainers of the Jazz Age.

In Germany and Austria too, there was a brief period of post-war optimism that was captured vividly by novelists such as Alfred Döblin, but this was as short-lived as elsewhere in Europe and the USA. Hitler’s rise to power forced many writers and artists to flee into exile until the end of World War II. The repressive Nazi regime was hostile to “degenerate” modern art, and so too was the newly formed Soviet Union under Stalin, drawing to a close a century of great Russian writing. In China the end of four millennia of dynastic rule inspired a generation of nationalist writers.

The detectives

Popular fiction flourished in the first half of the 20th century and the detective genre in particular appealed to a mass readership. Pioneered by Victorian writers such as Wilkie Collins in the UK and Edgar Allan Poe in the USA, detective fiction really came into its own with Scotsman Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes. This marked the beginning of a long line of fictional sleuths, as diverse as British writer Agatha Christie’s genteel Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot, and the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe, hero of US author Raymond Chandler’s dark and tangled noir novels of the 1940s.