Modern Period (in English and American literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Modern Period (in English and American literature)

Modern Period (in English and American literature): A period in English and American literary history beginning in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I and ending in 1945 with the conclusion of World War II. The term modern in the phrase Modern Period should not be confused with modern as it is more commonly used, that is, to refer to contemporary times. The Modern Period is noted for modernist works characterized by a transnational focus, stylistic unconventionality, or interest in repressed subconscious or unconscious material; it includes works written in just about every established genre (as well as in new, hybrid forms) by writers such as W. H. Auden, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Doris Lessing, Marianne Moore, Eugene O’Neill, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Richardson, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, and W. B. Yeats.

Although the beginning of the Modern Period in English literature roughly coincides with the beginning of the Georgian Age, the term Georgian is usually used in connection with relatively traditional pastoral or realistic poems written during and after World War I by writers such as Rupert Brooke, W. H. Davies, Walter de la Mare, Ralph Hodgson, and John Masefield. A number of Georgian poets had been horrified by the tragic results of World War I and wrote poems attacking the absurdity of war in general. Many English writers not usually associated with the Georgian Age had also been deeply disturbed by the so-called Great War and, more generally, by the increasingly chaotic and absurd nature of modern life, but they expressed their alienation through radically unconventional, experimental literary forms or highly unusual subject matter rather than through traditional styles and realistic representations.

For instance, Virginia Woolf experimented with stream of consciousness, a style of writing reflecting a character’s flow of perceptions, thoughts, memories, and feelings. Stream-of-consciousness narrative often exemplifies the way in which the modern mind attempts, consciously or, more commonly, unconsciously, to find or create coherence in a fragmented, apparently senseless world. Other writers turned to myth (as did Joyce) or even created their own visionary mythologies or symbol systems (as did Yeats) in order to express the psychological pain of modern life or to wrest meaning from an otherwise meaningless cosmos. In “The Second Coming” (1921), Yeats alluded to his vision of historical cycles, or “gyres”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Yeats’s poem ends with a combination of apocalyptic and mythological elements that combine to announce the advent of a dark antichrist: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

The United States, an isolationist nation before World War I, was characterized by significant tension between political isolationism and international involvement during the postwar period. As the country in general became increasingly isolationist (as evidenced, for instance, by the Congressional defeat of American involvement in the League of Nations), American authors exhibited a growing interest in European writers, including the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poets, the French Symbolists of the nineteenth century, and writers of their own times (such as Joyce and French novelist Marcel Proust).

Disillusioned American writers of the period, known as the Lost Generation, generally viewed the “traditional” American values of their youth as a sham, given the senselessness of the war and its devaluation of human life. As such, members of this group deliberately rejected American culture as hypocritical; many even moved to Europe during the 1920s, participating in movements such as Dadaism and surrealism. Expatriate members of the Lost Generation, who gathered around Gertrude Stein, included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, Sherwood Anderson, and William Slater Brown.

The Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural movement that presented black life from a black point of view and was centered in Harlem, an African American area of New York City, also developed and flourished during the 1920s. For the first time in American history, African American culture was deliberately highlighted for a diverse national audience via literature, theater, music, and dance. Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer are just a few of the figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Other writers commonly associated with the Modern Period in American literature include Hart Crane, Imagist Amy Lowell, Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eleanor Wylie, and the Fugitives, a group of Southern poets best known for The Fugitive (1922—25), an amateur journal of poetry and criticism.

Although many English and American writers of the Modern Period rejected realism, a significant minority did not. English writers including D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and Graham Greene adapted realistic narrative conventions to represent new literary subjects, ranging from orgasm (Lawrence) to colonial India (Forster) to postcolonial Mexico (Greene). American novelist Willa Cather wrote a type of fiction often termed genteel realism for its effort to depict life as it really is and yet avoid vulgar or otherwise unpleasant or depressing subject matter. Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) are two of her better-known works. Booth Tarkington also continued the sentimental vein of the realist tradition with works such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1918).

Works by a number of innovative English and American dramatists also appeared during the Modern Period. Of the former group, George Bernard Shaw (author of Saint Joan [1923]) had written plays during the preceding Victorian and Edwardian periods, and John Galsworthy (The Skin Game [1920], The Forsyte Saga [1906—21]) had become famous for realistic novels that bridged the Edwardian and Modern periods. Foremost among American playwrights of the Modern Period was Eugene O’Neill, author of The Emperor Jones (1920), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), and The Iceman Cometh (1939).

The distinction between English and American writers of the Modern Period is difficult to make, as exemplified by the fact that one of the most important American writers of the period (Eliot) became a British subject, and one of the most important British writers of the period (Auden) became a U.S. citizen. It is equally difficult to distinguish between English and American writers of the Modern Period on the one hand and their Continental counterparts on the other; Proust experimented with stream of consciousness, and the German writer Thomas Mann used mythology to reveal disturbed psychic conditions. Similarly, one can compare the themes and formal experiments characteristic of modern literary works with those evident in musical works, paintings, and sculpture produced during the period between World War I and World War II. Like neoclassicism and romanticism, modernism was in fact a transnational, even transcultural movement that encompassed all of the arts.