Modernism, the Modern Period in Literature

Modernism as a literary movement is typically associated with the period after World War I, although pre-war works by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and other writers are considered Modernists. The period was a far-reaching transformation in both philosophy and art in western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The term modernism is used to identify new features in the subjects, form, concepts, and styles of literature and art after World War I. The very features that shaped the reality of modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth in Urbanization. This change saw an intentional and revolutionary break with some of the traditional bases of English society. In other words, we can say that modernism is a departure from the traditional form of art, religion, philosophy, social organization, and daily life.


            The Important precursors of modernism questioned the traditional entities like religion, social organization, and morality. The important precursors were Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, James G. Frazer, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The slogan by Ezra Pound “make it new, make it difficult” became the touchstone for the movement and James G. Frazer’s” The Golden Bough” (1890-1915) stressed the correspondence between central Christian tenets and pagan.

              Modernism brought up so many literary and narrative techniques like Stream of consciousness and abstract art. Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique that commonly ignores orderly sentence structure and incorporates fragments of thought in an attempt to capture the flow of characters’ mental processes and it was first used by the psychologist William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890). In 1918, the novelist May Sinclair (1863–1946) first applied the term stream of consciousness, in a literary context in The Egoist when discussing Dorothy Richardson’s (1873–1957) novel sequence Pilgrimage. Pointed Roof (1915) by Richardson was the first complete stream of consciousness novel published in English. The movement rejects the idea of realism and makes use of recapitulation, revision, and parody.

              According to Roger Griffin, Modernism can be defined in a maximalist vision as a broad cultural social or political initiative sustained by the ethos of “the temporality of the new”. Griffin says “ modernism shouts to restore some of sublime order and purpose to the contemporary world, thereby counteracting the perceived erosion of an overarching ‘nomos’ or sacred canopy under the fragmenting and secularizing impact of modernity.

              The critic like Clement Greenberg says that modernism emerged in the middle of the last century and rather locally in France with Baudelaire in literature and Monet in painting and perhaps with Flaubert in prose fiction.

              The most important year of modernism was 1922 when James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacobs Room, as well as many experimental works of literature, were published. The traditional thoughts were challenged when the catastrophe of the World War-I shaken faith in the moral basis of western civilization.

              One of the prominent features of modernism was the Avant-Garde (a French military metaphor’ “Advance Guard”). Avant-Garde was a small self-conscious group of artists who violated the accepted conventions of art and literature. They wanted to create an ever-new artistic form and style, that’s why we see the text like The Waste Land. The primary theme of the poem is the search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty land. The poem is so difficult to interpret because of its fragmentary images and obscure allusions.

              Another important element of modernism is how it relates to tradition through its adoption of techniques like reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, and parody in new forms. T.S. Eliot says in the relation to the artist of modernism “We shall often find that not only the best but the most individual parts of a poet, work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously”.

Some critics define modernism as a mode of thinking—one or more philosophically defined characteristics, like self-consciousness or self-reference, that was common with all the novelties in the arts and other disciplines. Much of the most influential literature of the age was marked by persistent and multidimensional experimentation in subject matter, form, style in all the genres. Among the notable writers are, in addition to those already mentioned, Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Foster, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, and George Orwell and dramatists G. B. Shaw, Sean O’Casey, and Noel Coward.

The visual art critic Clement Greenberg called Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) “the first real modernist”.

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