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  Chapter 3 The Modern Period


  1.The historical and socio-cultural background of the American literature between the two World Wars:

  (1) The two World Wars: The twentieth century began with a strong sense of social breakdown. The two Wor1d Wars, especially the First World War (l914——l918), became the emblem of all wars in the twentieth century, which means violence, devastation, blood and death, and made a big impact on the life of the American people and their literary writings.

  With all these wars the whole wor1d had undergone a dramatic social change, a transformation from order to disorder. America in this period was characterized by economic boom and material prosperity but social chaos, spiritual waste and and moral decay. Economically, with America's participation in Wor1d War I and the technological revolution, the United States had its booming industry and material prosperity. Socially, the world was disorderly and turbulent. There was a sense of unease and restlessness underneath. Spiritually and morally, there was a decline in moral standard and the first few decades of the twentieth century was best described as a spiritual wasteland. The censor of a great civilization being destroyed or destroying itself, social breakdown, and individual powerlessness and hopelessness became part of the American experience as a result of the First World War, with resulting feelings of fear, loss, disorientation and disillusionment.

  (2) The impact of Marxism, Freudianism and European modern art on American modern literature: Between the mid-l9th century and the first decade of the 20th century, there had been a big flush of new theories and new ideas in both social and natural sciences, as well as in the field of art in Europe, which played an indispensable ro1e in bringing about modernism and the modernistic writings in the United States.

  a. Marxism and Freudianism

  Apart from Darwinism, which was still a big influence over the writers of this period, the two thinkers whose ideas had the greatest impact on the period were the German Karl Marx and the Austrian Sigmund Freud. Marx was a sociologist who believed that the root cause of all behavior was economic, and that the leading feature of the economic life was the division of society into antagonistic classes based on a relation to the means of production. Freud propounded an idea of human beings themselves as grounded in the "unconscious" that controlled a great deal of overt behavior, and made the practice of the psychoanalysis which emphasizes the importance of the unconscious or the irrationa1 in the human psyche. William James, an American psychologist famous for his theory of "stream of consciousness," and Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, noted for his "collective unconscious" and "archetypal symbol" as part of modern mythology. Their theories, plus Freud's interpretation of dreams, have infused modern American literature and made it possible for most of the writers in the modern period to probe into the inner world of human reality.

  b. European modern art:

  The implications of modern European arts to modern American writings can also be strong1y felt in the American literature between the wars, even thereafter. In painting, both the French Impressionist and the German Expressionist artists avoided the representation of external reality and depicted the human rea1ity in a rather subjective point of view. This highly personal vision of the world is self-evident in the works by writers such as William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill, etc. Cubism, another school of modern painting popular in the early 20th century with its emphasis on the formal structure of a work of art, especially its emphasis on the multiple-perspective viewpoints, had provided the writers with more than one way to explain the reality and engaged the readers in creating order out of fragmentation as we1l. Composers like Igor Stravinsky similar1y produced music in a "modern" mode, featuring dissonance and discontinuity rather than neat formal structure and appealing total harmonies.

  (3)The expatriate movement

  There was a spiritual crisis in the modern period, but a full blossoming of literary writings. The expatriate movement, also called the second American Renaissance, is the most recognizable literary movement that gave rise to the twentieth century American literature. When the First World War broke out, many young men volunteered to take part in "the war to end Wars" only to find that modern warfare was not as glorious or heroic as they thought it to be. Disillusioned and disgusted by the frivolous, greedy, and heedless way of life in America, they began to write and they wrote from their own experiences in the war. Among these young writers were the most prominent figures in American literature, especially in modern American 1iterature. They were basically expatriates who 1eft America and formed a community of writers and artists in Paris, involved with other European novelists and poets in their experimentation on new modes of thought and expression. These writers were later named by an American writer, Gertrude Stein, also an expatriate, "The Lost Generation."

  2. The historical and socio-cultural background of the American literature after the World War Ⅱ:

  What happened immediately after the Second World War in the United States and other parts of the world exerted a tremendous influence on the mentality of Americans. It changed man's view of himself and the world as well.

  First of all, the dropping of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima in Japan shocked the whole world and made possible the destruction of the Western civilization. Then a mutual fear and hostility grew between the Eastern and Western courtries with the Cold War, the effect of which could be felt in the form of McCarthyism in the Unites States. Besides, the Korean War and the Vietnam War broadened the gap between the government and the people. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, spokesman of the American Civil Rights Movement, the resignation of Nixon because of the Water-Gate scandal, etc. intensified the terror and tossed the whole nation again into the grief and despair. The impact of these changes and upheavals on the American society is emotional. People start to question the role of science in human progress and the fear of the misuse of modern science and technology is spreading. They no longer believe in God but start to reconsider the nature of man and man's capacity for evil. They begin to think of life as a big joke or an absurdity. The world is even more disintegrating and fragmentary and people are even more estranged and despondent.


  1. American literature between the two world wars:

  1) The Imagist Movement and the artistic characteristics of imagist poems:

  Led by the American poet Ezra Pound, Imagist Movement is a poetic movement that flourished in the U.S. and England between 1909-1917. It advances modernism in arts which concentrates on reforming the medium of poetry as opposed to Romanticism, especially Tennyson's worldliness and high-flown language in poetry. Pound endorsed three main principles as guidelines for Imagism, including direct treatment of poetic subjects, elimination of merely ornamental or superfluous words, and rhythmical composition should be composed with the phrasing of music, not a metronome. The primary Imagist objective is to avoid rhetoric and moralizing, to stick closely to the object or experience being described, and to move from explicit generalization. The leading poets are Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, D.H.Lawrence, etc.

  The characteristic products of the movement are more easily recognized than its theories defined; they tend to be short, composed of short lines of musical cadence rather than metrical regularity, to avoid abstraction, and to treat the image with a hard, clear precision rather than with overt symbolic intent. The influence of Japanese forms, tanka and haiku, is obvious in many. Most of the imagist poets wrote in free verse and they like to emply common speech. They stressed the freedom in the choice of subject matter and form.

  2) The Lost Generation

  It refers to, in general, the post-World WarⅠgeneration, but specifically a group of expatriate disillusioned intellectuals and artists, who experimented on new modes of thought and expression by rebelling against former ideals and values and replacing them only by despair or a cynical hedonism. The remark of Gertrude Stein, "You are all a lost generation, "addressed to Hemingway, was used as an epigraph to the latter's novel The Sun Also Rises, which brilliantly describes those expatriates who had cut themselves off from their past in America in order to create new types of writing. The generation was "lost" in the sense that its inherited values were no longer relevant in the postwar world and because of its spiritual alienation from a U.S. that seemed to its members to be hopelessly provincial, materialistic, and emotional barren. The term embraces Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, E.E.Cummings, and many other writers who made Paris the center of their literary activities in the 1920s.

  3) What is Expressionism?

  Expressionism is used to describe the works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision, transforming nature rather than imitating it. In literature it is often considered a revolt against realism and naturalism, a seeking to achieve a psychological or spiritual reality rather than to record external events.

  In drama, the expressionist work was characterized by a bizarre distortion of reality. Expressionist writers's concern was with general truths rather than with particular situations, hence they explored in their plays the predicaments of representative symbolic types rather than of fully developed individualized characters. Emphasis was laid not on the outer world, which is merely sketched in and barely defined in place or time, but on the internal, on an individual's mental state; hence the imitation of life is replaced in Expressionist drama by the ecstatic evocation of states of mind. In America, Eugene O'Neille's Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape, etc. are typical plays that employ Expressionism.

  4) The concept of "wasteland" in relation to the works of those writers in the twentieth-century American literature

  The Waste Land is a poem written by T.S.Eliot on the theme of the sterility and chaos of the contemporary world. This most widely known expression of the despair of the post-War era has appeared over and again in the works of those writers in the twentieth-century American literature. Fitzgerald sought to portray a spiritual wasteland of the Jazz Age. Beneath the masks of relaxation and joviality, there was only sterility, meaninglessness and futility amid the grandeur and extravagance, there was a hint of decadence and moral decay. Hemingway, the leading spokesman of the Lost Generation, dramatized in his novels the sense of loss and despair among the post-war generation who are physically and psychologically scarred. Though disillusioned in the post-war period, he strove to bring about man's "grace under pressure" and tried to bring out the idea that man can be physically destroyed but never defeated spiritually. William Faulkner exemplified T.S. Eliot's concept of modern society as a wasteland in a dramatic way. He created his own mythical kingdom that mirrored not only the decline of the Southern society but also the spiritual wasteland of the whole American society. He condemned the mechanized, industrialized society that has dehumanized man by forcing him to cultivate false values and decrease those essential human values such as courage, fortitude, honesty and goodness.

  2. Postwar American literature

  1) The Beat Generation

  Also called Beat Movement, it is an American social and literary movement originating in the 1950s. Beat Generation writings expressed profound dissatisfaction with contemporary American society and endorsed an alternative set of values. They rejected traditional forms and advocated personal release, purification, and illumination through the heightened sensory awareness.

  Beat poets sought to liberate poetry from academic preciosity and bring it "back to the streets." Allen Ginsberg and other major figures of the movement, such as the novelist Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, advocated a kind of free, unstructured composition in which the writer put down his thoughts and feelings without plan or revision-to convey the immediacy of experience-an approach that led to the production of much undisciplined and incoherent verbiage on the part of their imitators.

  2) The pluralism of postwar American fiction:

  American fiction from 1945 onwards is a bigger story than poetry and drama.

  a. War fiction: A group of new writers who survived the war wrote about their traumatic experience within the military machine and on European and Pacific battlefields, among whom we have Norman Mailer and Herman Wouk.

  b. Southern literature: Robert Penn Warren and Flannery O'Conner are representatives of the talented Southern writers, who followed Faulkner's footsteps in portraying the decadence and evil in the Southern society in a Gothic manner.

  c. Jewish literature: By the 1950s a significant group of Jewish-American writers had appeared and one of them was Saul Bellow. Their works, drawing on the Jewish experience of suffering and endurance, tradition and the Jewish religion, examined subtly the dismantling of the self by an intolerable modern history. Other iportant Jewish writers include Bernard Malamud, Issac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth. Saul Bellow placed emphasis upon the power of intellect. The power to understand their own experience, to judge their lives rationally, to think well, is considered a high virtue. Self-teaching is at the heart of all his novels as his Jewish heroes or anti-heroes seek a rational interpretation of the world through their own experiences in it.

  d. Black fiction: It began to attract critical attention during this period too. The two major figures are Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, both of whom captured the wide attention of the white readers by truthfully, openly, and shockingly describing the life of black people as they knew it from their own experience. For the first time in the history of American writings, African writers started to question their identity as a group and as an individual.

  e. Other important writers who were writing at the time include J.D.Salinger and John Updike. Salinger is considered to be a spokesman for the alienated youth in the post-war era and his The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is regarded as a students' classic. Updike's Rabbit novels examine the middle-class values and portray the troubled relationships in people's private life and their internal decay under the stress of the modern times.

  f. "new fiction" or Novels of absurdity: American fiction in the 1960s and 1970s proves to be different from its predecessors in that the writers started to depart from the conventions of the novel writing and experimented with some new forms. Hence, it is referred to as "new fiction," with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, John Bath, and Thomas Pynchon at its forefront. Roughly speaking, these writers shared the same belief that human beings are trapped in a meaningless world and that neither God nor man can make sense of the human condition. What's more, this absurdist vision is integrated with an absurd form, which is characterized by comic exaggerations, ironic uses of parodies, multiple realities, often two-dimensional characters, and a combination of fantastic events with realistic presentations.

  g. Literature of ethnic groups: More recently American literature is alive with a diversity of interests. Writers from different ethnic and multicultural backgrounds, including women writers, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Indian-Americans, are beginning to make their voices heard and they are writing about American experience and consciousness from quite a fresh outlook, hence, bringing vitality to the American literary imagination.

  3.The literary characteristics of American modern literature:

  1) Theme: In general terms, much serious literature written from 1912 onwards attempted to convey a vision of social breakdown and mora1 decay and the writer's task was to develop techniques that could represent a break with the past. Thus, the defining formal characteristics of the modernistic works are discontinuity and fragmentation.

  2) Technical experimentation: An awareness of the irrational and the workings of the unconscious mind are pervasive in much modernistic writing. Technically, modernism was marked by a persistent experimentalism. It rejected the traditional framework of narrative, description, and rational exposition in poetry and prose, in favor of a stream of consciousness presentation of personality, a dependence on the poetic image as the essential vehicle of aesthetic communication, and upon myth as a characteristic structural principle.

  Compared with earlier writings, modern American writings are notable for what they omit —— the explanations, interpretations, connections, and summaries. There are shifts in perspective, voice, and tone, but the biggest shift is from the external to the internal, from the public to the private, from the chronological to the psychic, from the objective description to the subjective projection. Modern American writers in general emphasize the concrete sensory images or details as the direct conveyer of experience. They strive for directness, compression, and vividness and are sparing of words. Modern fiction prefer suggestiveness and tend to employ the first person narration or limit the reader to the "central consciousness" or one character's point of view. This limitation accorded with the modernistic vision that truth does not exist objectively but is the product of a personal interaction with reality. As a result, the effect of modern American writings is surprising, unsettling, and sh


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