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Date:c. 1890 - c. 1950...(Show more)Significant Works:The Waste LandFinnegans WakeFour QuartetsAbsalom, Absalom!The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock...(Show more)Related Artists:Virginia WoolfT.S. EliotWilliam FaulknerJoseph ConradJames Joyce...(Show more)

In literature, visual art, architecture, dance, and music, Modernism was a break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I.

All the arts sought an authentic response to the industrialization and urbanization of the late 19th century. In literature, Modernist writers such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf cast off traditional continuity, employing stream-of-consciousness narration instead. Artists such as Édouard Manet broke from inherited notions of perspective and modeling. Architects sought unique forms for new technologies. Choreographers rebelled against both balletic and interpretive traditions, and composers used untried approaches to tonality.

Scholars suggest that Modernism ended sometime after World War II, between the 1950s and 1960s. There were discernible shifts in all the arts: writers turned to irony and self-awareness; visual artists focused on the process rather than the finished product; postmodern architects used decoration for the sake of decoration; choreographers replaced conventional dance steps with simple movements, including rolling, walking, and skipping; and composers jettisoned such traditional formal qualities as harmony, tempo, and melody.

Modernism, in the fine arts, a break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I.

In an era characterized by industrialization, the nearly global adoption of capitalism, rapid social change, and advances in science and the social sciences (e.g., Freudian theory), Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality, optimism, and convention. New ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory kindled a search for new modes of expression.

Modernism in literature

The Modernist impulse is fueled in various literatures by industrialization and urbanization and by the search for an authentic response to a much-changed world. Although prewar works by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and other writers are considered Modernist, Modernism as a literary movement is typically associated with the period after World War I. The enormity of the war had undermined humankind’s faith in the foundations of Western society and culture, and postwar Modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation. A primary theme of T.S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land (1922), a seminal Modernist work, is the search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty landscape. With its fragmentary images and obscure allusions, the poem is typical of Modernism in requiring the reader to take an active role in interpreting the text.

Eliot’s was not the dominant voice among Modernist poets. In the United States Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg evocatively described the regions—New England and the Midwest, respectively—in which they lived. The Harlem Renaissance produced a rich coterie of poets, among them Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Alice Dunbar Nelson. Harriet Monroe founded Poetry magazine in Chicago in 1912 and made it the most important organ for poetry not just in the United States but for the English-speaking world. During the 1920s Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, and E.E. Cummings expressed a spirit of revolution and experimentation in their poetry.

A sense of disillusionment and loss pervades much American Modernist fiction. That sense may be centred on specific individuals, or it may be directed toward American society or toward civilization generally. It may generate a nihilistic, destructive impulse, or it may express hope at the prospect of change. F. Scott Fitzgerald skewered the American Dream in The Great Gatsby (1925), Richard Wright exposed and attacked American racism in Native Son (1940), Zora Neale Hurston told the story of a Black woman’s three marriages in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Ernest Hemingway’s early novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) articulated the disillusionment of the Lost Generation. Meanwhile, Willa Cather told hopeful stories of the American frontier, set mostly on the Great Plains, in O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), John Steinbeck depicted the difficult lives of migrant workers in Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and William Faulkner used stream-of-consciousness monologues and other formal techniques to break from past literary practice in The Sound and the Fury (1929).

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Across the Atlantic, the publication of the Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 was a landmark event in the development of Modernist literature. Dense, lengthy, and controversial, the novel details the events of one day in the life of three Dubliners through a technique known as stream of consciousness, which commonly ignores orderly sentence structure and incorporates fragments of thought in an attempt to capture the flow of characters’ mental processes. Portions of the book were considered obscene, and Ulysses was banned for many years in English-speaking countries. Other European Modernist authors whose works rejected chronological and narrative continuity included Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and the American expatriate Gertrude Stein.


New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-111438)

The term Modernism is also used to refer to literary movements other than the European and American movement of the early to mid-20th century. In Latin American literature, Modernismo arose in the late 19th century in the works of Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera and José Martí. The movement, which continued into the early 20th century, reached its peak in the poetry of Rubén Darío. (See also American literature; Latin American literature.)