Page Links: | The Centers of Modernism | Modern Attitudes | Contradictory Elements | Literary Achievements | Modern Themes | Modernism and the Self | Modernism and the New Negro Renaissance | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

"... the greatest single fact about our modern American writing is our writers' absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it." - Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds, 1942

"Defining modernism is a difficult task. ... A historical definition would say that modernism is the artistic movement in which the artist's self-consciousness about questions of form and structure became uppermost. ... In brief, modernism asks us to consider what we normally understand by the center and the margins." - Heath Anthology, Vol. 2, 4th ed., 887-888.

The Centers of Modernism

1. Stylistic innovations - disruption of traditional syntax and form.

2. Artist's self-consciousness about questions of form and structure.

3. Obsession with primitive material and attitudes.

4. International perspective on cultural matters.

Modern Attitudes

1. The artist is generally less appreciated but more sensitive, even more heroic, than the average person.

2. The artist challenges tradition and reinvigorates it.

3. A breaking away from patterned responses and predictable forms.

| Top | Contradictory Elements

1. Democratic and elitist.

2. Traditional and anti-tradition.

3. National jingoism and provinciality versus the celebration of international culture.

4. Puritanical and repressive elements versus freer expression in sexual and political matters.

Literary Achievements

1. Dramatization of the plight of women.

2. Creation of a literature of the urban experience.

3. Continuation of the pastoral or rural spirit.

4. Continuation of regionalism and local color.

Modern Themes

1. Collectivism versus the authority of the individual.

2. The impact of the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

3. The Jazz Age.

4. The passage of 19th Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote.

5. Prohibition of the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages, 1920-33.

6. The stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression of the 1930s and their impact.

Modernism and the Self

1. In this period, the chief characteristic of the self is one of alienation. The character belongs to a "lost generation" (Gertrude Stein), suffers from a "dissociation of sensibility" (T. S. Eliot), and who has "a Dream deferred" (Langston Hughes).

2. Alienation led to an awareness about one's inner life.

| Top | Modernism and the "New Negro Renaissance" (see my Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance)

1. The relationship between the two is complex.

2. They both share the important motif of alienation.

3. However, American modernism is inspired by the European avant-garde art; the Renaissance represents the unique and distinct experience of black Americans.

4. Modernism borrows from the Renaissance the themes of marginality and the use of folk or the so-called "primitive" material.

5. The use of the blues tradition - important for the Renaissance - is not shared by white modernists; considered too limiting (mere complaint about one's repressed and exploited condition), the blues tradition represents images and themes of liberation and revolt.

6. This relationship requires reevaluation; the Renaissance is important for black and white readers and writers. 

(For a detailed discussion of the above-stated elements, read pages 887-914 in Paul Lauter, ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, Fourth Ed., 2002.)

Study Questions

1. Of all the 19th century authors, Walt Whitman has perhaps the most influence on 20th century letters. How has this influence manifested itself in thought and art of modern American poets?

2. Choosing several different works, discuss changes in American writers' attitudes toward God or religion in the twentieth century.

3. Compare an early nineteenth-century poem (such as Bryant's "Thanatopsis") with an early twentieth-century poem (Frost's "Directive"). Discuss the way both poems reflect dramatic radical shifts in paradigm or perspective in their time.

4. Choose any three twentieth-century works and show how they respond to the following quotation from Wallace Stevens's Of Modern Poetry: The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice. It has not always had/To find: the scene was set; it repeated what/Was in the script.

5. Explain the parallel concerns in the following statements: (a) "The poem is a momentary stay against confusion" (Frost, The Figure a Poem Makes); (b) "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (Eliot, The Waste Land); (c) "Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame" (Stevens, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman).

6. Examine traditional twentieth-century lyric poems by Robinson and Millay. How does each of these poets turn traditional form to the service of twentieth-century themes?

7. Read a short story by a British modernist writer, such as Lawrence, Woolf, or Joyce. Compare and contrast it with a story by an American modernist.

8. Many modernist lyric poems are about poetic form itself. Analyze one of the following poems (or any other poems by Frost, Stevens, or Williams) with particular attention to the poet's awareness of form: The Wood-Pile, A Quiet Normal Life, or To Elsie.

9. Analyze the use of poetic forms by modernist poets. Examine the following: Frost's sonnets, Mowing, The Oven Bird, Once by the Pacific, Design, or The Gift Outright (or find and read all of Frost's sonnets in his complete poems and write about his use of the form); Stevens's use of the ballad stanza in Anecdote of the Jar or his use of tercet stanza form in The Snow Man and A Quiet Normal Life; Williams's near-sonnet The Dance; Pound's sonnet, A Virginal, or the poem he calls a villanelle although it is not, Villanelle: The Psychological Hour; or Bishop's nearly perfect villanelle, One Art.

10. Examine modernist poets' use of traditional metric forms. Analyze what Frost does to and with iambic pentameter in Desert Places or how Stevens uses it in The Idea of Order at Key West.

11. In the introduction to Marianne Moore in the Norton AAL, Nina Baym writes, "Pound worked with the clause, Williams with the line, H. D. with the image, and Stevens and Stein with the word; Moore, unlike these modernist contemporaries, used the entire stanza as the unit of her poetry." In an out-of-class essay, choose poems by each of these writers that will allow you to further explain the distinctions Baym creates in this statement.

12. In British poetry, Robert Browning developed and perfected the dramatic monologue. Find and discuss dramatic monologues by several American modernists. Evaluate their uses of, or variations on, Browning's form.

13. Although American poets have not yet - according to critical consensus - produced an epic poem, several twentieth-century poets have made the attempt. Research features of classical epic poetry and identify epic characteristics in Pound's The Cantos, H. D.'s The Walls Do Not Fall, Eliot's Four Quartets, and Crane's The Bridge.

14. Locate and read one of the following modernist poetic statements, and then analyze one of the author's anthologized poems in light of what he has written about craft: Frost, The Figure a Poem Makes (included in the Norton AAL); Stevens, from The Necessary Angel; Williams, Edgar Allan Poe; Pound, A Treatise on Metre or another essay from The ABC of Reading; and Crane, General Aims and Theories.

15. Compare and contrast the realism of a twentieth-century story with the realism of Clemens, Howells, James, or Wharton. Analyze Sherwood Anderson's The Egg, William Faulkner's Barn Burning, or Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, paying particular attention to the twentieth-century writer's innovations in point of view or use of symbolism.

16. In Suzanne Juhasz's framework for twentieth-century women poets (see discussion in the Marianne Moore section of Chapter 7 in this Guide), she suggests a progression from Moore to Muriel Rukeyser to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton to Adrienne Rich in terms of the particular writer's willingness to write about women's experience in poetry. Choosing specific poems for your focus, trace this progression and comment on its usefulness as a framework.

17. Although traditionally the period 1914&endash;1945 has focused on modernism, numerous writers during the period wrote political poetry that may have been influenced by modernism but reflects other artistic intent. Analyze representative poems by Genevieve Taggard, Muriel Rukeyser, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes for evidence of political intent in poetry, and comment on the relationship between this poetry and what we call modernism.

18. Although the modernist poets do not explicitly concern themselves with gender, race, or class issues, there are exceptions to this statement. Discuss the relationship between modernism and gender in H. D., race in Langston Hughes, and class in Muriel Rukeyser.

19. While writers like Pound and Eliot were concerned with tracing the origins of modernist consciousness in classical mythology, other writers were more interested in becoming assimilated into American society. Identify and discuss the issues of concern to writers, fictional characters, or lyric voices who concern themselves with issues of immigration and assimilation.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century: American Modernism - An Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: (provide page date or date of your login). 

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