What Makes Modern Literature Modern?

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms describes the Modern Period (English and American) as the time between “1914 with the outbreak of World War I and ending in 1945 with the conclusion of World War II”.  The word “modern” in Modern Literature is often confused with words such as “contemporary” or “recent”.  Modern Literature writers are dubbed “Modernists”.  From a literary lens, it refers to the period of “works characterized by a transnational focus, stylistic unconventionality, or interest in repressed sub- or unconscious material; it includes works written in just about every established genre 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” (Bedford). 

Certain characteristics of English Modern Literature experiment with stream of conscious.  These writers attempt to make “coherence in a fragmented, apparently senseless world” (Bedford).  Many writers expressed the absurdity of war while others turned to myth or symbols as Yeats “in order to express the psychological disease of modern life or to wrest meaning from an otherwise meaningless cosmos” (Bedford).  Yeats used “gyres” to allude to the cycles of life as a particular symbol.

American Modern Literature was influenced greatly by WWI and British writers of the time.  The Bedford Glossary refers to these writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. Cummings, Sherwood Anderson, and William Slater Brown) as the Lost Generation who viewed “traditional American values of their youth as a sham, given the senselessness of the war and its devaluation of human life” (Bedford).    

Many of these writers wanted to break away from traditional styles of writing.  They wanted to see what other forms or conventions could work.  I have personally found some of these pieces difficult to read.  They take time and understanding.  It’s best to understand the background of these authors.  What inspired them to write?  What were they going through?  What was happening in the communities or world they knew? Once we understand these questions, and apply them to the reading, true appreciation is gained.

For my studies and interests, the Modern Period is the foundation of that which I reach for.

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