Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Modernist Literature 1900-1960

Modern literature is generally concerned with tragedy and anxiety, as it reflects the political events of the time - the shock of two world wars, the holocaust, horrible epidemics like the Spanish Flu, the rise of communism, and the threat of nuclear war.

In politics, Great Britain lost its superpower status, and much of the wealth it enjoyed in the 19th century, as it changed from an empire into the Commonwealth of Nations. Countries like Canada and Australia gained independence, and America and Russia became the dominant world powers. It was a time of rapid economic growth and technological progress, and yet these advances provided no assurance of peace or prosperity.

The twentieth century was also a time of social change and unrest, as people across the western world demanded equal rights for women, the poor, and minorities. Ireland gained freedom from Britain in 1921. People studied and debated the ideas put forth by Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Freud, and Einstein.

Modernist writers like James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence wrote about the lives of the poor, particularly miners and farmers. Modern poetry flourished, with shorter poems and free verse. Modern literature saw several important changes:

1. Literature focused less on plot, and more about characters' "inner space" - their psychological introspection, as they wrestle with personal and social questions.

2. This form of writing led to "stream of consciousness" writing - showing every little thought inside a character's head, combining reality with memories, fantasies, and dreams.

3. Impressionist literature, which focused on little individual moments, without all the interpretation or moralizing of earlier Victorian writing.

4. Imagist poetry, advocated by Ezra Pound, was meant to put simple, fresh images in your head, to make you see as the writer does, without adding any other thoughts.

5. Symbolism - using symbols as metaphors for certain feelings and ideas.

6. New literary groups formed, such as the British Idealists and The Bloomsbury Group.

7. The Jazz Age of the 1920's saw the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of black literature and art, led by Langston Hughes and others.

8. The Great Depression and World War II changed the face of the earth, leading to The Beat Generation of the 1940's and 50's.

9. Modern theatre developed, a tradition that continues in places like NYC and Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Bloomsbury Group

This was a group of friends who met together in London. They were writers, philosophers, artists and intellectuals. It included writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell (Virginia's sister), and the economist John Maynard Keynes. They believed in the philosopher G. E. Moore, who said, ". . . one's prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge." In other words, the meaning of life is love, art, and science.

These people rejected Victorian era attitudes about public reputation (often dictated by superficialities like fashion) and social responsibilities, in favour of better personal relationships. Forster said, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

They also advocated pleasure, allowing for more open marriages and promiscuity, which Virginia said, helped the group to remain close and happy for over twenty years.
Politically, the group was liberal and pacifist. Most objected to entering WWI. You might think of them as the very first hippies, preaching peace and free love.