History of Literary Modernism in 19th Century Essay
Updated: Aug 12th, 2019
The radical shift in the aesthetic value as well as the cultural sensibilities of the works of literature of the early 20th century is what people regard to as literary modernism. This shift altered the originally ordered, seemingly stable and meaningful worldview perceived in the 19th century realism.
For instance, the famous quotation from Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” started the modernist shift in American literature. In its manner of distorting the realism upheld by many Victorian writers, the poem as well as other later works of modernists works by introducing a new way of thinking in the discipline of literature. Walt Whitman faced a good share of criticism from people who deemed his poetry untranslatable and ambiguous.
Literary modernism as evident in the works of most modernists such as Willa Cather displays a number of similar characteristics. These include a variety of features such as the rejection of history and the need to focus on a complex modern life.
For instance, in Robert Frost’s “Mending wall”, the poem is a contrast between the traditional and the modern. The neighbor bases his motive to build a fencing wall and alienate himself on a proverb that his father told him “a good fence makes a good neighbor” (Frost line 10). There is an obvious shift, which results into ambiguity.
Modernists seem to go against what the realists upheld in that as displayed in most of their literary works they break what people viewed as taboo. It is however important to note that modernism is formed of a conglomeration of other literary movements in that they borrowed from each one of them.
For instance, they took the allusiveness upheld by the symbolists as seen in the interest they show in rare field mental states. They also took from realism the urban setting of the works and the desire to go against the set conventions. As seen in the “Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, the original formality and conventions in writing poetry take a quick turn and there are no limitations in the writing of poems (Williams 1-6).
Modernism in literature upholds the fact that there cannot be an absolute interpretation of meanings in texts. In this sense, the reality portrayed in the texts is subject to the interpretations of the readers. This stands out in works such as Eliot’s “The Love song of Albert Prufrock” where the character of Prufrock is contradictory and his source of fear is not clear (Eliot 10).
Modernists inherit the narcissistic view of the artist upheld by the romanticists. Most of the literary works by the modernists therefore dissolve the limitations of time and space therefore retreating into irrationalism and hallucinations. This distorts the understanding of the works considering how the writers do it intentionally. For instance, this is evident in “Mr. Flood’s Party” where Eben talks alone and imagines having company while he does not “”Well, Mr. Flood, since you propose it, I believe I will.” (Robinson lines 14-15).
Modernity in literature having been inspired greatly by the experiences during World War I displays a lot of disillusionment in the works of the modernist writers. These works emphasize on the valorization of a despairing character that is not certain about the future (Robinson 30).
To conclude the discussion about modernism in literature, it is therefore important to mention some of the perceivable consequences of the literary movement as evident in Willa Cather’s book “Demeuble” with regard to the criticism it received.
These include the perceivable ambiguity in the works of the modernists, fragmentation and experimentation with the aesthetics of literary works (Cather 45). This involves the distortion of the conventions such as the replacement of the linear plot with the complex plot. These changes made literary texts to be perceived in numerous perspectives and interpreted in more than one way.
Cather, Willa. Demeuble. New York: Dutton Juvenile, 1997.
Eliot, Tony. The love song of Albert Prufrock: An Anthology of Modern Poetry. London: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Frost, Robert. Mending Wall: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. New York: Duke University Press, 1975.
Robinson, Arlington. Mr. Flood’s Party: Poems by Arlington. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.
Williams, Carlos. The Red Wheelbarrow: Anthology of Modern Poetry. London: Oxford University Press, 1990.
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