Defining the modernism of American Literature is difficult due to the amount of authors, and genres. Modernism evolved from a combination of the genteel tradition and World War I, and a worldwide Spanish flu pandemic. The modernistic movement eliminated the idea that that virtue produces good things. This was directly as a result too the loss of life, that for many seemed to be meaningless. The combination of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic took so many lives that writers stopped believing in good always winning; they then took it to another level and stopped believing in good and evil all together.
Modernism can be broadly traced to the period in-between wars; there were many historical events that took place during this time period which shaped the events and types of stories that were recorded. During this time there was the roaring twenties, prohibition, the Harlem renaissance, great depression, and the roaring twenties are just a few of the major events that changed America in the period between the two great wars. This time period of American history produced what Stein called the “Lost Generation”; it was this generation that produced much of the literately works known as modernism. In order to understand American modernism you must understand the events which the writers lived through.
To modernistic writers there is no absolute truth, not everything has meaning. All of the writers lived through World War I and the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic in some way shape or form. These two events did not leave anyone unaffected; these two events killed over three percent of the population worldwide. Both of these events created very harsh and violent deaths, but were a worse on those who were left alive. The effect World War I had on modernism writers was not only the total causality count but the way in which warfare was so brutally conducted. World War I was the first major implementation of the machine gun and chemical weapons. John Dos Passos used the novel Three Soldiers to express the post war disillusionment, because although Americans returned home from war they could never regain their innocence.
The roaring twenties were at the beginning of the modernism movement, they were based on the large amounts of money that were in the United States as a result of the war. During the roaring twenties many of these rebellious and disillusioned American writers were able to go live abroad and live wealthy on small amounts of money. These writers such as, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Pound, would go to Europe and absorb the culture then return to the United States and share their experiences through their work. During the twenties America became to love new technology, such as automobiles, and authors incorporated it into their writings. Fitzgerald, expressed his frustration of the corruption of the American dream during the roaring twenties when businesses were encouraging excessive materialism.
Many writers used their writing to search for meaning in life. For example Hemingway used some of his writing to search for the meaning of life and why so many men had to die. Not only did the population of the world devise systematic means of killing, but to add insult to injury at the end of the war the Spanish flu pandemic hit the world. To these writers there was no reason that either of these events had to occur, and if there was a God of the Protestant tradition he would not allow so much death. The result was the abandonment of virtue, and absolute truth. The result was not only the death of the Protestant tradition but also of the Genteel tradition. This all resulted in the breakdown of moral norms and cultural values, within the nation.
The Harlem renaissance allowed black writers to be recognized. Every writer in the modernistic movement was trying to write something new and these young writers had a unique story to tell. During the modernism movement the black Americans were able to begin writing about their heritage, culture, and zeal for life. For example, Langston Hughes incorporated blues rhythms into his poetry. Zora Neale Hurston crossed two boundaries during this movement as a female and an African American; she incorporated black folk life into her work.
One of the other minority groups that contributed to the modernism movement in the period between the wars was women. Some of the notable authors during this time period were Dorothy Parker, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Nella Larsen. They expressed their thoughts and experiences of women; due to the independence that women felt during World War I they wanted permanent social and political change. While their works are not as well-known as some of the male writers from the interwar period they effected great social change. By 1920 in America women had the right to vote and were no longer being restricted to the role of women in the genteel tradition.
The Great Depression followed the roaring twenties and Harlem renaissance; it was a delayed reaction to the global depression that followed World War I. The Great Depression involved the entire nation, factories were closed, farms dried up, a third of the nation was out of work and standing in soup kitchen lines. Steinbeck described the situation in the Midwest in Grapes of Wrath where farmers were leaving their farms to go to California.
Modernism was a push for every writer to produce something new. These writers wanted something new, something original, they created the world in the act of perceiving it. During the roaring twenties literature and writings became more readily available to the average American due to technology. This resulted in the desire to create something new, and original. While they wanted to create something new and deviate from the norm, they didn’t completely run away from their history. There was still a couple of remints of realism in modernism, the modernistic writers still enjoy focusing on the psychology and using their work of art as a coherent whole study. They also depict events that are real to them, but less objectively than realism writers.
The key to understanding the Modernism is to understand the history which that generation of writers lived in. Many of these key traumatic events occurred in the time between the two world wars. These events included World War I, Spanish flu pandemic, roaring twenties, Harlem renaissance, women’s suffrage and the Great Depression. These events created the expression of the unordered life, loss of tradition and virtue, the corruption of the American dream, the impact of traumatic events on the psyche of an individual and nation which we now categorize as modernism.