Modernism Overview

"Ezra Pound, whose famous exhortation 'Make it new' is rightly considered one of modernism's mottoes, was also urging writers to apply new energy to established forms" (PBS, "The American Novel," American Masters).

MODERNISM (1915-1945)

World War I had a tremendous impact on the attitudes and outlooks of the American people. Prior to World War I, the mood of American society was confident and optimistic. This mood was shattered by the horrifying realities of hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans. When the war ended, many people were left with a feeling of distrust toward the ideas and values of the past. People saw the need for change, but they were unsure about the sort of changes that were needed. There was growing sense of uncertainty, disjointedness, and disillusionment among certain members of American society.

Historical context

  • Overwhelming technological changes
  • World War I first war of mass destruction
  • Grief over loss of past; fear of eroding traditions
  • Rise of youth culture
  • 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s

In the aftermath of World War I, a major literary movement know as Modernism developed. Abandoning many traditional forms and techniques, the Modernists sought to capture the essence of modern life in both the form and content of their world. To reflect the disjointedness of modern life, they constructed their works out of fragments, omitting the expositions, resolutions, interpretations, transitions, and summaries often used in traditional works. The Modernists also frequently expressed their view about modern life in the themes of their works, often focusing on such themes as the uncertainty, bewilderment, and apparent meaninglessness of modern life.


  • Dominant mood: alienation/disconnection
  • Writers see to create a unique style
  • Writing highly experimental: use of fragments, stream of consciousness, interior dialogue

Believing that modern life lacked certainty, the Modernist generally suggested rather than asserted meaning in their works. The theme of a typical Modernist work is implied, not stated, forcing readers to draw their own conclusions. Often, the Modernists used symbols and allusions to suggest themes. They also generally used a limited point of view in their works, believing that reality is shaped by people's perceptions. Finally, the Modernists experimented with a number of new literary techniques, including shifting points of view and stream-of-consciousness.

Major Writers

  • Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
    Writing style: concise, direct, spare, objective, precise, rhythmic
    Major works include The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms
    For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea
    Larger than life hero; big game hunter; sport fisherman; headliner
    Won Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature

  • John Steinbeck
    Of Mice and Men and The Pearl
    Belief in the need for social justice
    Hope that people learn from the suffering of others
    Grapes of Wrath (combined naturalism and symbolism to express outrage and compassion for the plight of the farmers displaced by the Depression and Dustbowl)