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Modernism

 

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Modern Period (1990-1950)

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Willa Cather said:  “Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things.”  While society seemed to have been making progress, it may, in fact have been falling behind.  Out sophisticated technology enables us to do more things and to do them faster, but are we using this technology for worthy goals through which all of society will profit or live better lives?  What do worthy goals have to do with better lives?  These were important questions of the early modern period.

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Tenets of the American Dream
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America seen as an Eden—a land of opportunity, beauty, and resources

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Unwavering faith in progress

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Confidence in the ultimate triumph of the individual

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One distinguishing mark of 20th century literature is that it shows fragmentation and disillusionment.  Causes are as follows:
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World War I—one of the bloodiest wars ever—claimed the lives almost a whole generation of European men.  American deaths reached 115,000

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Flu epidemic of 1918—Twenty to fifty million people died; 548,000 Americans

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Great Depression

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World War II

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After WWI, writers began to write about the disillusionment of the time.  This disillusionment became a major theme of the writing.  Two people influenced writing:  Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
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Karl Marx—19th century German scholar who originated the theory of communism, a social and economic system in which all means of production are owned by the workers and controlled by the state for the common good.

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Sigmund Freud—Viennese physician who founded psychoanalysis and developed the idea of the Oedipus Complex—Believed that psychological problems could be traced to childhood experiences, especially repressed desires, especially sexual desires.  Believed that dreams provide clues to psychological problems.

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Bootlegging, flappers, jazz music, gangsters, etc characterized the Jazz Age—the Roaring 20s—named by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this age.  Morals plummeted.

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Expatriates—writers who left America and went to France for inspiration as well as luxury and the freedom to drink—called the “lost generation.”

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Writers of disillusionment:
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Sinclair Lewis—Main Street—about narrow-minded small-town life

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Theodore Dreiser—An American Tragedy—about a man who seeks success but ends up in the execution chamber

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Ernest Hemingway—A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea—Three main characteristics of Hemingway’s writing are as follows: 
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Life is a battlefield on which everyone is wounded sooner or later.

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Style is very simple; there are no wasted words, almost no adjectives, no modifying clauses, simple words, short and choppy sentences (dialogue)

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Hemingway hero—a man who is disillusioned, suffers but endures, shows “grace under pressure.”  In Hemingway’s, this hero is Hemingway himself.

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Elements of modern literature
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Experimentation in style and form

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Rejection of traditional themes

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Sense of disillusionment concerning American Dream

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Hero no longer infallible—Hero now has faults but shows “grace under pressure.”

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Interest in the psyche (inner mind)

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Reading selections
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“Wagner Matinee”—Willa Cather (1873-1947) born in Virginia.  Family moved to Nebraska where she lived among the immigrant families about whom she wrote in her stories.  Often writes about sensitive individuals who are restricted by their environment.  Setting (a restrictive environment) is always important in her writing.  Theme of “A Wagner Matinee”:  An individual, who has been deprived of something he/she loves very much, may be able to feel joy for the loved thing again if the circumstances are right.  Richard Wagner—19th century composer known for his operas many of which dramatize legends and myths.  Tristan and Isolde is one of his most famous operas.

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Leitmotif (leading theme) is a frequently recurring bit of melody which is associated with a person, place, or emotion in the opera.

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The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) wrote this novel in response to the 1920’s.  Probably this novel gives one of the best descriptions of the Jazz Age and of Fitzgerald’s own life.

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Poetry of Robert Frost—Robert Frost (1874-1963) was one of America’s most beloved poets.  On his 75th birthday, the U. S. Senate honored him with Senate Resolution No. 24, which extended to Frost congratulations for his having served his nation so well.  The Senate honored him once more on his 85th birthday.  It has been said that Frost “took the road less traveled” and that it “has made all the difference.  He neither followed the English poets, not did he follow the Modern American poets.  His poetry seems light even when it is serious.  He believed that poetry should “begin in delight and end in wisdom.”  His does.
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“The Road Not Taken”

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“Design”—a Petrarchan sonnet

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“Once by the Pacific”—ending of the world

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“Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”—speaks of man’s inability to perceive with any depth the complexities of the universe.

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“Nothing Gold Can Stay”—transient nature of things

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“Mending Wall”—walls are unnatural—even nature doesn’t love a wall

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“Birches”—theme that we all would like to get away from responsibilities and cares for a while—just to go swing on the birches—and then we would be able to come back and face our responsibilities with more enthusiasm.

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“The Death of the Hired Man”—two definitions of home

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John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) from Pulaski, TN. Graduated from Vanderbilt and later taught English there for about 20 years.  Founded a group of “renegade” poets (the Fugitives) from the South, who were determined to emphasize the values of the South.  They “idealized a genteel agrarian way of life” that seemed to ensure a more solid and sure way of life than the industrialism of the North could offer.  He often combines the tones of tenderness and detachment in his poetry.  Known for his elegies, poems honoring someone who has died.
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“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”—John Whiteside’s daughter has just died.  The speaker remembers her as a lively young girl, who often chased her shadow and geese.  The bells that now ring are for her funeral, and the speaker grieves at the sight of one who used to be so lively lying so prim and proper in her casket.  The poem is an elegy, a poem of mourning, usually a death.

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Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) Well-traveled, college education—one term at medical school.  Was so interested in poetry that he did nothing else.  He inherited money from his uncle which enabled him to pursue his writing and provide for his family.  He himself built a stone tower that he used for a retreat and for a writing studio.  He lived to himself and closely observed nature.  Didn’t think much of religion or of democracy.  He was both pessimistic and fatalistic, and had little hope for mankind.  Recurring images in his poetry are rocks, the sea hawks in the wind, sea creatures thrown upon the sea-washed ledges of the Pacific.  He had a “dark vision of the limited life of human beings.”
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“Shine, Perishing Republic”—Expects children to avoid the corruption of the “perishing republic” America by moving to the mountains and living close to nature.  Jeffers’ description of America brings to mind the days of the Roman republic.  After the death of Julius Caesar, civil wars brought an end to the republic and the rise to power of Augustus.  Rome suffered from corruption and decadence, and ultimately the Roman Empire fell.  The speaker of this poem views America as a republic sinking into a decadent empire.  He compares society’s development to the natural cycle of a plant, whose flowers give way to fruit and whose fruit rots and becomes earth again.  He wished good health to a dying republic but hopes his children will avoid its corruption and be reserved in their love of humanity.  To the speaker this love is a “trap, which leads the best spirits (like the crucified Jesus) into ruin and death.  Conformity is the theme of the poem.

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James Thurber (1894-1961) Columbus, Ohio—humorous writer and artist—foremost humorist of the 20th century.  His humor, which points to the chaos in contemporary American life, focuses on the average man as he lives through the irritating and tormenting experiences in the modern world. Domineering women and mischievous children scare and frustrate the overly sensitive men in Thurber’s stories.  Thurber often wrote from his own experiences.  During the last 20 years of his life, he began to lose his eyesight and finally became totally blind.  After this, his work took on a more bitter tone.  His best-known work is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
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Terms—stock character, parody, irony, walter mitty  

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Mitty’s daydreams: (1) beloved commander, (2) brilliant surgeon, (3) greatest pistol shot, (4) British bombardier, (5) brave man facing a firing squad

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Mitty’s main problem????

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Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) his life resembles that of the characters in his novels—Hemingway hero.  He probably is the most imitated writer of the 20th century.  He was a big-game hunter, and he loved dangerous living—bullfights, etc. Served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross during WWI because he could not get into the regular army die to the fact that he had a bad eye, an injury received during a high school boxing match.  On one excursion to the front lines, his leg was injured by shrapnel, and he had to have several surgeries on the leg.  Took his own life as had his father and grandfather before him.  His daughter committed suicide in 1997.
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“A Soldier’s Home”—Analyze the story for Hemingway qualities:  life as a battlefield, simple style, Hemingway hero

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Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) Used traditional poetry forms.  Had a “wise and ironic” view of humanity’s behavior.  His realism is apparent in all his poetry.  Born in Gardiner, Maine, which became the Tilburytown of his poetry. Was greatly admired by Theodore Roosevelt who gave him a job in the New York Custom House at a time when Robinson was having financial difficulties.  He could only afford two years of college.  He took jobs that enabled him to “get by” and devoted his time to writing.  He had to pay for his first work to be published, but that work brought him to the attention of Teddy Roosevelt. His poetry is basically about unhappy people who have lived repressed lives in small towns.  He went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry in the 1920s.  He never married or had a family; poetry took the place of both.  Unhappiness is the theme of his poetry.
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“Richard Cory” discusses the relationship between riches and happiness; there is none.  The common people look up to Richard Cory, yet he is not happy.  Perhaps he feels pressure to succeed from those around him; perhaps he is isolated from other people.  Just as his money does not make Cory happy; the lack of money makes the townspeople miserable.  Cory as described by a local resident is a wealthy, neat, sophisticated gentleman who is envied by the less fortunate residents of the town.  They are shocked when he goes home one night and “puts a bullet through his head.”

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“Miniver Cheevy”—Cheevy believes himself born out of his time—he believes he would have been happier had he been born in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance.  Rather than deal with the here and now, he escapes through alcohol.  We get the distinct impression that Cheevy would be dissatisfied whenever he lived because he is a weak individual.  Cheevy wishes he had lived in Medieval days when knights and steeds were popular.  He despises his drab surroundings and the need to earn money.  Instead of getting a job and earning money, he complains and drinks to forget his misery.

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Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) Like Edwin A. Robinson, his hometown of Lewistown, Illinois, served as a prototype for his fictional small town.  He, like Robinson, found small-town life oppressive.  His poetry is in free verse.  Speakers in his poems are the “dead speaking from the grave.”  Some speakers in his poems lived full, happy lives; most, however, had lived bitter, frustrated ones.  Spoon River Anthology is truly an American classic.