Modernism began with an energetic ambition to tell America's twentieth century story. Leaving behind four hundred years of acclaimed British letters (and another hundred and fifty years of United States literary efforts), writers who saw new impulses generating texts wanted to join the clamor. Truth could not be imitative, nor could it be conventional.
Hog Butcher for the world,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders…
When in 1916 Carl Sandburg stormed the defenses of poetry readers in the United States, introducing all the blunt—and often distasteful—elements he found in “Chicago,” he was asserting the power of common language. Cutting through a mystique about the country's second largest city, Sandburg's Chicago was studded with the bloody killing floors of the slaughter houses and workers amazed at the sheer quantity of meat packed into railroad cars for transport. Off in the distance sounded the clanging of hammers on metal. Further away the lush wheat fields softened the cacophony of the sounds of brutal work. The Midwest, its population growing by thousands of immigrants almost monthly, was known for its crude (“stormy, husky, brawling”) power to achieve:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
If subtlety was the mark of effective poetry, Sandburg failed miserably in his evocative “Chicago.”
A Swede, a folklorist, a musician, a biographer of his beloved Lincoln, a man sensitive to the sometimes disguised grandeur of urban life on the shores of Lake Michigan, the largest inland body of American water, Sandburg pounded out surging lines that seemed to breathe the essence of work. Hearing Whitman's long-lined rhythms as well as seafaring chants and Native American drum-accompanied hymns, Sandburg loved the “tall bold slugger” of the city.
He also loved the force of an image that borrowed from the world of nature:
The fog comes
on little cat feet….
Voracious for the new, Sandburg made choices in language and metaphor unlike those of any other United States poet except William Carlos Williams, who relied even less on metaphor and placed all his faith in replicating the rhythmic beauty of spoken words:
As the cat
the top of
first the right
New and newly imaged, Williams’ cat in his “Poem” and Sandburg's cat feet in his “Fog” represent the unapologetically common in the world of American modernist letters.
British literature tended to focus on the noble, the royal, as had Greek and Roman and Old Norse and African poems and stories for thousands of years. Part of the American tendency to break with tradition was this impetus to draw the real. The power of the common—in language and idiom, in narrative structures, in characterization, in belief systems and morality—became one root of the modernist aesthetic. If few patterns in literature existed for elevating the common, for making the exploration of the common a gripping endeavor, so much the better: writers in the United States were searching for ways to innovate. They did not intend to trace old patterns because they saw themselves as pattern makers, the most creative chroniclers of experience the world had ever seen.
A great many modernist writers became known, first, for their innovation. It was as if they were jousting with the heavily ingrained principles of established “literature.” The shockingly non-poetic principles of vers libre (greeted by floods of ridicule in the journalistic and literary press) served initially as a base of operations for would-be contemporary writers. Whether T. S. Eliot or e. e. cummings or Carl Sandburg, American poets were defining and shaping the next century of poetics. Many of the poets who were key theorists of Modernism—Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes, H.D., Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens—and most importantly, Eliot himself, eventually moved out of the United States, at least temporarily, finding Europe a more congenial atmosphere for their work in both art and theory.
American modernism could seldom be divided by genre, however: modernist writers wrote what they chose. Although today's readers think of Gertrude Stein with her plays, prose, and poems—and particularly her “portraits”—other examples are e. e. cummings, whose World War I novel (The Enormous Room) is still cherished; John Dos Passos, the master of bringing aesthetic forms into immense collective wholes (in his U.S.A. trilogy but also in Manhattan Transfer, One Man's Initiation, and other fictions, poems, and plays); William Carlos Williams, a veritable fountain of publications from plays to stories to histories to poems in configurations both streamlined and complicated (like the six books of Paterson); Marianne Moore, whose compelling work in language rivaled that of Laura Riding; Edna St. Vincent Millay's plays as well as her poetry; Jean Toomer with his virtuoso performance of all genres within Cane; and of course T. S. Eliot himself, whose poetry surfaced in his drama as well as in various poetic forms.
United States writers illustrated the high modernist theories with publication after publication. William Faulkner still thought of himself as a poet, which he was for the first fifteen years of his life as writer, almost to the time of his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature—that prize given for his immensely innovative novels. So too did Ernest Hemingway, who valued his non-fiction prose such as Green Hills of Africa as much as he did some of his novels and stories. Hemingway, who began as a “young Chicago poet,” according to Harriet Monroe's Poetry, was reared on the didactic commentaries of Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Stein. He also revered the writing of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Richard Aldington, and D. H. Lawrence. American modernist writers were much more cosmopolitan than some readers have noticed; they were also much more intrigued with the aesthetic worlds of painting, sculpture, photography, and music than some literary people of the past had been.
American modernism, eventually, made its mark on the world of literature through its fiction. (The power of plays by both Eugene O'Neill and Susan Glaspell, followed by Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Howard Lawson, Elmer Rice, Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, William Inge, DuBose Heyward, as well as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, carried their own impressionistic force worldwide.) Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton were read around the globe, though at the time of their first publications, none of them was considered strikingly “modern.” The influential French critics grouped Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Hemingway into a world-acclaimed triumvirate of greatness: the essence of one popular conception of American modernism is based on the work of these novelists. As the canon of frequently-studied American literature expands, these writers have at times been eclipsed—but they repeatedly resurface. New dimensions of their writing come to the fore: with the posthumous publication of Hemingway's The Garden of Eden, for example, he has become an author useful for the study of sexual preferences; and while John Dos Passos's stacks of writing are rarely studied in themselves—primarily because of his novels’ length—contemporary writers still read, and borrow from, his expertise. In the case of Faulkner, his prominence—including his accurate if understated portraits of African American characters—has given rise to an entire field of literary and cultural critique: Southern studies, as well as to his seminal influence in the work of other now-classic American writers such as Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy.
Drawn by their writerly interests in creating new forms, new languages, and, accordingly, new insights and meanings, these several thousand American modernists were linked thematically by their focus on the intrinsic Americanness of twentieth century life: the common. The real. They aimed to find readers among the uneducated as well as the trained, among the amoral and immoral as well as the conventionally principled. These writers were collectively interested in the randomness of time and its measurement, as well as in the questioning of the human mind and its capacities: what is knowledge? what is meaning?
Much of the literary conviction of Modernism stemmed from the nineteenth century, but rather than this historical emphasis, observers instead saw that “Modernism” was an attitude more than a single style. Turning to the aesthetics of art in lieu of stable religious beliefs, writers (and painters, sculptors, architects, musicians) privileged dedication to craft combined with philosophical skepticism. The role of literature became less the traditional one of confirming social vision than of questioning it. The shape of literature changed to reflect its purpose: instead of predictable structures and rhymes, modern writing was chaotic and its structure was ironic, whimsical, and digressive. When Ezra Pound walked the streets of Paris, wearing his flamboyant scarf with its legend, “Make It New,” people understood the importance of innovation—along with the eccentricity of Americans.
Modernist artists and writers were leaving behind the comfort of Robert Browning's well-known refrain, “God's in his heaven. All's right with the world.” Rather than the largely Protestant belief systems that helped the higher classes run the United States, the new emphasis on inner, personal choice—drawing from the ideas of Nietzsche, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, T. E. Hulme, F. H. Bradley, William James, John Dewey, Henri Bergson, and Sigmund Freud—gave all people rights that social norms had previously forbidden. Current thinking recognized the animal (the primitive, the sexual) in the human; it also saw that people were responsible for their acts. In America, individuals were no longer shaped by the circumstances of their birth and by the trappings of social stratification. Like Horatio Alger, Americans believed they could become whatever they chose. Even as “the American dream” had already proved itself a fantasy, thousands of United States citizens—as well as the thousands of immigrants pouring into the country—saw themselves as exceptional persons. No matter the circumstances, in the United States, they would succeed. To use an even more positive emphasis, they would succeed.
What such immense philosophical change meant for literature was that both subject matter and form became obviously “new.” As John Dos Passos recalled in one of his memoirs, “Currents of energy seemed breaking out everywhere…. Americans were groggy with new things in theatre and painting and music.” It was what he called a “creative tidal wave”:
Under various tags: futurism, cubism, vorticism, modernism, most of the best work in the arts in our time has been the direct product of this explosion, that had an influence in its sphere comparable with that of the October revolution in social organization and politics and the Einstein formula in physics. Cendrars and Apollinaire, poets, were on the first cubist barricades with the group that influenced Picasso, Modigliani, Marinetti, Chagall; that profoundly influenced Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, Eisenstein; whose ideas carom through Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot.
Dos Passos Occasions 5
As Paul de Man had summarized, a movement such as Modernism required a certain type of forgetting: all the impetus to create modern art stemmed from “a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that would be called a true present, a point of origin that masks a new departure. This combined interplay of deliberate forgetting with an action that is also a new origin reaches the full power of the idea of modernism” (Connerton 64).
When the first wave of descriptions of Modernism appeared in the annals of literary history, led by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, Jr., Maurice Beebe, Hugh Kenner, and others, the focus stayed on the vicissitudes of style. Beebe pointed out that the movement was formalist, and that such writing often created myths, set in an ironic context. Another characteristic was the author's objectivity, a technique probably drawn from the pervasiveness of journalism (and inherently connected with the appearance of photography, often integral to the impact of that journalism). Beebe also saw that what he called “solipsism,” the author's self-consciousness, an equation between the work and the self, dominated literature created by James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and, later, Ernest Hemingway (Beebe 1065). Used repeatedly as illustration for this theorizing were such books as William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury
and As I Lay Dying
, Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons
, and John Dos Passos's U.S.A
.—along with James Joyce's Ulysses
and the Sitwells’ poetry. (Because Joyce loomed so large, and because much of the theorizing contemporary with his publications was done by Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and particularly T. S. Eliot, the national line between British modernism and American was blurred for several decades.)
Perhaps the strongest link between Joyce and the bevy of American writers who eventually created “Modernism” as an American obsession was the content of their writing. The world-weary angst, the pervasive disillusion, affected nearly every modernist writer, and could be seen in nearly every modernist work. (The incipient threat of World War I already hovered…. even though that conflict remained in the future.) What connected these modernist writers was the very absence of religious certainty—and the resulting questions about established principles of belief. The twentieth century seemed to be the epitome of chaos, of an individualism of spirit and mode that was not necessarily admirable. The language of modern literature was chosen not so much because it could be a way of reaching the common reader, but rather as a means of protecting the writers themselves from the frustration of incomplete and probably faulty knowledge.
Content (when the reader could find it to summarize) seemed to be less significant than the structures authors chose to hold and express that content: the dominance of what writers and painters and musicians achieved wholistically took center stage. Implicitly, readers were crediting artists with intentionality: the changes in expected literary forms occurred for a reason. The reader or observer, then, was left with the intellectual problem of ferreting out those reasons. The various rationales that occurred from this quasi-exercise made up the principles of much modernist writing.
Modernist art was to be shaped according to its one primary aim: all language should feed into that single effect (no word should call attention to itself), as should all rhythmic patterns. No unnecessary words should appear. (The most famous illustration of this principle is Ezra Pound's reducing his two-line Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” down from its original fifty lines.) Few adjectives should be used (because these are weaker, palliative words, without the direct strength of nouns or verbs). The use of any omniscient narrator should be curtailed: rather, the author should choose either a first-person storyteller or none at all. By adopting such methodology, the author frees himself/herself from hundreds of descriptive words, flat and sometimes predictable words.
Because time occurred largely in the author's consciousness, the linear “plot” for a story became unnecessary. A good reader could use the clues provided and re-create an accurate narrative. Henri Bergson's use of the concept of durée as a subjective measurement of time set the rational world on its heels: Bergson's emphasis was on looking past what he termed the arranged construct of time. Instead, people must pay attention to “the deep-seated self which ponders and decides, which heats and blazes up… whose states and changes permeate one another” (Bergson 125). Bringing human psychology into what had earlier been a somewhat mechanical concept, Bergson paved the way for later essays by Freud, and then by Jung, so that the interest in both consciousness—however defined—and psychology flowered in America. As Matei Calinescu later insisted, the modernists saw time as “the personal, subjective, imaginative durée, the private time created by the unfolding of the self” (Calinescu 53).
Because of the need to re-think time and linearity...