1. When was it?

Late 19th Century – Early 20th Century

2. Who was writing?

Joseph ConradFranz Kafka
George Bernard ShawJames Joyce
T.S. EliotVirginia Woolf
Ezra PoundThomas Mann
Gertrude SteinF. Scott Fitzgerald
D.H. LawrenceErnest Hemingway
George OrwellArthur Miller
Tennessee WilliamsAlbert Camus
William FaulknerGraham Greene
Isaac Asimov

3. History

The beginning of the 20th century was a time when unifying ideals such as national identity, British patriotism, and humans’ place in nature began to be pulled apart. Advances in chemistry, physics and geology started to reveal the building blocks of the world, while philosophers like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung deconstructed society and the human mind. The consequence was that, for many people, being a citizen was no longer an adequate definition of being a person. People were instead an amalgamation of many splintered pieces.
This splintering appeared to be mirrored politically when Europe began heading to war. Previously, individual countries and empires had fought against each other, but the 20th century began with a continent bound together by empires, treaties and blocs, a whole that ultimately began to fall apart.  WWI, ‘the war to end all wars’, highlighted flawed systems and the futility of the individual within sovereign manoeuvres, and created an unparalleled distrust in the establishment. Around 9 million soldiers, and anywhere between 6 and 10 million civilians, were killed in the war.
While society simultaneously embraced analysis and crumbled into war, western art was portrayed as being in a funk. The fin-de-siècle idea that came out of France, but covered much of Western Europe, had declared society decadent and materialistic, and that a sense of ennui had set into culture. While The Jazz Age thrived in America (followed by the Great Depression), Europe was reaching the end of a cycle and required a new idea. Unsurprisingly, much of the artistic changes came out of France, where artists from a variety of countries were meeting and creating communities. For the modernists, the answer was to escape the insanity of nationalism, and instead reach into the splintered self, where they embraced individualism, experimentation, micro-analysis, and the human psyche.

4. Traits

At the core of modernism were the twin pursuits of understanding the mind and analysing the individual’s relationship with the world. This internal focus, and shattering of collective identity, led to experimentation with structures. These included minimalist ideas that asked that the reader create meaning within their own imagination, from cues, rather than have meaning explained. In some cases the very act of reading became a mental exercise exploring psychology, not a form of entertainment. Modernist authors were more architects than traditional storytellers.
Focus on the nature of the individual resulted in works that portrayed loneliness and isolation. Books and poetry were just as likely to write about feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and futility as they were to have love stories. Tragic characters dealing with depression, failed relationships, and lost ambition were not uncommon.
Yet while the protagonists of works were consumed with internal thoughts, writers also accepted the growing influence of psychology, chemistry, physics, and geology. Science fiction received a boost at this time. Meanwhile travel was becoming easier for the average middle class European – whether for leisure or colonialism – and this was reflected in literature that gazed further afield for settings.
Finally, it should be noted that although modernism did provide a level of experimentation, it generally maintained a degree of logic and a connection to the real world. The removal of this grounding principal, and the more extreme creation of ‘art for art’s sake’, would come later with the postmodernist movement.

5. Timeline

6. Examples

by James Joyce

Know Your Book

Title: Ulysses
Author: James Joyce (1882-1941)
Published: 1918-1920 (serial), 1922 (novel)
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; novel; modernist
Plot: Ulysses transposes the adventures of Homer’s Odyssey into a single dull day in early 20th-century Dublin. The monsters and gods of Odysseus’s tale are absent, but exist in abstract form in the thoughts of Ulysses’s characters. These include Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus) as he teaches a class and then goes to the seaside; Leopold Bloom (Odysseus), who goes to a funeral and the pub; and Molly Bloom (Penelope), who is having affair.
Setting: Dublin
Characters: Leopold Bloom; Molly Bloom; Stephen Dedalus

Excerpt from Episode 8 ‘Lestrygonians’:

Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugarsticky girl shovelling scoopfuls of creams for a christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies. Lozenge and comfit manufacturer to His Majesty the King. God. Save. Our. Sitting on his throne, sucking red jujubes white.
A sombre Y.M.C.A. young man, watchful among the warm sweet fumes of Graham Lemon’s, placed a throwaway in a hand of Mr Bloom.
Heart to heart talks.
Bloo… Me? No.
Blood of the Lamb.
His slow feet walked him riverward, reading. Are you saved? All are washed in the blood of the lamb. God wants blood victim. Birth, hymen, martyr, war, foundation of a building, sacrifice, kidney burntoffering, druid’s altars. Elijah is coming. Dr John Alexander Dowie, restorer of the church in Zion, is coming.

Is coming! Is coming!! Is coming!!!
All heartily welcome.

The Waste Land 
by T.S. Eliot

Know Your Book

Title: The Waste Land
Author: T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Published: 1922
Language: English
Genre: Poetry; modernist
Synopsis: The poem highlights a modern society devoid of soul and beauty. As well as physical descriptions, the piece references ancient texts and legends, and uses multiple classical languages. One recurring legend is that of the Fisher King, the keeper of the Holy Grail whose injury has left the land barren and awaits a coming hero. The disjointed modernist style emphasises the fractured modern life.

Excerpt from Part I ‘The Burial of the Dead’:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,|
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.