Period Introduction Overview

Modernity and Modernism, 1900-1945Postwar and Postcolonial Literature, 1965-1968Contemporary World Literature

Modernity and Modernism, 1900-1945

  1. New means of transportation and communication at the beginning of the twentieth century produced a world that was more interconnected than ever before. People, goods, and information could travel faster than at any other time in history.
  2. For the first time in history, the majority of the world's population was living in large cities. Improvement in food production, in distribution, and in medicine meant that cities were healthier and safer than ever before as well, certainly relative to their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century counterparts.
  3. Innovation in science and medicine was accompanied by innovation in warfare and weapons. The twentieth century thus became the bloodiest in human history, despite great advances in science and medicine.

Modernity and Conflict in World History, 1900-1945

  1. The beginning of the twentieth century marked the height of European exploration and imperialism.
  2. This imperial control (or "abuse" as many came to see it) would not last much longer, however, as colonial nations fought for their independence, and as movements in imperial countries (like Britain) became increasingly critical of colonial expansion and control.
  3. The First World War (1914-18) altered the physical landscape, scarring and decimating vast swathes of land. Of even greater consequence was the fundamental alteration in people's beliefs in the basic institutions and ideals that had organized society. Fifteen million people died in the First World War. It was hard for people to make sense of death and destruction on this scale.
  4. In 1917 the Bolsheviks, under V. I. Lenin, led a Communist revolution in Russia. Under Lenin, and then his successor, Stalin, Communist rule in Russia became ever more repressive and violent. It was "communal" in name only, since just a small ruling elite held all of the power and enjoyed a decent standard of living.
  5. Communist Party rule under Lenin and Stalin resulted in untold misery and the death of tens of millions of people: this was, again, death on a scale that the world had not previously experienced.
  6. The League of Nations, formed after the First World War, was the first international organization aimed at keeping the peace among European nations. Yet while the League of Nations embodied lofty ideals, the reality of its power was quite different.
  7. The League of Nations was incapable of enforcing demilitarization in Germany. Further, Allied forces (including Britain, the United States, France, and other European powers) demanded reparations from Germany as a result of the First World War. These factors kept the German economy in chaos, which paved the way, at least in, part, for the rise of the German National Socialist party—the Nazis.
  8. The Nazi party came to power in 1933 under Adolf Hitler. The promise of a strong, reunified, and remilitarized Germany was attractive to many at the time. The Nazi party emphasized the purity of German society (and was thus built on violent anti-Semitism). It was equally hostile to modern literature, and most writers either chose or were sent into exile.
  9. As Nazi power continued to grow in Germany, the United States experienced a financial collapse, beginning in 1929, which would become known as the Great Depression.
  10. During the Great Depression, at its worst, a third of American workers were unemployed.
  11. The New Deal, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45), helped to reverse the depression to some degree, providing employment to many through government funding of massive public works projects (including the building of highways and bridges).
  12. Having gained considerable political and military strength, Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, setting off the Second World War.
  13. The Allied powers of France, Britain, and eventually the United States (which entered the war in 1941) were pitted against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
  14. The Nazi desire for racial purity reached its abhorrent climax in 1941 with the Final Solution: six million Jews were killed, along with millions of others who were deemed unfit for a pure Aryan race (these included Poles, Gypsies, and homosexuals).

Modernism in World Literature

  1. Literature across the globe responded to these world-changing events (world wars, revolutions, financial collapse) with an unprecedented wave of artistic experimentation, as though the previous modes and forms of art were simply no longer able to capture, recreate, or express the shocking realities of the modern world.
  2. Because modernism, as an artistic movement, often sought some new form of expression, it was characterized by a number of smaller movements (like futurism, vorticism, or Dadaism) as artists experimented with new possibilities.
  3. Given world events of the early twentieth century, many artists and philosophers began to challenge notions of humans as fundamentally rational beings and thus social institutions as rational entities that could enact rational policies.
  4. Writers like Sigmund Freud—a pioneer in the field of psychoanalysis—reflected growing interest in the nonrational: the subconscious and the unconscious.
  5. While modernist art often involved experimentation, many modernists still practiced earlier techniques, working in realist or symbolist styles of the late nineteenth century.
  6. The "stream of consciousness" style reflects modernist interest in interiority; i.e., the subjective experience of a particular character as he or she observes and acts in the world.
  7. Many modernists, particularly in the theater, broke radically with convention in the degree to which their works made reference to themselves as works of art. In theater, for example, playwrights might involve the audience or have actors (who by tradition should be acting as if the audience were not there) break the "fourth wall" and address the audience directly.
  8. Modernists often experimented with new forms, but they were equally concerned to address subjects that had previously been taboo, such as sexuality.
  9. Modernism emerged from primarily European and American roots; however, Asian writers also became interested in experimentation, often blending new forms or styles with traditional subject matter.
  10. As the European empires, so strong in the late nineteenth century, began to break apart during the twentieth century, African American, African, and Caribbean voices emerged to articulate a new vision for race relations and racial equality.
  11. The post-Second World War era (sometimes identified as a postmodernist or postcolonial period) saw a mixture of artists who continued to pursue modernist experimentation and also saw an avant-garde of artists who returned to more traditional forms (though often to address the pressing social and cultural concerns of the period).
  12. The modern period arose as a response to dramatic world events and it had an equally dramatic effect on literary history.