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Modernism in America

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Before Modernism became the popular school of thought in society, Transcendentalism was the most prevalent in America. Transcendentalism was represented by Manifest Destiny and embracing nature. People reflected their ideas about the world through emotionally charged positivity in literature and realistic portrayals in art. However, at the end of the 1800’s and the turn of the 19th century, scientific discovery, industrialism, and World War I led to the spread of modernistic ideas. People began to feel confused and the American mindset as a whole became unstable. Scientific discovery led people to question their once concrete ideas of the world. Industrialism created cultural changes and urbanization. World War I created a feeling of displacement for soldiers and confusion in the hearts of some citizens. These emotions and ideas were reflected through changes in literature and art.
At the turn of the 20th century, scientific discoveries led to a worldwide feeling of instability and bafflement. When Albert Einstein introduced his Theory of Relativity, it shattered the world of “order and certainty” supported by the scientific method (Tindall & Shi). Whereas units of measurement involving distance, space, and time were once assumed to be concrete, Einstein’s theory stated that these measurements were actually relative to the observers speed and location. This discovery caused scientists to “give up [their] most cherished convictions and faith” (Tindall & Shi). The confusion caused by this scientific discovery was evident in literature and art nationwide.

“The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot is a poem that fully embodies the emotions of citizens after this scientific revelation. Eliot uses darkly themed diction and symbolism to represent the people of the world. The line “shape without form shade without color” is a paradox that represents a feeling of uncertainty in the shadow of this new discovery. Science was beginning to make people question their beliefs and become confused about their previous convictions. Einstein’s theory turned the world on its head and introduced a new concept of life that people weren’t necessarily ready to accept. Eliot also uses words like “hollow” and “stuffed” to create a play on words that accents the depression and emotional instability of people in response to Einstein’s theory. This choice of diction also contributes to the overall sullen tone of the poem. Einstein’s theory of relativity created waves in the world that reverberated throughout society and literature.

In addition to the scientific discoveries that created instability throughout America, in the late 1800s and early 1900s industrialization, urbanization, and transport development lead to internal improvements city growth. Modernism in this time period represented an expansionist mindset similar to Manifest Destiny and cities popped up feverishly. America had a total of 19 cities by 1910, as opposed to the 3 in 1860 because of an increase in manufacturing (Henretta, Edwards & Self). Through the construction of railroads, subways, factories, tenements, and sky scrapers, city planners were able to maximize land use and effectiveness. Factories allowed cities to produce goods at a quicker rate and it also created jobs that attracted citizens and immigrants alike. Skyscrapers and tenements allowed city planners to build upwards instead of outwards to effectively use land. Skyscrapers were also a sign of wealth in cities. Tenements allowed for multiple families to live in one building as opposed to just one. However, they were poorly conditioned and disease infested. “Civilization’s Inferno” reports that “as many as 26 people [lived] in 9 rooms” of these small, cramped tenements (Henretta, Edwards & Self). This occurred most prominently in the north east where cities were the main trade markets and ports. Mass transit also allowed the middle to high class commuters to get to and from work easily. Around 1878, the trolley “quickly became the primary mode of transportation in most American cities” (Henretta, Edwards, & Self). Along with trolleys, railroads prospered in America and connected the east and west coasts. As a result, railroads created “outlying residential districts for the well-to-do” where “affluent wives and children enjoyed refuge from the pollution and perceived dangers of the city” (Henretta, Edwards & Self). Commuters established suburban neighborhoods outlying mass transit stations, separating them from the blue collar workers in the heart of the city. In addition to this class based separation, racial marginalization and conflict was also prevalent in this time period. The Italians of Chicago embodied this fully, as explained in “Civilization’s Inferno”: “In 1903, Italians in Chicago had 60 mutual aid societies, mostly comprised of people from particular provinces or towns” (Henretta, Edwards & Self). The sectionalism caused by industry and mass transit, along with shifted societal morality, led to the union of ethnicities to help each other thrive. This modernist time period encompassed many conflicts that immigrants were forced to deal with; however, it also resulted in several internal improvements that affect the way we live today

Industrialism had a large effect on literature as well as the daily life of blue collar workers. Industry’s effects on city environments was thoroughly described and effectively represented in “Preludes” by T.S. Eliot. Tenement life is one of the most prevalent topics in section one of “Preludes. Eliot uses descriptive diction and varied syntax to give a vivid picture of the environment. One of the most descriptive scenes is shown in lines five through ten.

And now a gusty shower wraps

The grimy scraps

Of withered leaves about your feet

And newspapers from vacant lots;

The showers beat

On broken blinds and chimney-pots,

(“Preludes”, 12, T.S. Eliot)

This selection accurately describes the dilapidated scenery of tenements. Eliot uses descriptive diction and urban themed symbolism. “Grimy scraps” represents the trash that was usually placed in air ducts by tenants. “Broken blinds” shows the ragged state these apartments were in. Tenements were often horrific and disease infested, due to the vast amounts of people that lived in a single room. Landlords packed as many as 20 people into a single tenement room. Most immigrants and blue collar workers didn’t have a choice other than living in these tenements close to their jobs. “Preludes” also includes a selection that describes the effect of manufacturing on the city lifestyle and atmosphere.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished room.
(“Preludes”, 13, T.S. Eliot)

The blue collar workforce and its immigrant members are thoroughly represented by Eliot in this second selection from “Preludes”. Eliot uses visual and olfactory imagery along with choice diction and symbolism to describe the atmosphere created by the institution of factories in the city. The “sawdust-trampled street” represents the roads heavily traveled by immigrant workers and blue collar employees. “Muddy feet” is a term that references the dirty-work immigrants have to do to get paid. In addition to this symbolism, Eliot uses the imagery of “stale smells of beer” to create an aromatic atmosphere related to the urban setting. Along with science and industry, World War 1 also had a large impact on literature and art in this modernist time period.


World War I, along with the confusion caused by new scientific discoveries and an increase in industrialism, had effects that reverberated throughout literature and art. World War I had several detrimental effects, both physical and mental. Trench warfare was a strategy used in World War I that was bred out of necessity. It created a new style of war at the expense of the health of soldiers. The use of these disease infected tunnels of death and destruction eventually led to the end of the “war to end all wars” (Daniels). The war had crippling effects on soldiers and caused “physical abnormalities” such as tremors and impaired senses, as well as “emotional manifestations” such as insomnia and anxiety (Daniels). Science also played a part in the war through the use of chemical warfare. Mustard gas and chlorine gas were the “sinister new weapon[s]” in use by the Germans and the Allies (Daniels). It caused a painful death to soldiers of both sides. Due to these terrors of war, soldiers began to feel hollow, cold and unfaithful. Often times, soldiers abandoned religion and instead suffered from the tumult resulting from war. This trauma led to another characteristic of these modernist times, the alienation of soldiers. Soldiers coming home from war sometimes felt out of place and as if they had moved forward and left everyone behind. This made them feel ostracized and as if they had knowledge to which no regular citizen could relate. This is evident in stories such as “Chapter VII” by Ernest Hemmingway and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque. The effects of World War I reverberated throughout society and were manifested in literature and several mediums of art.

Ernest Hemmingway’s “Chapter VII’ portrays one soldier’s experience with the trauma of war; Hemmingway uses personal-style diction and tone along with informal punctualization to emphasize the soldiers thoughts. At one point, the soldier pleads “dear jesus please get me out”, but “the next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus” (Hemmingway). World War I has caused conflicting beliefs about religion in the hearts of many soldiers. In the middle of crisis he pleads for help, but while committing vices the soldier’s thinks not about a higher power or guiding faith. The trauma and confusion of World War I has had adverse effects on a warriors psyche and is evident in their beliefs and actions. War also made men cold-hearted and used to violence. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque details these psychological effects on men. After returning to war, Paul Baumer is asked to tell great stories of valor and courage to a group of boys, but instead says “I can’t tell you anything you don’t know… We try not to be killed. Sometimes we are. That’s all” (Remarque). The war has made Paul into a cold, blunt man who has undergone the horrific, gory events of war. All his life he has been told fighting for your country is patriotic, but war has proved otherwise. It has made men into killing machines without emotions. They also feel out of place – as if others couldn’t possibly understand what they’ve been through. World War I had psychologically damaging effects on soldiers and it was evident in the literature of this modernist time period.

Scientific innovation, increase in industry and manufacturing, and the tragic events of World War I fully encompass the effect Modernism had on the world. It was an eye opening experience for Americans and still affects the way we view the world today. If we take into account this analysis of Modernism, one can better appreciate art and changes throughout art history, as well as aberrations in literature. Modernism, being the polar opposite of Transcendentalism, was an evident shift in ideas and represents the mindset of a new group of Americans. Whereas nature was embraced heartily at first, in this time period, urbanism is more prevalent and industry is praised. Modernism was a revolutionary school of thought and was relevant to events that shaped America’s future.



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