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Literary Modernism

Literary modernism originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.

The literary movement is characterized by a break with traditional ways of writing. It touched both poetry, prose fiction, and drama. Modernist writers chose to experiment with every type of conceivable literary form and mode of expression.

Modernism is one larger category that includes smaller yet still very important literary and artistic movements. These include Imagism, and Symbolism, Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, and Expressionism.


Origins of Literary Modernism

Literary modernism got its start in the late 1880s when writers, thinkers, and artists began considering the necessity of pushing aside preconceived norms and devising a new way of considering one’s own reality. Thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Ernest Mach were very influential in the earliest phases of the modernist movement. Both considered the human being’s subjective experience in the world and the way that one’s own drives and desires influenced the way that one saw the outside world.

Frederick Nietzsche should also be considered when one is looking at the origins of modernism. He wrote about the greater importance of psychological drives and mental considerations over facts or physical things.


The Parts of the Literary Modernism

Let’s take a look at three different movements, within the Modernist movement. They are Imagism, Surrealism, and Expressionism.



In the early 1900s, it was writers such as Ezra Pound whose desire to make writing new, gave literary modernism its start in the 20th century. His writings, and those of his contemporaries in the Imagist movement, were characterized by precise images, brevity, and free verse.

Take a look at these works of leaders of the Imagist movement:



Surrealism was a philosophy that took hold in France in the 1920s. From there, it spread out to the rest of the world, but the best examples of the movement are exemplified in the works of French poets. They privileged dreams over reason and logic and gave great consideration to the subconscious, willing it to come forward into their works. They used techniques such as automatic writing in order to tap into deeper parts of their psyche.

Take a look at these poems by Surrealist French writers:



These writers sought to embody meaning, rather than reality. They were driven by emotion and experience to paint, write, and think about how the world is perceived. The works of Friedrich Nietzsche are closely related to this part of the modernist movement, most poignantly through his novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Take a look at writers who were considered part of the Expressionist movement, or were directly influenced by it:


Themes in Literary Modernism

Due to the fact that literary modernism was a reaction against traditional writing practices, industrialism, and eventually World War I, a wide variety of themes can be found within the works of modernist writers.


Destruction, Fragmentation, and Loss

Writers such as T.S. Eliot And William Faulkner were concerned with the rearrangement of culture, and its eventual fragmentation. This is the way that cities, people, and civilization come apart, and crumble. Fragmentation conceptually and stylistically played a role as styles of writing were taken apart and put back together again in different ways.

Destruction was inevitably one of the strongest themes within literary modernism. Because these writers were living through World War I, they witnessed unimaginable destruction and the worst things humankind is capable of. Writers mimicked the destruction they saw within their lives by disrupting traditional patterns of writing. Syntax and structure transformed through new modes of writing.

With destruction comes loss. This is particularly evident within the novels of Ernest Hemingway, and any story, or poem, in which the characters consider their worlds through previously experienced devastation. Loss could mean death, but it also meant a rearranging of one of one’s beliefs. In world art, literature, music, architecture and even politics people were questioning everything that they previously took for granted. Many institutions, educational, governmental, and religious were thrown off leading some to further feelings of loss, displacement, and even exile.

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