The Modernist movement in American literature was a movement which reached its peak around the turn of the nineteenth century and through to the nineteen forties. The attributes which defined Modernist literature were those which formed a notable departure from realist modes in fiction and resulted in deeper, more introspective — and often eccentric — literary themes and styles. The use of meta-narrative, that is: a narrative paradigm which attempts to provide a comprehensive paradigm regarding history, culture, and human experience.
Modernist literature remained deeply concerned with affecting and inciting social catharsis and cultural change. Unlike other schools of literature, Modernist literature was only loosely defined and adhered to by its practitioners. An example of the departure from strictly objective to subjectively expressive modes is Fitzgerald’s celebrated short-story “Babylon Revisited”, which in its depiction of a “fallen” alcoholic also extends a meta-narrative — the theme of which is human sexuality and gender relations.
Because the story’s narrator is placed in a position of social ostracization for his “sinful” behavior of the past, but longs to regain his familial responsibilities, the nature of the story is the inverse of a traditionally defined male orientation to society. In the case of “Babylon Revisited,” the inversion is to turn the protagonist’s heroicism upside down by casting a “fallen ma” as the hero, and then — by turning the story’s predominant theme to domesticity — Fitzgerald inverts the expected dimension whereby men are thought to reserve and gain their worldly power.
By demonstrating that the paternal; role is central to a man’s life, and that other worldly accomplishments and indulgences pale in comparison to the preservation of one’s family, and by instituting a repentant hero, Fitzgerald contributed tot he progression of literary modernism as a form of literature which reached toward universal expression through subjective experience.
Similarly, Langston Hughes struck a deep chord with his writings, such as “`Negro Speaks of Rivers`, a poem which inverts the expected tenants of patriotism, spiritual vision, social standing, race, and, in fact, poetry itself — by granting to the poem’s narrator a stature and grandeur which had been absent in pre-modernist literature.
Through this casting of an “outcast” as an heroic speaker of an epic and spiritually powerful poem, the expression of personal experience and tragedy is made through a narrative paradigm which includes a universal abstraction: the place of the individual in regards to God or religion. By extension, the poem speaks of the relationship between individuals and society, but draws as its primary power, the vision of universal dignity and pride. As these examples demonstrate, literary modernism can be viewed as an attempt to address the internal or subjective side of experience.
Whereas literary realism was an attempt to convincingly portray actual life in all of its details, modernism sought to integrate the emergence of psychoanalytic theory and the unconscious to portray the inner-experience of life. The modernist approach included a desire to move toward non-linear narrative, meta-fiction and experimental prose styles. Although Modernism embraced the ‘ordinary” and even the trivial as subject matter and setting, the move away from the grandiosity of Romanticism was never truly complete.
An example of the “lingering” romanticism which is present in modernist works is Hemingway’s short-story “Big Two Hearted River Part One” which deals with the theme of what has recently been termed “post traumatic stress disorder,” but which, in Hemingway’s time was more commonly known as “shell shock. ” The narrator in “Big Two_hearted River” seeks to redeem or rebuild himself during the course of the story and his remedy to the internal, psychological crisis which has beset him due to his war-experiences is the cleansing aspect of nature.
The narrator of the story seeks to rediscover himself and redefine himself in relation to the civilized world by going into the wilderness. There is actually no irony present in this theme although Hemingway’s technique, by committing the causal details for the narrator’s crises, also helps to create a lingering sense of ambiguity. The close of the story is indecisive, but promotes the idea of self-reliance and harmony with nature, while simultaneously “mourning” the loss of such harmony in society as a whole.
Although other writers such as Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and D. H Lawrence adopted radically different narrative styles, each embraced a subjective mode in their writings. Ttraces of Romanticism can be felt in the works of modernist writers who sought to attune their works to the inner-psychic experience of humanity, so it is possible to view stories such as “Big Two Hearted River” as not only social commentary, but articulations of a hoped-for Romanticism.
In this regard it is not only possible but sometimes advisable to view specific modernist writers or modernist works from a predominantly social-political perspective. In the case of Zora Neale Hurston’s `The Eatonville Anthology,` a social microcosm is established immediately in the story as the “pleading woman” begins her round of begging. The idea of social responsibility is primary throughout the story, as is the idea of communal interconnectedness.
The story, by delving deeply into the subjective experiences of the various characters who comprise a social microcosm, seems to unite subjective and universal experiences. Each of the characters reflects. to a certain degree, the “damage” or wounds they have received by living in contemporary society. By personalizing what would otherwise be anonymous social statistics and obscure tragedy of the social under-classes, Hurston contributes to the evolution of literary modernism as a literature which, by delving into the specific and the subjective, discovers the communal and universal.