What is modernism in literature? – Literary Terms 101

Modernism: “The term applied to a certain group of tendencies in literature and the arts since the late 19th century, including breaking away from established rules and traditional values, experimenting radically with form and style–sometimes even denying the need for form–and focusing on the subjective, often alienated, consciousness of the individual.” – NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms (1991)

You know… I think I’m going to invest in a more updated dictionary of literary terms because this one doesn’t have “postmodernism” in it and that makes me sad.

My Take On Modernism In Literature

First, I just want to let you know that we wouldn’t have had Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1980) with T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Just thought that was a cool fun fact. Even posted it on Instagram.

Anyway, modernism was an age I didn’t pay much attention to in college because I was more in love with the romantics. Studying it now, holy crap did I miss a lot. As someone who loves psychoanalytic literary critique, I would’ve had a blast deconstructing James Joyce (my birthday twin, by the way), Virginia Woolf (this lady, omg), Franz Kafka, and Eliot. I remember reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) and vaguely recall discussing perception and trying to process an unstable identity with my fellow peers. Reviewing the existential turmoil and radical thought in modernism now kind of reminded me of some films from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. My mother and I enjoy watching Hitchcock’s works, especially Vertigo (1958). There was also Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962) and honestly, take your pick of any Joan Crawford movie. Of course, I can’t neglect The Twilight Zone (1958). Modernism certainly had an impact on media that I personally feel, led more to a spiral of one’s personal voids than ground themselves with what is relative to them, like postmodernism sort of does (even though postmodernism is quite paradoxical, the acknowledgement of subjective/multifaceted views can help someone ground themselves a bit, I would say).

I read brief biographies on Kafka, Joyce, Woolf, and Eliot, some of the few who are seen as the pioneers of modernism. Woolf, Kafka, and Joyce had very apparent struggles that somehow polished, or perhaps unraveled, their art according to The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (2007) that I have. Like I said, I didn’t pay much attention to these guys in undergrad, but I’ll be reading their work now. I want to spiral with them and see for myself how postmodernists look back on their work and are proud of themselves for not letting their dreams and nightmares ruin them (but they’re not perfect either, tbh. I would write about postmodernism, but that’s not what the post is about… If you are interested in the comparison of modernism and postmodernism, I found this article to be pretty neat).

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