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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

10. Rhythms
in Poetry

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
- Bibliography
& Resources
- Glossary
- Learning
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
The opening decades of the twentieth century seemed to prove what Henry Adams and other historians had suspected: that technological change and social turmoil were propelling the West into unimaginable new territory, and that established ways of describing the human condition-including literary modes and strategies-were no longer appropriate. In 1903, modern aviation was little more than slapstick experiments with powered gliders on an empty beach; a dozen years later, in the middle of World War I, there were fleets of long-range lethal fighters in the air over battlefields where more soldiers would die than in any conflict in human history. Immediately after the armistice a pandemic of influenza killed millions more in their hometowns, and major American cities ran out of coffins.

In the United States, which had been spared the immense devastation inflicted in the European theaters of war, an economic boom brought heady hopes. Energized by new war-related technology, a pent-up demand for consumer goods, and an imperative to rebuild devastated landscapes in Belgium, France, and Italy, American heavy industry went to full throttle, offering high-paying jobs and setting off a migration of adventurous Americans, white and black, from small towns in the South to big cities in the East and Midwest. At the same time, disappointment, competition for work and for living space, and cross-cultural encounters brought new turmoil and violence.

In the summer of 1919, dubbed the Red Summer, race riots and lynchings erupted in many cities across America. Despite the optimism so evident in the music, fashion, and popular culture of the 1920s, racial tensions continued to fester, and starry-eyed investing and spending created an economic bubble, which burst in 1929. In that year, a series of bank failures overseas and a crash of stock markets all over the world brought on the Great Depression, which lasted nearly a decade and affected every industrialized country in the world. The bleak economic times brought about a renewed political and social awareness, as writers like Carl Sandburg, William Inge, John Steinbeck, and Genevieve Taggard brought special attention to the plight of millions. By the end of the 1930s, the threat of a new war loomed, and the vibrant 1920s seemed a distant memory.

Even before World War I, the artistic and literary communities of the West were haunted by a sense that new times required new ways of seeing and thinking. In Paris, the artistic practice of "cubism" appealed to many as a fresh way of representing the speed, diversity, and fragmentation of ordinary life. In the middle of the war, in a place called the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, experiments with "dadaism" challenged the arts and the individual mind to break free from the kind of logic that had carried European civilization into a storm of violence. During and after the war, American poets, from the aristocratic T. S. Eliot to the young African American Langston Hughes, looked to such experimental art for guidance in expressing the pace of modernity. The modernist poets strove to reinvent the fundamentals of poetry, to answer Ezra Pound's challenge to "make it new." Influenced by visual art, primitivism, orientalism, and jazz, writers searched for a distinctly American idiom. What should a modern American poetry sound like? What could white culture and African American culture learn from each other? How could American modernism become something unique and fundamentally different from British and European experiments?

The video for Unit 10 chronicles the different paths modernist poets took as they responded to the political, social, and economic changes shaping American life. As the video suggests, modernism was not a monolithic movement with one core idea and strategy. For modernist authors, the early twentieth century seemed to be a cultural and historical turning point. Their work is characterized by questions about objectivity and subjectivity, about conflicts between psychological or inward time and the relentless ticking of the mechanical and historical clock. They searched-often fruitlessly-for objective truth and a renewed sense of belonging in a secularized world, one without moral definition.

The prose and poetry they created offer very different strategies and aesthetic choices. T. S. Eliot, who spent most of his career abroad, ultimately turned to the high culture of the classical world and the European Renaissance. Committed to developing an American idiom, William Carlos Williams built poetry from everyday speech. Langston Hughes was also interested in creating music from the vernacular and the everyday, but he paid special attention to the dialects of African Americans. Determined to portray black experience with honesty and dignity, Hughes looked to jazz, folk tradition, and history as the foundations for his verse.

The video, archive, and curriculum in Unit 10 highlight early modernist intersections in America among art, politics, and culture. The key concepts covered include the Harlem Renaissance, orientalism, primitivism, the influence of radio, and the idea of the "New Negro." The materials also suggest ways that students might relate the authors and works to one another. Other units that provide complements to this one include Unit 7, "Slavery and Freedom," which offers background for the struggles and ideas explored by Harlem Renaissance writers; Unit 9, "Social Realism," which explores the rise of a modern political and social conscience in America; and Unit 11, "Modernist Portraits," and Unit 13, "Southern Renaissance," which present other varieties of modernist writing between the world wars. Finally, Unit 15, "Poetry of Liberation," and Unit 16, "Search for Identity," illustrate the legacy of poets first interested in portraying the American vernacular and the black experience. These later authors also reflect an interest in formal experimentation, the mixing of literary genres, the introduction of shocking subject matter, an exploration of states of mind (as opposed to an emphasis on narrative), and a fascination with the everyday.

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