Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits

View Transcript

Jazz filled the air and wailed against the night. Caught in the sway, American prose writers sought out the forbidden – the slang, the dialects, and the rhythms of the folk and of everyday life. Writers such as Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald forged a new style: one which silhouetted the geometry of language, crisp in its own cleanness.

Instructor Overview

Between World War I and World War II, the lives of the majority of Americans underwent dramatic transformations. Though America did not officially participate in World War I until 1917, its entrance into the conflict marked a new level of U.S. involvement in European affairs and made a significant impression on those who served in the war, including a large number of writers. Following the war, and in part spurred by the increased production of a wartime economy, American consumer capitalism exploded, and the age of advertising and mass consumption reshaped the day-to-day lives of many Americans. The automobile, which debuted before the turn of the century, became an ever-increasing fact of daily life: in 1900 there were only eight thousand cars in America; by 1940 there were thirty-two million. Telephones and electrification, both innovations of the late nineteenth century, also became commonplace in American homes.

After the turn of the century, increasing numbers of Americans invested their money on Wall Street, which had become America’s most prominent financial exchange in the second half of the nineteenth century. After World War I, the practice of investing by borrowing on “margin”–that is, investing money that investors themselves did not have–became more commonplace, enabling more people to invest–or gamble–in the market, often beyond their own means. Some became rich beyond their wildest dreams through Wall Street speculations in the 1920s; many more lost everything they had in the Wall Street crash of 1929. The ensuing Great Depression revealed that the booming capitalist economy of the 1920s was less stable than many had previously believed; in 1932 the federal government, led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, began formulating the “New Deal,” which initiated new ways to regulate business and the U.S. economy. In the meantime, nearly a quarter of the workforce was unemployed, and hunger and poverty remained widespread until the economy began to recover at the end of the decade, when World War II began in Europe.

Political changes likewise reshaped American life: after years of agitation for suffrage, women finally won the right to vote in 1919 (the Nineteenth Amendment was officially ratified in 1920). Also in 1919, Congress enacted the Eighteenth Amendment, ushering in the era of Prohibition by outlawing “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” This law fueled a widespread illegal trade in alcohol; many historians believe that the increase in organized crime during Prohibition was a direct result of the new opportunities for illegal moneymaking provided by the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition, also known as the Volstead Act, was repealed in 1933, in part because politicians thought that reviving the liquor industry might provide jobs for the unemployed.

To a great extent the world of art and literature reflected the new pace and interests of American life, though many American practitioners of what would be labeled “modern” art lived in Europe, believing that the conventional values of American culture stifled their creativity. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound led the way for other authors who sought a cultural climate conducive to the production of great literature; from 1920 through 1929, more and more American authors took up residence in the culturally vibrant cities of Europe, especially Paris. Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others formed a coterie in Paris and together strived to create a type of literature appropriate to what they considered a new “modern” world following World War I. Artists and writers alike developed new techniques and addressed new subjects in reaction to a now-outdated traditionalism.

Modernism also responded to a prevalent sense of loss and bewilderment prompted by the societal and technological changes of the early twentieth century. Disillusionment, confusion, and in some cases a sense of freedom characterized the “Modern Temper” of the first half of the twentieth century. It became increasingly evident that many traditional moral and social standards had shifted dramatically, particularly those governing the behavior of women, who began to assert new freedoms such as going out unchaperoned, wearing less constrictive clothing, and smoking in public. The pace of urbanization intensified, and more Americans lived in urban centers than in rural areas. This shift fundamentally changed the way people in communities interacted: whereas neighbors all knew each other in villages, residents were largely anonymous in cities, where the population tended to change rapidly. (This sense of the anonymity of the city appears in such works as The Great Gatsby and Quicksand, for example.) Further, immigration from Europe had accelerated markedly in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and cities appeared to be filled with foreigners. People thinking of themselves as native-born Americans pressed for reduced quotas of those immigrants whose cultures seemed most different from their own. Nativist sentiment helped push through stringent immigration acts in the first decades of the century, and immigrants faced discrimination and prejudice as they tried to adjust to American life (for more about immigration and literature see Unit 12). Ironically, those Americans who were truly native to the United States–American Indians–continued to face discrimination, and many lived on reservations where they had little access to paid work or adequate health care. Congress officially made all Native Americans citizens in 1924, but citizenship did not materially change the living conditions of most Native Americans; the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 finally allowed Native Americans a greater measure of self-government.

This unit includes authors who represent diverse strands of modernism and who experimented with prose and poetry in a variety of ways. Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway exemplify some of the ways prose writers tried to “make it new” following World War I: Hemingway’s spare style and efforts to create “one true sentence” may be linked to the streamlining of other areas of American life during this period, while Stein’s prose, which often defies reader comprehension, has ties to the fragmented images visible in Cubist art. F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose prose style breaks conventions less radically than either Stein’s or Hemingway’s, chronicled many of the changes in the lifestyle of wealthy Americans during what he called the “Jazz Age.” Sherwood Anderson and Susan Glaspell exemplify the continuation of regionalism–Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohioexamines the emotional and psychological lives of characters in a small midwestern town, and Glaspell’s Trifles focuses on the trials faced by women in the isolated farm country of Iowa. The selection from John Dos Passos’s The Big Money reveals another type of stylistic innovation: by incorporating snippets of popular culture materials in the text of his novel, Dos Passos calls our attention to the juxtaposition of national propaganda and the realities of labor strife that readers of a daily newspaper might otherwise miss. Nella Larsen’s Quicksand provides an example of the fiction produced during the Harlem Renaissance; also experimenting with style and considering the possibilities for individuality in America and Europe, Larsen’s novel questions the essence of African American identity in the larger context of the American arts. The poets Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens share many of the same concerns as the prose writers, examining in their poetry the place of the individual in the complex and confusing modern world, while experimenting with form and style in their work.

Many of these writers spent significant periods of time abroad, especially in Paris, where they became involved with the Parisian artistic community, much of which centered around Stein’s salon. The impact of European modernism was felt by all, however, whether or not they joined the expatriate community for any length of time. In their poetry and prose, these and other writers of the early twentieth century worked to create a literature appropriate to their time, breaking with tradition and reformulating the function of literature and art in the life of the individual and society at large.

In this unit, students will become familiar with many of the issues concerning prose modernism and its response to the modern world. The video focuses on Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and introduces students to some of the images and ideas linked to literary modernism, which may be further traced in the fiction of such authors as Nella Larsen and John Dos Passos, as well as in the poetry of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane. The work of Sherwood Anderson and Susan Glaspell provides a counterpoint to modern authors’ focus on the city, revealing how ideas about modernity and the individual’s place in the modern world also played out in rural settings. Together with the archive, this unit allows students to explore the formal characteristics of modernist prose, the diverse strains of American modernism, the relationships between modern literature and art, as well as a number of the sociopolitical contexts of this period in American history.

Several other units address different facets of modernism and have significant links to the works and ideas covered in this unit, including Unit 10, which examines the works of the leading expatriate modernist poets; Unit 12, which considers the social and political activism that informs the literature of immigration; Unit 13, which looks at the ways modernism played out in the writing of southern authors; and Unit 14, which shows the continuation of concerns about war and the conditions of everyday life in the work of writers after World War II.

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. recognize the different types of formal experimentation in the fiction of modernist writers such as Stein, Hemingway, Anderson, and Dos Passos, as well as in the poetry of Stevens, Moore, and Crane;
  2. appreciate the diversity of modernist authors, especially the difference in subject matter treated by authors such as Glaspell, Fitzgerald, Larsen, Hemingway, and Stein;
  3. understand the implications of the social and political transformations that reshaped American life during the modern era and the effect of these changes on the literature produced;
  4. see connections between the art and literature of the modern era and be able to identify how popular culture informs both.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway

Who’s Interviewed:
Emory Elliott, professor of English (the University of California, Riverside); Pancho Savery, professor of English (Reed College); Catharine Stimpson, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science (New York University); Robert Stone, novelist, poet, and professor of English (Yale University); Linda Watts, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences director and professor of American studies (University of Washington, Bothell)

Points Covered:

  • Following the devastation of World War I, many intellectuals and writers felt a sense of disillusionment with and alienation from modern, and especially modern American, culture.
  • Numerous writers and artists sought refuge in Paris, which seemed more tolerant and appreciative of artistic pursuits. Paris became a center for writers seeking to create a new kind of literature.
  • Societal standards and morals seemed to be changing, and the so-called “Lost Generation” tried to make sense of these societal changes in their writing, experimenting with form and style.
  • Reacting against rigid Victorian value systems, people were increasingly attracted to Freud’s ideas about the subconscious. Jazz allowed a freedom of expression not condoned by traditional moral codes.
  • Gertrude Stein, a poet and prose writer interested in psychology and modern art, moved to Paris in the early twentieth century and soon became a central figure in the modern art movement there.
  • Stein’s home became an informal salon where numerous writers and artists congregated, and she promoted the work of other artists who later became influential figures, such as Hemingway and Picasso.
  • Like other modernists, Stein chose to write character-driven, rather than plot-driven, fiction. Stein’s “portraits” attempted to illuminate the inner workings of the human mind and investigate how language and consciousness interacted. She was less interested in representation than in words themselves and employed successive repetitions of words and phrases to force readers to look carefully at the words without thinking of them as representations of objects.
  • Ernest Hemingway, another stylistic innovator, returned from service in World War I questioning much of what he had been taught about heroism and patriotism. He brought to his writing a journalist’s eye for accuracy, stripping away rhetoric that had proved meaningless and creating a crisp and powerful prose style that would influence generations of writers to follow.
  •  Hemingway’s characters search for meaning in exotic locations, such as Spain or the plains of Africa. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” like much of Hemingway’s writing, follows the thoughts of a dissatisfied man looking back on his life and questioning his place in the world.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald also moved to Paris following the war, having made a name for himself in the United States as a chronicler of what he termed the “Jazz Age” with his novel This Side of Paradise.
  • Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby examines the dark underside of the American dream. His work is haunted by loss, a sense that something is lacking in most modern American lives.


  • Preview the video: The video focuses on the three experimental prose writers of this period: Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Responding to the disillusion following World War I and the excesses of the “roaring twenties,” these expatriate writers looked for meaning in language and, in the process, profoundly influenced fiction writers who followed. Stein’s sometimes incomprehensible prose portraits questioned the function of language and humans’ ability to pin down meanings, while Hemingway’s pared-down style offered readers what seemed a more accessible presentation of the world than fiction had previously provided. Fitzgerald’s work examined the social mores of the “Jazz Age” and highlighted inconsistencies in the “American dream.” Paris became a center where these and other authors congregated and helped to foster a flowering of modernist literature and art.
  • What to think about while watching: What is new about these writers? How do they expand the definition of what it means to be American? How do they respond to the social and political tensions of the time? Ask students to think about why American authors found it easier to write about their subjects in Paris than in the United States. What aspects of these authors’ work might have challenged conventions still in force in America?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: This unit focuses on modernist writing between the world wars. In addition to the three prose writers addressed in the video, less-studied authors such as Sherwood Anderson, Nella Larsen, John Dos Passos, and Susan Glaspell provide further context for the prose that was produced in this period, while Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Hart Crane furnish examples of experimental poetry at the time. The archive material will allow more detailed consideration of the links between the experiments of writers and artists of the period and provide background information on World War I, mechanization, modern art, Paris, and the transatlantic nature of modernism.

Suggested Author Pairings

Nella Larsen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Susan Glaspell
All these authors comment on the status of American society, criticizing the ways individuals are restricted by their race, gender, class, or personal desires. Set in very different locations, these authors’ works allow students to reflect on some of the different ways society may limit the individual. You might use Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to consider more fully the limitations of the American dream suggested by “Winter Dreams” and consider how gender complicates the limits on individual desires in Trifles and Winesburg, OhioQuicksand permits a discussion of the effects of both gender and race on the individual’s pursuit of self-fulfillment. These texts may also be linked with texts from other units: you could pair some of Larsen’s criticisms of race in America with those leveled by Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. Glaspell’s play connects well to several feminist authors in the nineteenth century; Fanny Fern’s short essays and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” might usefully extend your discussion of restrictions placed upon women. You might also select works that query how men are likewise limited by gender: Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” would allow students to discuss how gender stereotypes may inhibit men as well as women. Anderson’s stories would likewise complement this discussion, as Winesburg, Ohio examines the frustration of characters of both sexes.

Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway
These authors’ works highlight some of the stylistic innovations of modernism. Stein’s idiosyncratic use of language, Dos Passos’s inclusion of “newsreel” and “camera eye” materials, and Hemingway’s non-linear narrative all demonstrate some of the experiments being made by writers after World War I. These innovators in prose could also be taught with the most innovative of the modernist poets, Eliot, Pound, and perhaps Williams. Class discussion might focus on the different types of experimentation found in this prose and poetry, from choice of word to subject matter to form. These authors’ works could also be paired fruitfully with some archive images of modern art. This juxtaposition would allow students to consider the breaks with tradition, the fragmentations of perspectives, and the celebrations of streamlined forms that were concurrently taking place in modern art.

Hart Crane and John Dos Passos
These writers employ popular culture in their work, and you might create a multimedia unit in which you pair a screening of a Charlie Chaplin film such as The Kid (1921) with a reading of “Chaplinesque.” Dos Passos’s work incorporates the newsreel, and again you might bring footage to class for students to watch. Ask students to think about the intersections of popular culture and art, and about how the newsreel material of The Big Money functions with respect to the rest of the novel. Several William Carlos Williams poems also reference popular culture, especially advertising, and you might also discuss some of the collage art of the Cubists that incorporates remnants of newspapers and packaging.

Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, and Nella Larsen
These authors all examine crises of faith and the difficulty of establishing meaning in the modern world. You might look at how the quest for meaning is treated differently in Stevens’s poetry, Hemingway’s short story, and Larsen’s novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” layers questions about meaning over concerns about authorship and artistic creativity, and Quicksand layers questions about personal identity and faith with those of race in America. This questioning of faith might also be traced through works in other units, especially in the modern poets Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.

Sherwood Anderson, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein
These writers employ something of a scientific approach to the world, observing people and objects carefully in their poetry and prose. Discussion might include a focus on individual psychology in the work of Stein and Anderson and the investigation of human nature in the works of Moore. Stein’s portraits and descriptions focus less on the person or thing being described than on the variety of words one might use to describe them; the emphasis is on the language of communication rather than the information to be communicated. In contrast to Stein’s look at the language of individual consciousness, Moore’s poems seek universal truths and examine the vastly different effects of social forces on individuals.


art deco – A style in decorative arts and architecture that emphasizes streamlined, geometric forms and an affinity to the shapes and materials of industrial products. A response to the elaborate, organic forms of the prevalent art nouveau style at the turn of the twentieth century, art deco designs such as the Chrysler Building often celebrated the machine. Beginning about 1910 and lasting until the mid-1930s, the art deco style influenced the design of many significant buildings and interiors.

cubism – A style of painting that developed in Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century and which emphasizes abstract forms rather than realistic representation in painting and sculpture. Reacting to the tradition of realistic art, cubists painted the underlying geometric forms that they believed were the basis of natural forms. Cubist art often incorporated multiple perspectives, which many viewers found disorienting. Some of the foremost practitioners of Cubist art were Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Leger.

dadaism – A term used to describe a nihilist form of modern art. The word “dada” is a child’s term for “hobbyhorse” in French and was picked at random from a dictionary by the original group of dada practitioners. Beginning in Zurich in 1916, with centers of activity in Berlin and Paris as well, dada was based on the principles of deliberate irrationality, anarchy, cynicism, and the rejection of the conventional laws of beauty and social organization. Dada is art designed to force viewers to question aesthetic conventions by shocking or confounding them. Unusual materials were often used; Marcel Duchamp, for example, displayed a urinal turned upside down and titled “Fountain.” The dadaists disbanded in 1922, many of them becoming part of other modern art movements, particularly surrealism.

jazz – Originated in cities such as New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago by African American musicians around the turn of the twentieth century, jazz developed in a variety of ways. Its roots are from African American folk music, but as jazz developed, elements from other musical cultures–from contemporary Western classical music to musics of the Far East–were gradually assimilated, resulting in a broad range of sub-genres within the larger context known as “jazz.” Jazz is characterized by solo and group improvisation, complex syncopation, and extended harmonies, as well as idiosyncratic interpretations of popular songs. Different styles of jazz have markedly different sounds, and the New Orleans jazz of Louis Armstrong sounds strikingly different from the urbane jazz of Duke Ellington in 1920s Harlem.

modernism – A term that refers rather broadly to literature and art produced under the influence of “modernity”; that is, in response to the conditions of the modern world, with its technological innovation, increased urbanization, and accompanying sense of a world changing too quickly to comprehend. Modernists tended to self-consciously oppose traditional forms, which they believed to be out of step with the modern world. Recently, critics have noted the variety of ways artists and writers labeled “modernist” approach their work, and the allusive poetry of T. S. Eliot, the spare prose of Ernest Hemingway, the political poetry of Langston Hughes, the radical linguistic experimentation of Gertrude Stein, and the regionalist work of Sherwood Anderson have all fallen into the category of modernism.

nativism – A term used to describe the sentiment of Americans who considered themselves “native,” since their forebears had come to the United States generations earlier. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, millions of immigrants arrived in the United States each decade, and native-born Americans often found their different cultural attitudes difficult to tolerate. Increasing numbers of immigrants arrived from eastern European countries and Asia, whereas earlier waves of immigration had come primarily from northern and western European countries such as England, Ireland, and Germany. Immigration laws passed between 1917 and 1924 significantly restricted how many immigrants could come from each country, and they tended to allow many more immigrants from Germany and Ireland, for example, than from Asian or African nations.

primitivism – A term used to describe artistic and literary styles that borrow from cultures (usually non-European) considered less advanced than the artist’s own. Primitivism in painting enjoyed a vogue in the early decades of the twentieth century, and artists such as Picasso incorporated style and symbol from African art, while literary figures looked to rural settings and “simple” folk for their stories and poems. These seemingly less complex societies and modes of life appeared to provide an answer to the confusion caused by the modern world.

Prohibition – The period in the United States between 1919 and 1933 when the Volstead Act or Eighteenth Amendment made it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol. The law was not especially well enforced, and in the early years of the Depression, many felt that Prohibition was not only an infringement on personal liberty but a detriment to the failing U.S. economy.

surrealism – An art and literary movement that aimed to tap the unconscious mind in the creation of art; founded by the French critic and poet André Breton in the mid-1920s. An outgrowth of dadaism, surrealism depicted scenes from dreams and employed Freudian symbolism. Some of the best-known surrealists are Salvador Dali and René Magritte. The surrealist movement in literature flourished mainly in France and often used automatic writing to establish a connection between the unconscious of the writer and that of the reader.

Taylorism – An approach to maximizing the efficiency of production developed by the industrial engineer Frederick Taylor in the first decade of the twentieth century. Taylor made careful analysis of the ways industries organized their human labor and machines and created systems to reduce the waste of time and energy. By simplifying the tasks of any individual laborer, Taylor’s “scientific management” not only maximized the efficiency of production, but also made the laborer’s job more repetitive and tedious. In a time when immigrants comprised a significant portion of the work force, such simple tasks allowed businesses to employ unskilled workers and pay them very little. This change in manual labor practice further alienated workers from meaningful work and created environments that made workers quite like the machines they operated.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Bradbury, Malcolm. Dangerous Pilgrimages: Trans-Atlantic Mythologies and the Novel. London: Secker & Warburg, 1995.

Brown, Milton W. American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1955.

Cooper, John M., Jr. Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.

Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Grahn, Judy. Really Reading Gertrude Stein. Santa Cruz: Crossing Press, 1990.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.

Roberts, Mary Louise. Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Ruth, David E. Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Tichi, Cecelia. Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987.

Watts, Linda. Gertrude Stein: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Wilson, Richard Guy, Dianne H. Pilgrim, and Dickran Tashjian. The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941. New York: Brooklyn Museum in association with Harry Abrams, 1986.

Zinn, Howard. People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1980. (See Chapters 14 and 15.)

Further Resources
“1913 Armory Show.” (Online exhibit:

American Visions [interactive multimedia]: 20th Century Art from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection. San Francisco, CA : Eden Interactive, 1994. To order: Eden Interactive, 224 Mississippi Street, San Francisco, CA, 94107.

Antheil, George. “Ballet Méchanique.”

Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The Armory Show: International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1913. New York: Arno, 1972.

Chaplin, Charlie. Modern Times. 1936.

The Goldstein Museum of Design [Online exhibits: Costume, Decorative Arts, Graphic Design, Textile], Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel, College of Human Ecology, University of Minnesota, 244 McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, MN, 55108. Phone: (612) 624-7434.

Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Company (Online exhibit: American Memory Project. Library of Congress).

Kernfeld, Barry. What to Listen for in Jazz (book/CD). New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 (Online exhibit: American Memory Project. Library of Congress.

Winter, Robert. Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Voyager CD-ROM. Phone: (888) 292-5584.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6