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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Modernist Portraits – Activities

Overview Questions

  • What issues shaped Americans’ thinking during the modern era? How did American literature respond to the societal transformations of the post-World War I period?
  • How did political events, such as war and labor conflict, affect the works of the writers included in this unit?
  • What impact did World War I have on the way people thought about the modern world? What technological innovations influenced the way people perceived society and the individual’s place
    within it?
  • How did the stylistic innovations of modernist prose affect the way later authors used language and narrative structure?
  • How were the myths of the “public enemy” shaped by historical and cultural changes during the modern era? How is this related to shifting notions of the American success story?
  • How did modernity transform the traditional notions of American self-reliance and independence? How did authors consider and rework modern social relations in their writing?

Video Activities

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: What brought the writers featured in the video to Europe?
Context Questions: What about the writing of Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald struck readers as very “new”?
Exploratory Questions: How are Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald commenting on the behavior of Americans? What do they seem to be saying about the country of their birth?

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it?
Video Comprehension Questions: What impact did World War I have on the thinking and writing of these authors?
Context Questions: These writers lived much of their lives in Europe, especially Paris. Why did Europe seem more conducive to art than the United States?
Exploratory Questions: Why do you think Hemingway’s style appealed so strongly to his reading public? Why did he have such a pronounced influence on other writers?

How are American myths created, challenged, and reimagined through these works of literature?
Video Comprehension Questions: What myths of American manhood did writers such as Hemingway believe in, and what shattered these myths?
Context Questions: In what way was the “Lost Generation” lost?
Exploratory Questions: What does Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the American dream suggest about its viability in the modern world?

Creative Response

  1. Poet’s Corner: Choose a character from one of the prose works in this unit (e.g., “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” QuicksandTrifles) and write a short poem from that character’s point of view. You do not need to choose a main character. How, for example, do you believe Harry’s wife (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”) would think? Or Minnie Wright, the absent focus of Trifles? How does the poetic form change the way you present information about the character?
  2. Journal: Chronicle a moment in your life using the style of Gertrude Stein. Describe the same people and things from slightly different angles and experiment with departing from typical meanings of words. What happens to your thinking about your subject when you use this technique?
  3. Journal: Imagine you are Nella Larsen and are considering your long-awaited third novella. What would this novella be about if you set it in present-day America? Where would you set it and what would happen?
  4. Doing History: Look at the images of World War I and read the accounts by soldiers. Choose one image and write a narrative account of what you think is happening in it. What would an onlooker see, smell, and hear? What might a soldier feel and think? What’s happened just before this picture was taken and what will happen next?
  5. Multimedia: You have been asked to design a virtual museum exhibit that shows the principles underlying modernism in literature, art, and music. Using the archive, create exhibition “rooms” where visitors may read texts, hear music, and see artwork to help them better understand how these different art forms interpreted the principles of modernism. Write short explanatory notes to go with each image, text, or sound clip.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. You belong to a group in which the members call themselves “Modernists.” It includes Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Nella Larsen, and Susan Glaspell. Design a salon where you will hold your meetings. What works of art, music, and literature would you want around you? Whom would you invite to join you?
  2. You are an editor of children’s books at a large publishing house, and you have been asked to put together a book on modernism for three age groups: ages 7-10, 11-13, and 14-17. How will you present modernism to each of these groups? What works will you use to explain the ideas behind modernism to them? How will you alter your presentation for different age groups?
  3. You are a member of the team responsible for designing an interdisciplinary exhibition about modernity and the 1920s and 1930s at a local museum. What art works, literary texts, film clips, music, photographs, and everyday objects would you include in this exhibition? What do you hope visitors to your exhibit will learn from your installation?

The War to End All Wars: The Impact of World War I

[6972] National Photo Company, Tank ploughing its way through a trench and starting toward the German line, during World War I, near Saint Michel, France (c. 1918), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115011].

Considered by contemporary observers to be “the war to end all wars,” World War I radically shifted the way people thought about the world and the relationships between different nations. Beginning as a localized conflict between Austria and Serbia, the war escalated through a series of complex treaties and agreements among thirty-two nations of Europe, all of whom would eventually become involved in the war. Technological innovations had changed the face of warfare, which was now fought from a distance with bombs and poison gas. Opposing armies dug trenches on either side of contested areas of land, and soldiers found they could do little but wait for attack. The unimaginable horror of trench warfare–with the incredibly destructive bombs and deadly gas falling on soldiers waiting in wet and rat-infested holes–left a lasting impression on the soldiers lucky enough to return from the war. A new postwar condition emerged called “shell-shock”; many men returning home found themselves angry, depressed, confused, and haunted by nightmares of what they had seen on Europe’s battlefields. Casualties reached staggeringly high numbers; it seemed that an entire generation of young men had died in the gruesome battles fought over mere yards of muddy ground. Ten million died in battle and twenty million more died of disease and hunger as a result of the war. Following the war, a severe flu epidemic spread around the globe as men returned home, and twenty million people died from complications associated with the flu.

In America, World War I had a lesser impact, though its effects were certainly felt. The American poet E. E. Cummings claimed that “World War I was the experience of my generation.” Led by President Woodrow Wilson, the United States tried to maintain its isolation from the distant battles of European nations, believing America should not embroil itself in European squabbles. By 1917 the devastation that Europe had suffered along with the building pressure to protect U.S. economic interests in Europe swayed public opinion to support the war and “make the world safe for democracy.” Despite patriotic propaganda, however, only 73,000 men volunteered to fill the million-man quota, and Congress called for a draft.

Support for America’s late entrance into the European war was hardly unified: in response to the criticism leveled at the government by numerous socialists, intellectuals, pacifists, and isolationists, the Espionage Act of 1917 made it a criminal offense to speak out against the war. The hypocritical patriotism promoted by the government angered dissenters, who claimed that the war was yet another opportunity for big business to protect and expand itself at the expense of common soldiers who went to die on distant battlefields. Socialist agitator Charles Schenck distributed leaflets protesting the war and calling the draft “involuntary servitude” against which the Constitution was supposed to protect Americans. He called the draft “a monstrous deed against humanity in the interests of the financiers of Wall Street” (Zinn 356). The Espionage Act denied rights to free speech protected by the Constitution, but the Supreme Court nonetheless upheld the act, and objectors were jailed.

Historian Howard Zinn describes the war as a powerful unifying tool for a country split by class conflict and racial tensions; both before and after the war, the country seemed to many on the brink of revolution. (See Unit 12 for more on socialism and unions in the early twentieth century.) In contrast, many of the writers covered in this unit felt strongly about service to countries struggling to defend themselves, and some participated in the war even before the United States entered it: Hemingway, Stein, and Dos Passos all volunteered to drive ambulances in Europe, and Fitzgerald enlisted in the U.S. army in 1917. Novelist Edith Wharton, then residing in France, also worked to help war refugees, for which she was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.

Fifty thousand American soldiers died in what became known as “The Great War” and those who returned home shared the disillusionment of their European counterparts. Many wrote about the war in the years following. It seemed proof positive that the frightening trends of modernization, advances in science and technology in particular, had terrifying and unimaginably destructive consequences. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land depicts the world as a place devoid of life or meaning, a waste land not unlike the stretches of ground that separated opposing armies, over which they meaninglessly fought and refought, moving a few yards forward, only to be driven back, move forward, and be driven back again. Reporting in Europe generally neglected to mention the carnage on the battlefields, and the public was largely unaware of the extent of the destruction and the comparatively small gains made in return for the thousands of lives lost in each battle.

At the end of the war, the triumphant Allies–chief among them England, France, and the United States–demanded reparations from the defeated countries, especially Germany. Unable to make the reparation payments, Germany’s economy collapsed. The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 set the stage for Germany’s aggressions leading up to what would become World War II.

Both during and after World War I, European and American writers expressed disillusionment with the lofty ideals that had led them into battle. In Britain a number of young writers such as Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon wrote poetry in response to what they had seen on the battlefields of France. E. E. Cummings–who, like Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Anderson, served as an ambulance driver in France–wrote “next to of course god america i,” which questions the blind patriotism that young men like himself had been encouraged to feel. Their ideals shattered, young writers returning from war appeared to Gertrude Stein a “lost generation,” a generation whose worldview had been radically altered by the most horrifying and destructive war anyone had yet experienced. The work these writers produced demonstrates their belief in the world as an uncertain and often illogical place, and their fiction and poetry often employ a similarly disorienting structure. By breaking with traditions of narrative and poetic form, these authors attempted to capture in the very fabric of their writing the confusion and dislocation fostered by modernity.


  1. Comprehension: Why did World War I have such a pronounced impact on writers and thinkers? What made this war different from previous wars?
  2. Comprehension: Examine the poster advertising war bonds located in the archive. How does this image appeal to its viewers? Why do you think this image was selected by the government? What does the text tell you about contemporary attitudes toward the war?
  3. Comprehension: In Wallace Stevens’s “Death of a Soldier,” what is the speaker’s attitude toward the death of this soldier? What does the poem seem to be saying about war in general? How does what you know about World War I help to explain this attitude?
  4. Context: Read E. E. Cummings’s “next to of course god america i.” Pick out the different references to popular songs and sayings and consider what juxtaposing them in this way does to their meaning. What does the poem say about the popular rhetoric of patriotism? What is its attitude toward war?
  5. Context: Though Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is set in Africa, in Harry’s flashback, readers get glimpses of his experiences in the war. How do the scenes of war figure in this story? How are they described and why do you think they are included in this story of a man dying in Africa? What comment do they make on war?
  6. Context: Look at Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Is there a way to read these poems as commenting on the war or its aftermath? What could Frost be saying about human nature and the effects of our actions or inactions? How does Eliot present the world he depicts? Why do you think the outlook of the poem is so bleak?
  7. Exploration: Think of movies you’ve seen that depict wars. Consider different time periods: from Birth of a Nation (1915) to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Sergeant York (1941) to Paths of Glory (1957) to M*A*S*H (1970) to Platoon (1986) to Saving Private Ryan (1998). How do these or other war movies you’ve seen portray war? Are conflicts shown as opportunities to demonstrate valor or pointless fights that ultimately achieve nothing (or a combination of both)? Which portrayals do you think are currently most accepted by society at large, and what do you think influences societal beliefs about war? How do you explain the shifting attitudes toward war represented in these films?
  8. Exploration: Consider how World War I was presented to you in the history classes you’ve had. Did your class cover the protests against the war? If not, why do you suppose history books would leave out such things as the Espionage Act and the people who were imprisoned for violating it?
  9. Exploration: Examine the images of World War I soldiers and battlefields included in the archive. How are these pictures presenting scenes of war? What do they seem to be asking the viewer to think and feel? Find other images of war you’ve seen in contemporary magazines and compare them to the World War I images. What has changed about the way war is presented visually to the public? What has remained the same? You might also look at some of the earliest photography of war: pictures of the Civil War. How was the camera being used to present war to newspaper readers?


[6115] Charles Gustrine, True Sons of Freedom (1918), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2426]. 
Photograph of segregated African American regiment during World War I. African American soldiers often worked for civil rights both during and after their military service.

[6556] Vincent Aderente, Columbia Calls (1916), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-8315]. 
Propaganda poster calling for Americans to enlist to fight in World War I.

[6963] American Lovers of Italy, Ambulances in Italy, 1917 (1917),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-7387].
Many modernist writers, including John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, served as ambulance drivers or in other capacities during World War I.

[6965] Committee on Public Information, Under Four Flags, Third United States Official War Picture (1918), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-947].
Poster for U.S. World War I propaganda film. The U.S. government tried to sway public opinion in favor of fighting with the Allied powers.

[6966] James Montgomery Flagg, The Navy Needs You! Don’t Read American History — Make It! (1917),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [2001700115].
Recruitment poster showing businessman, sailor, and female figure with American flag. Reversing its previous policy of isolationism, the government solicited volunteers for World War I.

[6971] Underwood and Underwood, Learning of German Retreat from Her District, French Woman Returns to Find Her Home a Heap of Ruins (1917),
courtesy of Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115012].
Photograph of seated woman looking at the ruins of her home in the Somme region. Bombing damaged and destroyed many buildings in Europe. Images such as this illustrated the dangers of technology and modernization.

[6972] National Photo Company, Tank Ploughing Its Way through a Trench and Starting toward the German Line, during World War I, near Saint Michel, France (c. 1918),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115011].
Black-and-white photograph of a tank on a World War I battlefield. Devastation amplified by mechanized weapons and the horror of trench warfare created a sense of disillusionment in many modernist writers.

[6973] Central News Photo Service, Another Sort of War Ruin–After Several Days in the Trenches (1918), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115013].
Photograph of badly wounded soldier, assisted by comrade. Although many Americans approached World War I with optimism, their experiences with brutal trench warfare and mechanized weaponry were disillusioning.

[7669] William Allen Rogers, Buy a Liberty Bond To-day! (1918),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [CAI-Rogers, no. 232].
War bonds were an important way to rally nationalism as well as raise money for war efforts. Here the artist uses a melting pot motif to enlist the aid of recent immigrants. Originally published in the New York Herald, May 1, 1918, p. 5.

[7803] Pancho Savery, Interview: “The Lost Generation Writing on World War I and Alienation” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Savery, of Reed College, discusses modernist writers’ loss of innocence when faced with the brutal warfare of World War I and suggests that this disillusionment marks a break between the modern and Victorian eras.

[8246] George M. Cohan, Over There! [title page] (1917),
courtesy of the Digital Scriptorium Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.
Title page for the sheet music to the song that rallied the nation to take action in World War I. Cohan also composed “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Modernity and Technology: The Age of Machines

[7033] Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, Major John F. Curry, and Colonel Charles Lindbergh, who came to pay Orville a personal call at Wright Field (1927), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ppprs-00765].

Americans’ fascination with and dependence upon a variety of machines was well established by the closing years of the nineteenth century; in the early years of the twentieth century, this fascination only deepened as technological innovation became more and more widespread. Most major cities relied on some form of mechanized public transit to get residents from one side of growing metropolises to the other, and more Americans bought the automobiles Henry Ford turned out at astonishing rates. There were only eight thousand automobiles in America in 1900, and by 1920 there were more than eight million. By 1940 that number had risen to thirty-two million. Electricity became more common: in 1917, only 24 percent of homes in America were electrified, and in 1940, almost 90 percent were.

In his discussion of the machine age aesthetic, art historian Richard Guy Wilson contends that in America the machine became an integral part of the lives of a wider segment of society than was the case in Europe, infiltrating not only the workplace, but the home as well: refrigerators (up to seven million in 1934 from only sixty-five thousand in 1924), vacuum cleaners, and apartment building elevators became increasingly commonplace. The number of telephones jumped from one million in 1900 to twenty million in 1930, allowing Americans from far-flung parts of the country to communicate with one another. The radio, introduced in the 1920s, only enhanced the interconnectedness of Americans and their access to information and entertainment. (For more on the impact of the radio on American culture and poetry, see “Broadcasting Modernization: Radio and the Battle over Poetry” in Unit 10.)

The development of the film industry likewise brought the “moving pictures” to an ever-widening audience, which increasingly looked to Hollywood for cues that would determine cultural values. With the advent of sound at the end of the 1920s, film became one of the major venues of American culture and Hollywood’s influence expanded to become international in scope.

In 1903, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright proved that man could fly; in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville had a successful flight of twelve seconds. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh completed the first transatlantic airplane flight, which took him more than thirty-three hours. After landing in Paris, he became an international hero and celebrity, one of the multiplying cultural links between the United States and Europe in an age of ever-faster international movement of people and ideas.

Literary critic Cecilia Tichi has argued that the machine age fundamentally changed the ways people viewed and thought about the world around them, as the human body itself came increasingly to be perceived as functioning like a machine. The efficiency expert Frederick Taylor developed a system to maximize profits by making factory workers as interchangeable as the parts in the machines they operated; as men and women came to be treated as interchangeable parts, their job security also lessened, for any worker could easily be replaced, a benefit for factory owners, but a significant disadvantage to the worker. These changes in the workplace certainly help to account for the rise in union membership coincident with the rise of Taylorism.

The power and possibility embodied by machines captured the imagination of everyday people, and especially fascinated artists and writers. The poet Hart Crane, for example, found the Brooklyn Bridge a compelling symbol of the possibility of the United States; his selecting a structure that represented the beginnings of American technological expertise and innovation suggests his belief in the potential of the machine-made world. Painters likewise turned to the machines of the early twentieth century for inspiration, finding the power and speed of machines appealing and adapting the streamlined look of ships and cars to their own work. Charles Sheeler, a painter and photographer working in the early twentieth century, likened the heavy machinery of industry to the massive architecture of European cathedrals, asserting that “Our factories are our substitutes for religious expression.”

Architecture was also profoundly influenced by the possibilities opened up by machines, and city “skyscrapers” began to reach higher and higher. In 1909, the highest building in the world was the Metropolitan Life Tower, reaching 700 feet. In 1929, the Chrysler Building towered over it, its peak at an astounding 1046 feet. (It remained the tallest building in the world for only one year; the Empire State Building surpassed it in 1931.) The Chrysler Building, constructed for the Chrysler motorcar corporation, had a celebration of the machine built into its very fabric: architectural details used automotive motifs, and decorative elements were shaped like wheels and hood ornaments. The machine aesthetic influenced other areas of design as well, underpinning what came to be known as art deco, a streamlined style that drew on the vocabulary of machines, which designers applied to furniture, interior design, appliances, and jewelry. Music also experimented with the application of machine aesthetics to orchestral pieces, and works such as George Antheil’s 1925 “Ballet Méchanique” were performed around the country.

The machine also demonstrated its tremendous power not only to create but to destroy in World War I, where distant machines lobbed powerful explosives at enemies too far away to see. Rather than facing individual enemies on the battlefield, combatants in World War I dug trenches and waited for shells and gas to drop on them, and the resulting casualties were gruesome and more numerous than in any previous war. No one had imagined that such horror was possible, and the dangers that modern mechanization imposed on humanity suddenly became apparent.


  1. Comprehension: Why do critics call the early twentieth century the Machine Age? What made machines so significant at that moment in time?
  2. Comprehension: What are some of the effects of the proliferation of machines after the turn of the century? How did they change the way people lived their day-to-day lives?
  3. Comprehension: What values are promoted by the machine aesthetic? What do you see in the details of the Chrysler Building, for example, that demonstrates these values?
  4. Context: How does the Brooklyn Bridge function as a symbol in Hart Crane’s The Bridge? What attitudes does the poem express about the place of machinery in contemporary life?
  5. Context: How do the images in the archive (the Aaron Douglas paintings, for example) respond to the machine aesthetic? How do they employ the vocabulary of machinery and to what effect?
  6. Context: How are the lives of the characters of Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” affected by the machinery in it? What do the cars and boats that form part of the background say about Dexter and Judy Jones? (You might also consider this question in relation to Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.) What does this suggest to you about the role of machinery in the lives of the wealthy? Of the poor?
  7. Exploration: Look at the advertisements included in the archive that juxtapose human bodies with machines. Why do you think this might be an attractive marketing strategy? Can you think of recent advertisements that ask consumers to think of their bodies in this way?
  8. Exploration: How do different early-twentieth-century texts depict machines? Consider some of the novels, stories, and poems you’ve read from the first decades of the century–how does Fitzgerald portray the automobile in The Great Gatsby? What is the attitude expressed about machinery in Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out–“? What is the function of the telephone in Dorothy Parker’s story “The Telephone Call”? Do you see parallels in literature from other times or other nations? British novelist E. M. Forster’s Howards End, for example? What do these connections suggest to you about the relationship of humans to machines?


[4737] William France, New York City, Northeast View from the Empire State Building (1931), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118869]. 
New York City’s skyline symbolized the economic and technological developments that encouraged taller buildings and urbanization.

[4766] Aaron Douglas, The Judgement Day (1927), 
courtesy of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. Aaron Douglas, American (1899-1979). Gouache on paper; 11 3/4 x 9 in.
Douglas’s painting incorporated images from jazz and African traditions, including music and dancing.

[4841] Ben Shahn, Vacuum Cleaner Factory, Arthurdale, West Virginia (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-006352-M5]. 
Arthurdale was one of three New Deal subsistence farm projects in Preston County, West Virginia. Farming was intended to supplement other opportunities, such as in this vacuum factory or in the Mountain Craftsmen’s Cooperative Association. Vacuum cleaners were a popular new item in the late 1920s and 1930s.

[4848] Jack Delano, Blue Island, Illinois. Switching a Train with a Diesel Switch Engine on the Chicago and Rock Island Rail Road (1943), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-026606-E DLC]. 
The Chicago and Rock Island Rail Road Company began operation in 1848. The 1930s saw the development of a lighter diesel engine capable of producing more horsepower that in turn brought great innovations to freight trains and streamlined “lightweight” passenger trains.

[6547] Anonymous, Miss Katherine Stinson and Her Curtiss Aeroplane (1910), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-106324]. 
Curtiss biplane and early aviator Stinson (1891-1977), the fourth licensed woman pilot in the United States, was a talented stunt pilot who carried air mail, raised over two million dollars for the Red Cross, and trained pilots for the U.S. Air Force.

[6898] Anonymous, Charles Lindbergh, Full-Length Portrait, Standing, Facing Front, Beside the Spirit of St. Louis (1927), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-93443]. 
Lindbergh became an international celebrity after he completed the first transatlantic flight.

[7024] Nathan Sherman, Work with Care (c. 1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1172 DLC]. 
This woodprint was created as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project. The WPA provided over nine million people with sustaining wages by employing them to build roads, beautify buildings, play concerts, and write histories, along with a wide range of other activities. President Roosevelt’s plan was to provide multiple forms of relief to the unemployed.

[7032] Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City Views. From Foot 32 E.R., to Chrysler, Derrick Boom (1932), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G612-T01-17832]. 
As technology developed, buildings grew taller and became known as “skyscrapers,” making the modern cityscape profoundly different from the cityscapes of earlier ages.

[7033Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, Major John F. Curry, and Colonel Charles Lindbergh, Who Came to Pay Orville a Personal Call at Wright Field (1927), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-DIG-ppprs-00765]. 
These aviation and military leaders, photographed at Dayton, Ohio, helped mobilize developments in transportation, such as airplanes and automobiles, which facilitated cultural exchange between distant locations and contributed to a sense of rapid change.

[7194] Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City Views. Financial District, Framed by Brooklyn Bridge
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G612-T01-21249]. 
Hart Crane used the Brooklyn Bridge to represent modernization’s unifying potential, while some authors perceived technology and urbanization to be fragmenting.

[7479] Ford Motor Company, Ford Automobile, Made between 1900 and 1920 (c. 1915), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118724]. 
The Ford Motor Company made automobiles available to more people, mass-producing and selling them for affordable prices.

Cultural Change, Cultural Exchange: The Jazz Age, the Depression, and Transatlantic Modernism

[6548] A. E. Marey, Going to See Chaplin (1920), courtesy of the Gazette du Bon Ton.

Popular history depicts the inter-war period as a time of raucous frivolity, speakeasies, flappers, and stock market millions. Indeed, unemployment during the 1920s in America was relatively low; some made sizable fortunes by speculating on Wall Street; and women wore shorter dresses and enjoyed a certain degree of freedom. But only an elite few enjoyed the easy lifestyle portrayed in overly nostalgic looks back at this decade; in America in the 1920s, one-tenth of a percent of the wealthiest families made as much money each year as 42 percent of the poorest families. Wealth was not enjoyed equally by everyone, and the twenties also witnessed growing numbers of labor strikes and a rise in what was called nativism, a preoccupation with protecting the interests of “native-born” Americans against those of increasing numbers of foreign immigrants. In 1924, the Immigration Act capped the number of immigrants permitted to enter the United States, particularly those from countries with cultures deemed unassimilable: while 34,000 British immigrants were allowed to enter, only 100 could come from any African nation or China.

At the same time in Europe, a spirit of experimentation and artistic freedom prevailed, and many artists moved abroad to find places to live that were more conducive to their work than the conservative and restrictive United States. These American expatriates contributed to the renovation of art and literature termed modernism. The label “modernist” applies to works of literature, art, and music produced during this time period that in a variety of ways reflect a “modern temper.” Such work is characterized by a sense of loss, alienation, or confusion caused by changes in the social and physical world that served to dislocate individuals from traditional understandings of how the world functioned. Modernist works tend to break with conventions governing art: modernist writers often shied away from conventions of chronology, point of view, and coherence; modernist artists dismissed traditional conventions of representation, depicting fragmented and abstract images; composers rejected rules about melody and harmony. Much in modern society–moral values, gender roles, connection to one’s work–seemed to have splintered apart, and modern art in some ways represented this sense of fragmentation. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase provides a visual image of this fragmentation; John Dos Passos’s pastiche of story and newspaper headlines textually represents a fragmented world.

Modernism was an international phenomenon; in the early twentieth century, travel and communication became increasingly easy, promoting the exchange of ideas among artists. Writers and artists in diverse countries answered the call to make a new kind of art for a new kind of world. They sought artistic inspiration from the cultural capitals of Europe; Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Anderson, Cummings, Joyce, and Picasso all lived and worked in Paris, which at the end of the nineteenth century had become a center for avant-garde art. Modernist artists of diverse nationalities worked in New York, Paris, and London, among a variety of other locations, and modernist thought traveled freely back and forth across the Atlantic and the borders of Europe through individuals and a vast array of publications. Paris was certainly a center for much of this thought, but modern art appeared in numerous other places, and modern architecture redefined cityscapes throughout the United States and Europe.

Nineteen thirteen was a watershed year for modernism: in New York, the Armory Show introduced abstract art to the American public, and in Paris music and dance took on new forms with the riot-provoking ballet The Rite of Spring, with its jarring music and erotic choreography. In her autobiography, arts patroness Mabel Dodge opined, “It seems as though everywhere, in that year of 1913, barriers went down and people reached each other who had never been in touch before; there were all sorts of new ways to communicate as well as new communications. The new spirit was abroad and swept us all together.” In 1923, the sense that something important was happening in the world of letters that involved both Europe and America prompted Ford Madox Ford to start a magazine called Transatlantic Review, featuring the work of the multinational writers then residing, like Ford, in Paris.

European writers and artists also looked to other traditions for inspiration, especially in the cultures of Africa and Asia. Several historians have noted the significant influence of African American art and culture on the development of modernism. In part, modernists looked to the primitive as an antidote to the modern world and saw in African art and in people of African descent a link to a primordial past (for more on primitivism, see Unit 10). African American performers and writers found greater acceptance in Europe; Parisian audiences were fascinated by the new dance and music coming from performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson.

In 1929 the New York stock market crashed, wiping out the savings of millions of Americans and paralyzing industry; the economic collapse that ensued turned into a worldwide depression. Soon a quarter of the American work force was unemployed, and breadlines and soup kitchens attempted to meet the needs of the millions of Americans without sources of income or sustenance. Initially, economists and politicians predicted the depression would not last long, and those with money and power were unwilling to help the unemployed, whom they believed to be out of work as a result of their own shortcomings. It was not until President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” that the federal government began to provide relief to the unemployed, largely through new work programs created by government spending. The depression did not end until the onset of World War II, when production accelerated once again and more work became available. Many Americans in Europe returned home during the Depression, their sources of income destroyed by the crash. Nonetheless, the interaction of American and European artists had fundamentally changed the art and literature of the twentieth century.


  1. Comprehension: What made modernism a transatlantic phenomenon? Which technological and social developments contributed to this cultural exchange?
  2. Comprehension: What attracted American authors to Europe? What did they find there that they couldn’t find in the United States?
  3. Comprehension: How did political and economic changes in the United States affect the cultural climate of Europe? What impact did the stock market crash and the depression have on Americans living abroad?
  4. Context: In addition to its setting in Africa, Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” references numerous other locations where Harry had spent time. What function does this catalog of different locales serve in the story? Why does Harry reminisce about them as he lies dying in Africa? Why is he concerned that he hasn’t written about these places?
  5. Context: How does Paris figure in “Babylon Revisited”? As Charlie looks back on the end of the 1920s after the Wall Street crash, what does he think of the life he lived in Paris? What does he believe contributed to the lifestyle he led then?
  6. Context: What does Quicksand‘s Helga Crane criticize about American culture? What does she find different in Denmark? What options are open to her there that are not available in the United States? What limitations do Danish cultural values impose on her? What does the novel suggest about the influence of location on individuals’ lives?
  7. Exploration: Transatlantic exchanges were not new in the twentieth century. Look at some of the writings of early visitors to the United States and consider what they hoped to find. What did Alexis De Tocqueville, Fanny Trollope, and Charles Dickens have to say about the young republic? What did nineteenth-century American authors such as Hawthorne and James find lacking in American culture that they sought in Europe?
  8. Exploration: The things that contributed to transatlantic exchanges between the world wars only intensified in the latter half of the twentieth century. How have jet airplanes, television, and the internet extended the cultural exchanges possible among distant nations? What are some examples of these exchanges and what impact do you think they have had on the development of art and literature? On national identity?


[3334] Anonymous, The Trading Floor of the New York Stock Exchange just after the Crash of 1929 (1929), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [1930-67B]. 
Photograph taken from above the Stock Exchange floor. The crash and ensuing depression brought many expatriate artists back to the United States.

[3547] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong, Half-length Portrait, Facing Left, Playing Trumpet (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118974]. 
Innovations in music, prose, poetry, and painting mutually inspired each other. Writers tried to incorporate imagery and rhythms from jazz in their work. F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled the era the “Jazz Age.”

[3548] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong Conducting Band, NBC Microphone in Foreground (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118977]. 
Louis Armstrong was one of the best-known jazz musicians of the 1930s. Jazz was an important theme in modernist writing and visual art; its syncopated rhythms inspired both authors and painters.

[4022] Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), 
courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
Abstract painting exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913. American audiences criticized and ridiculed the work, an example of cubism, a painting trend that incorporated fragmentation and geometrical shapes.

[5935] Dorothea Lange, Depression (1935), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Unemployed man leaning against vacant storefront. Many people lost their jobs and savings during the Great Depression. New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange captured many images of the hardships endured during this time.

[6520] Benson, Brown, Sterlin, and Lange, Keep Jazzin’ It Ras’ (1918), 
courtesy of the Brown University Library, Sheet Music Collection, The John Hay Library. 
Sheet music cover showing musicians and instruments. Jazz influenced poetry, prose, and painting, as artists tried to incorporate its images and rhythms.

[6540] Ethel M’Clellan Plummer, Vanity Fair on the Avenue (1914), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1408]. 
Four women in stylish attire. Popular culture and international cultural exchange, including high fashion, grew with technological advances.

[6548] A. E. Marey, Going to see Chaplin (1920), 
courtesy of the Gazette du Bon Ton. 
Individuals waiting to enter a theater in Paris. Technology made movies available to mass audiences and facilitated the production of popular culture, which often crossed national boundaries.

[6557] George Barbier, La Belle Personne (1925), 
courtesy of Chris Lowe. 
Painting of woman posed with fan, vase, and elegant curtain, table, and clothing. Definitions of female beauty and sexuality changed with modernization, diverging from restrictive Victorian standards.

"An Explosion in a Shingle Factory": The Armory Show and the Advent of Modern Art

[6492] Anonymous, Armory Show Poster (1913), courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In 1913 the International Exhibition of Modern Art opened at the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory in New York City. Art historian Milton Brown calls it “the most important single exhibition ever held in America.” Prior to what became known as the Armory Show, contemporary art and artists had received little attention from the American public, and this exhibition brought curious onlookers in numbers previously unimaginable. Displayed were works by avant-garde European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp, all of whose abstract work had been shown in Europe beginning in 1905, with the Fauviste exhibition (where Gertrude Stein and her brother began collecting modern art). A similar exhibition in London in 1910 had prompted Virginia Woolf to tie a fundamental shift in the world to the display of those paintings, claiming that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Cubism, a style of painting that emphasized the underlying geometric forms of objects, shocked American viewers, many of whom thought that the artists were trying to conceal their own lack of artistic talent or were simply insane. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase caused the greatest public furor, standing for all that was wrong in modern art in the eyes of its critics. It became a target of public ridicule, and parodies of the work appeared in newspapers and journals. As Brown puts it, “American critics were as unprepared for the European visitation as they were for an exhibition of art from Mars.” An art critic for the New York Times thought the work resembled “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

Nonetheless, the show radically changed art in America. Shown alongside these ground-breaking works from Europe, and compared to dadaist and surrealist works of the late 1910s and 1920s, the work of the American artists thinking of themselves as revolutionaries seemed to pale by comparison. The artists representing the Ashcan School–including George Bellows, John Sloan, George Luks, and William Glackens–who had broken with American academic art in choosing to paint scenes of everyday, and especially working-class, life, found themselves considerably less revolutionary than they had thought. While works such as Bellows’s Stag at Sharkey’s and Luks’s Hester Street depicted subject matter generally not considered appropriate to art, their paintings did not move toward the level of abstraction favored by Picasso and Duchamp, for example.

Other arts were also undergoing significant change at this time. When the Ballet Russe performed the modern ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913, the dissonant music by Stravinsky and the daring and sometimes erotic ballet choreography shocked the opening night audience and nearly provoked a riot. Stravinsky’s rejection of conventions governing rhythm and melody paralleled poets’ rejection of conventions governing the meter of verse.

By 1915 some critics were announcing that a shift had occurred in the artistic climate of the United States and that America would soon itself become a capital of culture. After the war, however, American politics became increasingly conservative, with the Volstead Act, the Red Scare, and restrictions on immigration, and American artists again looked to Europe. But throughout the 1920s the spirit of experimentation persisted in different groups, notably the European Surrealists, centered in New York, and by World War II artists in America were at the forefront of experimental art.


  1. Comprehension: What was so new and shocking about the works exhibited in the Armory Show? How did these paintings differ from the art that had preceded them?
  2. Context: What similarities can you see between the cubist paintings of the Armory Show and the literary techniques employed by writers like Stein and Dos Passos? Consider one of Picasso’s cubist paintings and Stein’s “Portrait of Picasso.” How does Stein’s use of language parallel the Cubists’ use of paint?
  3. Exploration: Research other exhibitions and consider their impact on people’s perception of the world. Virginia Woolf believed that modern art actually changed the way people saw things and thought; are there other exhibits of art (e.g., Impressionist exhibits in France at the end of the nineteenth century, or an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography in the late 1980s) that you believe have reshaped people’s thinking? How did the many expositions of the nineteenth century (1851 in London, 1876 in Philadelphia, 1889 and 1900 in Paris, and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, for example) change the way people understood the world they lived in? What is the role of the arts in shaping these beliefs and perceptions?


[4022] Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), 
courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
Abstract painting exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913. American audiences criticized and ridiculed the work, an example of cubism, a style of painting that incorporated fragmentation and geometrical shapes.

[4024] Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture (Les Poissons) (1911), 
courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. 
Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo began collecting works of modern art in the early 1900s, including paintings by Matisse and Picasso.

[4525] Joan Miro, Shooting Star (1938), 
courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. 
Surreal painting emphasizing the geometrical shapes and human forms in abstract art. Modern art was initially centered in Europe and met with hostility from American audiences.

[5303] Arthur B. Davies, Dancers (1914), 
courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Art. 
An example of modern art and cubism, showing geometric forms in nude human forms.

[6492] Anonymous, Armory Show Poster (1913), 
courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. 
The Armory Show was an exhibit of international modern art held in New York City. Many American viewers responded negatively to works by the European artists.

[7500] Anonymous, Pablo Picasso in His Paris Studio (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99813]. 
Photograph of Picasso, surrounded by furniture and art. Picasso was important to art scenes in both New York and Paris and associated with writers, including Gertrude Stein.

Experimentation and Modernity: Paris, 1900-1930

[4930] Anonymous, Hemingway in Paris, courtesy of Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books.

Paris became the unofficial center of literary and artistic culture not long after the turn of the century. Following World War I, a number of American authors and painters moved to Paris; some had served in the army and remained in Europe after the Armistice, while others were lured from America by the vibrant cultural climate of the city and the extremely favorable monetary exchange rate. Artists and writers sought inspiration in the older culture of France, and many felt that Paris accorded them freedoms unavailable in the United States, which was still influenced in part by the Puritan work ethic and a repression of individual desire. Gertrude Stein commented on America’s opposition to art: “Of course they came to Paris a great many of them to paint pictures and naturally they could not do that at home, or write they could not do that at home either, they could be dentists at home.” Ezra Pound believed that American culture was essentially anti-culture and squashed the creativity of would-be writers.

Gertrude Stein made Paris her permanent home in 1903 and turned her apartment into an informal salon where literati and artists would congregate as Paris became a locus of expatriate artistic endeavor in the decades following. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Joyce, and many others called Paris home in the first decades of the twentieth century. The American Sylvia Beach founded a bookstore and publishing company and helped struggling authors get their work published, including James Joyce’s controversial Ulysses in 1922.

Paris was a place of permissiveness, where eccentricity in dress and lifestyle was not only tolerated but also to a large degree encouraged. At the same time, Paris was steeped in tradition, both in its architecture and in its history as a center for cultural and intellectual life. It was in Paris that African American performers and authors who struggled with their careers in the United States found appreciative audiences. The nightlife of Paris did not suffer from the restrictiveness of Prohibition, and its cafés and bars offered authors a place to meet one another.

Literary critic Malcolm Bradbury views Paris as a critical location for the meeting of the international authors who would create modernism:

Paris was the meeting place of two potent forces. One was the peaking of European Modernism, an artistic movement born of a transformation of consciousness in a volatile, troubled Europe. The other was a new stirring of American Modernity, a fundamental process of technological and social change. And what helped to bring about the meeting was the inward transformation of an American culture that was becoming morally and behaviourally far less culturally stable, far more experimental, and so responsive to avant-gardesentiment.

The blossoming of arts and letters that took place in Paris fundamentally changed the character of the literature of the United States, as American literature ceased to be simply a derivative of English literature, but itself became a force in the shaping of international arts and letters.


  1. Comprehension: What about Paris attracted so many artists and writers? How did Paris influence modern art and literature?
  2. Context: What role does Paris play in Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited”? How does Paris affect Charlie’s fate? What do you think it is that Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” finds so appealing about Paris? Why does he want so much to have written about it?
  3. Exploration: Why do you think Paris fostered the type of experimentation it did? What do you think contributes to the culture of a place? Assignments


[4930] Anonymous, Hemingway in Paris
courtesy of Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books. 
A photograph of Ernest Hemingway with motorcycle in Paris. Hemingway was one of many expatriate American writers who lived and worked in Paris, arguing that the atmosphere was less stifling than that of the United States.

[4997] Janet Flanner-Solita Solano, Group Portrait of American and European Artists and Performers in Paris (1920), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-113902]. 
Photograph of American and European artists in Paris, including Man Ray, Ezra Pound, and Martha Dennison. Many expatriate artists found inspiration in Paris’s traditions and less restrictive culture.

[6560] Zyg Brunner, France Imagines New York (n.d.), 
courtesy of Chris Lowe. 
Political cartoon by Zyg Brunner, an artist known for art deco influences, published in a French magazine. Paris was a center of modern art and cubism. New York was the site of the Armory Show exhibition.

[6561] Zyg Brunner, America Imagines Paris (n.d.), 
courtesy of Chris Lowe. 
Political cartoon by Zyg Brunner, an artist known for art deco influences, published in a French magazine. Paris was a major center of modern art and was perceived by Americans as permissive.

[7204] George Barbier, La Redingote, ou le retour aux traditions (1920), 
courtesy of the Gazette du Bon Ton. 
Many American artists who lived in Paris rather than the United States argued that Paris offered freedom from “Puritanical” American traditions.


Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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