Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
Home About Unit Index Archive Book Club Site Search
3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

•  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.
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, Ohio examines 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.

Slideshow Tool
This tool builds multimedia presentations for classrooms or assignments. Go

An online collection of 3000 artifacts for classroom use. Go

Download PDF
Download the Instructor Guide PDF for this Unit. Go


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy