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

11. Modernist Portraits

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

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.

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