The Search for Meaning and Identity in American Modernism

Term Paper 2017 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1) Introduction. Changes in American Literature Between the Wars

2) The Waste Land: Fragments of Society Reflected in Poetry

3) The Great Gatsby: Reactions to Changed Elements of Society

4) The Sun Also Rises: A Response from Abroad

5) The Grapes ofWrath: Mixed Responses to Mixed Messages

6) Conclusion

1) Introduction: Changes in American Literature between the Wars

One of the characteristics of Modernism in America is the development of changing attitudes towards religion, and in particular Christianity, which was seen as the traditional religion that had, up until then, been a pillar of American beliefs. These changed attitudes ranged anywhere from questioning one’s religion or faith to having flat out aversions to even the idea of (any) God. (my emphasis) In the late 1800’s, under the influence of the idea of successful Manifest Destiny, and major advances in sciences and technology, people were generally high-spirited, grounded in their beliefs. They minded their own business, followed their goals and dreams. They witnessed, or even experienced abundance, and paid little attention to things that they felt did not concern them, including foreign affairs.

By the beginning of the Twentieth-Century though, it became increasingly clear that these advances that had brought so much fortune, also had a shadow side: Increased poverty and new forms of organized crime had also become a part of the American society. Especially after World War I, women’s roles had changed significantly, and racial issues were escalating in direct relation to segregation and discrimination. Economic and climate issues also had a major impact in people lives, forcing many into poverty and into migrating to other parts of the country to survive.

These pivotal changes presented many challenges that were difficult for many people to process. They came at dizzying speeds and left no time for reflection, processing or understanding. With their beliefs shaken, and therefore also their identities, this, in turn, led to many people to have to make a decision to leave and search for something new, or something that was missing in their lives.

Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to examine selected literature of the Modernist Era as it responds to the questioning or rejection of traditional beliefs that America had relied upon and to answer the question if America found its identity in the time of Modernism?

2) The Waste Land: Fragments of Society Reflected in Poetry

In 1922, three years after World War I, T.S. Elliot published The Waste Land which is said to incorporate glimpses of scenes and experiences of the fractured and fragmented state of America, Europe and even the entire world.

According to The Norton Anthology of Americal Literature. Shorter 6th ed, “one can tell from its title (that) The Waste Land - the great poem of the movement - represents the modem world as a scene of ruin,” (p. 1814) and reflects the many different influences, often seemingly disconnected, that one had at the time when looking outward into a society and when one examines ones self.

The Waste Land contains many different facets of these influences in a very compact space that reflects either how fragmented the psyche of the people was, or how it was perceived to be. It appears that, in this period after World War I, people are trying to make sense of the current state of their world, and their own lives.

Is this typical of Moderism? According to Philip Tew and Alex Murray in Modernism Handbook, the “output (of the Modernist Era) is largely predicated on challenging traditional methods and the implicit belief that they might adequately represent human experience, and a recurrent theme is the inadequacy oflanguage to express anything essential”. (Tew 208)

In an era filled with massive change, it seems it was almost impossible to decipher what exactly was essential. Thus, The Waste Land became the iconic work for demonstrating the characteristics of Modernist literature. Fragments of thoughts and scences intertwine with allusive references throughout the work, which, inevitably renders it difficult to access and daunting to approach.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Frisch weht der Wind

Der Heimat zu

Mein Irisch Kind,

Wo weilest du?” (lines 30-35; Eliot's emphasis)

In the first segment of the poem, this verse, written in German language, (the language of 'the enemy' of the American and Brititsh forces in World War I), is initially, innately, difficult to understand. The poem depicts many aspects of life in this era on different levels, and several steps are needed before it can begin to be comprehended, starting with a translation.[1] It includes references to Eliot's own life and there are many glimpses of the modem culture, seasoned with many facets of varying, often conflicting elements, as shown in this verse. Second, this is a reference to Wagner's opera “Libretti - Tristan and Isolde”, which, thirdly, leads one back to the Celtic myth of 'Tristan and Isolde'. This however, is for most first discovered after reading the notes which include Eliot's explanations and intentions, and entices the reader to presume that there is much more meaning hidden in this verse.

In the second segment, “II. A Game of Chess”, the reader is confronted with a recurring line:


(lines 141,152,165,169,170; Eliot's emphasis)

Although this is 'normal' English, this phrase stands out in several ways. First, through repetition, as it is repeated five times throughout the segment. Secondly, it is in all capitals. Thirdly, it is sure to resonate with some readers, as the phrase is originally a routine call of British bartenders to clear the pub at closing time.[2] As such, it recalls a well-known element of a social scene experienced by many, perhaps on a daily basis and offers a hint ofbeing comprehensible, at least on some level.

But in the addition to using phrases in modem English or modem foreign languages, Eliot makes references to historical literature as far back as Greek mythology (in the original Greek!). But in a country (America) where 'language' has been an issue for debate throughout its history, (and still is - as recently reflected in President Trump's decision to eliminate the White House's information website in the Spanish language[3] ), this aspect alone had, and has, the ability to make certain readers quickly dismiss it. Despite the fact that even though it may, on many levels appear to be 'elitist' or 'intellectual' (something that is sometimes considered something of a four-letter word in many circles in America) - 1 suggest that, taken in the context of the time, it could have also been a reflection of the reality of a collective experience that many people had reently had through experience in Europe and in the war. Many people, men, had just returned home from Europe and in the war, and would have experienced first-hand fragments of foreign languages in the European countries where they had themselves served. Through the horrors of the war, many people had lost their faith and their identity. Offering no explicit solutions to the problems of the time, the piece reflects fragments of the many different issues that permeated society and resulted in an identity crisis, both collective and for the individual that now suddenly questioned the beliefs that the country had been built on. That being said, it is surely no coincidence that the first line of the poem is a reference that appears has religious connotations: „April is the cruelest month“, (line 1) is a reference to Canterbury Tales - the collection of stories of people on a spiritual pilgrimage. When we think of a pilgrimage, we see people in movement and searching, presumable, for something that will assist them in finding some kind of spiritual connection. In this reference we are immediately reminded of the search American writers have embarked on has actually been on-going for centuries. Different languages, fragments of various scenes, and subtle references to other historical landmarkers make the poem, for many, inaccessible and confusing, which also mirrors many aspects of American society at the time when they must essentially start over and try to re-create itself - or try to come to terms with the changes it is now confronted with.

3) The Great Gatsby, Reactions to Changed Elements of Society

In 1845, John O’Sullivan introduced the concept of Manifest Destiny[4], a term that quickly found its way into the American consciousness. This concept framed the widely-held beliefs in America that it was their 'mission from God' to expand the American borders across the continent to reach the West coast. In this country that was still less than one hundred years old, “such enormous increases in the country's size inspired the growth of an intense national pride, thus also providing a deepening of the identity associated with living in America and being an American. The feats of frontier settlers evolved into myth and a set of idealized character traits.”[5] As the Twentieth-Century approached, the goals of Manifest Destiny seemed within reach and, coupled with Christian-biblical influences that were enhanced with values of liberty, equality and justice, it could be said that many people saw what they thought were the deserved and well-earned fruits of their labor: American borders reached both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and many held America, and Americans, in an invincible light. It could be said that many people thought that the rules of life were relatively easy: if one minded their own business and did “God's will”, abundance and safety were provided. As such, many people did this, and were oblivious to what was happening outside the United States.

Through advances in technology and transportation, abundance did come in 'respectable and legal ways' (my emphasis), but at the same time it brought with it highly underestimated social changes and problems that resulted in organized crime and what many people described as the decline of morality in America. Many of these issues are reflected in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Written in 1922, the book shows many of the social contradictions and issues that were manifesting, or becoming more prevalent, in American culture in the 1920's. Fitzgerald introduces the reader to the world of the Great Gatsby through Nick, using the I-as-witness narrator, which puts a certain distance between Nick and the actual story, and additional between the reader and the story. Nick relates a story, as he sees it, describing the moral decline of a group of people on the East Coast during the Roaring Twenties, and whose moral deficit leads to a tragic end amongst the societal changes of the Twenties.


[1] Norton Anthology of American Literature. The Waste Land. p. 1982: '2.“V. (see) Tristan und Isolde, verses 5-8“ (Eliot's notes). In Wagner's opera a sailor aboard Tristan's ship recalls his love back in Ireland: „Frest blows the wind to the homeland: my Irish child where are you waiting?"

[2] Members.chello.n./~a.vanarum8/EliotProject/Waste_notes/hurryup_N.htm This lines appears to have a double meaning: first, the direct referral to the bartenders of the time that called out to the customers of the pubs in Britain finish their drinks because it was closing time. Secondly, a call to the reader to wake up in the midst of the current social and political atmosphere and make a change.

[3] https://slator.com/industry-news/los-angeles-congressman-challenges-trump-translate-federal-websites/ The administration of the newly elected President Trump removed the Spanish version of the White House's website

[4] http://www.historynet.com.manifest-destiny - In the 19th century US, Manifest Destiny was a belief that was widely held that the destiny of American settlers was to expand and move across the continent to spread their traditions and their institutions, while at the same time enlightening more primitive nations

[5] Mauk David & John Oakland. American Civilization: An Introduction. Fifth Edition. New York: Routledge, 2009


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modernist identity search meaning hemingway fitzgerald eliot steinbeck



Title: The Search for Meaning and Identity in American Modernism