Modern Literature

The modernist movement of literature reached its height of popularity in Europe in the early 20th century. It reflected the notion of individualism and rejected more traditional values. Some critics argue that Hunger (1890) by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), was the first modernist novel. Described as "disturbing, brutal and comic," Hunger introduced a new style into European literature. Hunger is based on Hamsun's experiences as a poverty-stricken writer, in which he examines the mental state of his tormented hero. It won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. According to the Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism (2003) an influential set of writers and artists at the height of the modernist movement was The "Bloomsbury group." Members included Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. The Anglo-American canon of high modernist writers was entirely male and included James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats and Joseph Conrad.

Americans such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald brought modernism to the United States. Hemingway (1899-1961) was first noticed by publishers for his work In Our Time (1925) and went on to write The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). The fiction of Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) is associated with the Jazz Age. His works included Flappers and Philosophers (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925). Another American, E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), is regarded as one of the most innovative modernist poets. His work includes The Enormous Room (1922). Poet T.S Eliot (1888-1965) is perhaps best known for The Wasteland (1923), a work on the concept of spiritual decay and modern futility. Ezra Pound, who was a prominent figure of the literary set in England, recognized the brilliance of Eliot when they met in London. Inspired by him, Pound went on to publish his own work, which includes Ripostes (1912). American novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. He also wrote Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952). Meanwhile, American writer Gertrude Stein led the invasion of "Americans in Paris," moving to the French capital in 1903. Stein's home became a famous literary salon, attracting the likes of Hemingway. Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (1933).

British writers regarded as modernists include Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who was a leading feminist and pioneer in her style of writing. Her books include To The Lighthouse (1927), Mrs Dalloway (1925) and The Waves (1931). Another British giant of literature was novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) who caused a scandal with the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1928. The third prominent figure in this list of British writers is E.M. Forster (1879-1970), who wrote Howards End (1910). His first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread was published in 1905, and his last, A Passage To India (1924), was hugely popular. Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote 18 Poems (1934), Twenty-five Poems (1936) and the radio play Under Milk Wood (1954).

The other leading group of influential modernists was Irish and included James Joyce (1882-1941). His epic Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922 and was hailed as "a work of genius" by Eliot and Hemingway, but it was banned in the United States until 1933. Ulysses revolutionized the novel both formally and structurally and influenced the development of the ‘stream of consciousness' technique. Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) was renowned for his work The Isle of Statues (1885) and The Wanderings of Oisin (1889). In 1923, Yeats was the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Another Irishman, dramatist Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), revolutionized theatre with his play Waiting for Godot (1953). The play has been described as "the most significant English language play of the 20th century."

Modernists outside of the United States, Great Britain and Ireland include Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose work reflects his life in Prague. In 1912, he started writing his first novel Der Verschollene (1927). Another notable contributor to modern literature was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), who was born in Poland. Conrad wrote in English and is regarded as a modernist writer of great influence. His first novel Almayer's Folly was published in 1895 but he is best known for Heart of Darkness (1922).

Modern Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism By Paul Poplawski Greenwood Press, 2003
The Modern Movement: 1910-1940 By Chris Baldick Oxford University Press, 2004
Modernism By Peter Childs Routledge, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Texts, Contexts, Intertexts"
Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel By Pericles Lewis Cambridge University Press, 2000
Modernism, Narrative, and Humanism By Paul Sheehan Cambridge University Press, 2002
Modernism and Cultural Conflict, 1880-1922 By Ann L. Ardis Cambridge University Press, 2002
New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism By Ann L. Ardis Rutgers University Press, 1990
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.