“An inclination to subjective distortion to point up the evanescence of the social world of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie.”
-Barth, “Literature of Replenishment” (www.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0255.html)
Modernism was rebellion against not only the repressive principles of the Victorian era but also the emergence of the fast-changing, materialistic corporate society. The period preceding modernism held up Victorian virtues, which accepted the worldview of everything being ordered, neat, stable, and meaningful. While fundamentally optimistic, Victorian culture featured hypercritical moralism as it had a very narrow, strict viewpoint.
Modernism eschewed such an absolute, clear-cut apprehension of the world. The movement was fueled by the First World War and led by that devastating war’s intellectual casualties, Gertrude Stein’s ‘the Lost Generation’ whose loss of faith in absolutes led them to search for new morals and ideals. Disillusionment, pessimism, and apathy towards society and the popular consensus colored the works of these artists, the literary leaders of whom were T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.
Literary modernism challenged the accepted norms of writing on almost every front. It trod away from traditional narrative structure, clean resolutions, and bourgeois morality that marked the preceding literature. Writers tackled the ordinary notions about writing and communication itself, questioning the ability of language to convey meaning, and experimental writing that broke off from tradition marked the movement’s most famous and exemplary works. Instead of content, writers focused on the aesthetics of their words, often forgoing chronological order and coherent narratives in favor of poetic, fragmented, and obscure prose (www.iath.virginia.edu). Stream-of-consciousness writing employed by Joyce and Woolf and other expressions of inward consciousness in narration threw asunder the safeguard of the reliability of the narrator and required active contemplation by the readers. Perspective assumed a far greater importance in literature as writers offered more impressionistic work without omniscient narrators and clean resolutions.
The proliferation of the experimental spirit in modernist works of literature often alienated popular readership, and such exclusivity served as a mark of quality to a certain extent as it went in hand with the modernist intellectuals’ disdain towards the mass-consumption-driven popular culture. Modernist intellectuals rejected popular culture, as they perceived that creating work that would be universally accepted often involved certain sacrifices of their genius and ultimately degraded art. The movement was certainly not egalitarian in nature. Modernism in fact strayed away from the idea of thinking in terms of groups, opting instead to focus on the individual. It strove for self-knowledge, and the almost narcissistic interest in the self led to the “spiritual alienation, self-exile, and cultural criticism” that pervaded the period.
The place that Hemingway and Fitzgerald occupied in literary modernism is difficult to pinpoint. They both dabbled with modernist writing styles earlier in their careers, but neither was particularly experimental when it came to the aesthetics of their writing. Fitzgerald and Hemingway, however, did fill critical roles in modernism as the symbols of the so-called ‘Lost Generation’.
While Fitzgerald did not demonstrate extraordinary experimentation with his prose, the themes that engrossed his work were quite modernist. The disillusionment with society, contempt for the “tasteless, greedy, and often violent materialism”, and the concentration on the self and the idea of self-invention were some of the most primary issues of modernism that Fitzgerald explored in his writing (Knapp 2).
Hemingway’s work, especially his early work such as In Our Time, was much more true to the modernist spirit than that of Fitzgerald, but Hemingway also did not follow the aesthetic nature of the modernist movement even though his simple, terse style of prose was enormously influential in twentieth century literature. Many of his works are, however, viewed as modernist in their content. In Our Time certainly utilized great experimentation and illustrated painstaking efforts by the artist to establish coherence out of seemingly disparate stories. The Sun Also Rises captured the spirit of the modernist generation and raised issues about the First World War and its imprint on his generation and the role of the modern woman.
It is also critical to recognize that Fitzgerald and Hemingway were popular writers. Even though Fitzgerald was not a best-selling author during his lifetime, both of these writers very much catered to the mass-market audience. The fame, wealth, and celebrity were issues with which these men struggled as their hearts belonged to the modernist ideals of the period’s intellectuals while their reputation and success were out of sync with modernism. But ultimately, Hemingway and Fitzgerald occupy important spots in literary modernism as popular culture’s symbols for their generation.
Knapp, James F., Literary Modernism and the Transformation of Work, (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL:1989).
Willison, Ian, Gould, Warwick, Chernaik, Warren, ed., Modernist Writers and the Marketplace, (MacMillan Press, London:1996).