Modernism: A Kaleidoscope of Images Reflecting the American Condition
Christie L. Dooley
If American attitudes and values prior to the twentieth century could be stereotyped and crystallized into a single image, then it would be one yielding to the will of God, submerged in traditional male/female roles with the male as the head of the family, and dutifully accepting whatever nature imposed. As the years of the twentieth century passed, however, citizens looked to this image as one that no longer embodied and reflected their position. Some reasons for this discrepancy are due to the influx of changing lifestyles that accumulated during the period between World Wars I and II. Modernism, as the period between the wars is often called, experienced new scientific theories, social unrest, changing familial roles, and technological advances. The rapid accruals of such changes upset the basis upon which American citizens had built their lives.
It was not only their lifestyles, individually and socially, that were challenged, but also their perceptions of truth and reality were called into question. The surge of change ultimately caused Americans to reevaluate their lives and the meanings to be derived from those assessments. Some rebutted the advancements and discoveries; others rejected past assumptions, but all unavoidably realized that every aspect of their lives was being scrutinized. Regardless of what each conflicting group envisioned, there were barriers to be crossed, notions to be challenged, and an image to be smashed. In other words, an iconoclastic movement resulted from the modern temper. To observe this clash in American history, one does not have to sift through volumes of history books or visit museums; sufficient evidence can be observed in American literature. American writers such as Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner aptly portray the disagreements–literarily, socially, and morally--between the reality and the ideal of life for American citizens of the modernist era. It is perhaps from these authors that citizens of this period received inspiration to shatter the typical American image placed before them by previous generations.
On the literary level, rebellion, or iconoclasm is seen in works by Gertrude Stein and E. E. Cummings. In "The Making of Americans," Gertrude Stein forces her readers to experience conditioning and familiarity in her otherwise exasperating essay of repetition. She breaks through the standard grammatical rules with lengthy run-on sentences, continuous statements and many punctuation errors. Stein's style, though cumbersome to read, is formulated as it is to challenge her reader to question the validity of such prescribed writing rules. An unsuspecting reader may be befuddled at the beginning of the work. Towards the ending of the discussion, however, the reader has adjusted her consciousness to expect the rambling and learns, at least partially, how to derive meaning from it. Stein is proving to her reader, both grammatically and hypothetically, that habituation, not impermeable truths, is what governs and dictates our perceptions. As a result, she begins to chisel away at conventional teachings and understandings.
E.E. Cummings boldly and blatantly attacks American capitalism in his work, "poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal." He suspiciously mixes patriotic songs with advertisement jingles, and by virtue of the title, asks Americans which evil–the sarcasm of his poem or the beauty promised by manufactures–will hurt them more. His creative grammar, like that of Gertrude Stein, is also an obvious rebellion at the norm. Cummings begins his work by addressing his readers in a very informal term– "kiddo" (Cummings 1). There are no capitalizations in the address, on the beginning word of the poem, or in usual places customary to modern English syntax. In one instance, he reserves five stanzas for the word "America" to be spelled. The most rebellious elements of his work, however, are his allusions to an otherwise constipated American society that finds relief in a quick fix. His poem reads,
gentlemen (and ladies)–pretty
A topic such as this was sure to make conservatives blush in embarrassment at the notion of regurgitation. He refuses propriety and smashes the icons of etiquette and replaces them with much more realistic images of anxious Americans.
Literary rebellion is not the only focus on iconoclasm such modern writers attempted. Much effort was given to explaining societal changes. These writers lived in a time when a return to "normalcy" was called for by America’s citizens, but the actions of such citizens were far from what they had been in the misplaced past. Across the nation, movements of change were developing in the form of Women’s suffrage, xenophobia (fear of outsiders) prohibition, and "super patriotism." Also, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had emerged from the larger cities and universities into a "watered down" version that was discussed by average Americans on the steps of rural churches and inside barbershops. Because of technological advancements and urbanization, many Americans left their farms and moved to larger cities to work on assembly lines. This "automated" change was particularly felt in typical American home life. Due to the production of automobiles, citizens were living in suburban hones that were equipped with appliances that left women with more time to pursue endeavors other than cooking and cleaning. On the weekends in these cities, one could find entertainment by watching "talkies," which are films with sound, enjoying "speakeasies," which were clubs where alcohol was illegally served, or by listening to jazz.
For these people, the days of devoting the majority of their lives to working hard complacently and going to church were over. While many of these changes were welcomed, the threat of change produced anxiety about the future and how it would affect individual lives.
Amongst this perplexing confusion of change, Modern writers tended to "zoom in" on tiny pieces, or scraps, of a life and salvage these pieces to reconstruct the reality of life in the modern era. A classic example of this focus is Ernest Hemingway’s short story "The Snows of Kilomanjaro." Harry, the central character, is dying and in doing so spends much time reminiscing "about" his past excursion. These pieces, with the exception of some short dialogue between Harry and his wife, are all the reader sees or knows of Harry’s life. Yet, it is enough to understand the sadness he feels at choosing a more materialistic life over an honest one. It is, consequently, faith in materialism via technology that ultimately causes Harry’s death. He uses his camera to try to photograph some waterbuck and is injured without getting the snapshot; his leg is infected, the iodine is of no use, and their truck breaks down, which prevents them from getting to someone who can help. Hemingway not only wants his readers to see how "selling out" for the sake of possessions is detrimental, but also to see that placing too much faith in things that one does not understand, such as technology, is risky as well.
Through the fragmented glimpses into Harry’s life we are able to understand how Harry’s quest for a life of ease and leisure has satisfied his body but left his soul hungry for accomplishments. The narrator assures, "He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by cook" (Hemingway 1693). The tragedy of Harry’s life can be nervously anticipated to permeate throughout the lives of those in the modernist era and beyond. As urbanization and industrialization spread all over America, citizens had misgivings about how such improvements would affect their lives. Much less physical effort had to be exerted to survive and gave rise to previously unimagined freedoms, but the unyielding question on the minds of those in the modernist era was, "Now that I have this ‘better’ life, what will I make of it?" Those more inclined to doubt embraced Hemingway’s portrayal of Harry, whose own self-indulgence and procrastination are the catalysts of his demise. He questions the better life that much of society is seeking and plants seeds of suspicion in the minds of those who would otherwise plausibly accept this easy lifestyle.
Another outlook, such as the one seen of William Faulkner in his story "Barn Burning," is more optimistic in regards to the morality of those living within the modern time period. Sarty, the protagonist of the story has lived a nomadic life on various southern farms with his family. The only stability in his life has been whatever comforts he has gained from his familial ties, which seem to be limited to his father’s abuse and his mother’s passivity towards his father’s decisions. Sarty is in his preteen years and is developing his own ideas and values. Previously, he has supported his father’s lies, destructions of others’ property, and general misuse and abuse of all that he encountered. Sarty, now, however, sees the destruction his father causes as one that is avoidable and chooses to no longer be a part of such devastation. In doing so, he rejects the foundations of his childhood and sets out in search of his own ideas and interpretations of the world. This boy, who throughout the story has been noticing his father’s footsteps with much anticipation, ultimately embarks on his own solitary journey with his back to his father’s path. Sarty has received no help from his family, the legal system, the community, or even God in the sense that there is no mention of His existence, and must find the wherewithal to succeed within his own understanding. Faulkner is telling his reader that if an ignorant poor child can find his way out of a corrupt and evil situation, then there is hope for everyone. Just as Sarty finds within himself the ability to choose good over evil, even if it means that he will be cold, alone, and hungry in the dark woods, typical Americans are also able to withstand an uncertain future. Faulkner recognizes the fears that his fellow Americans have in regards to an unscripted future and reassures them that they do have an outlet by which to overcome their dilemmas, fears, and worries--each individual’s own unique cognizance. For this story to have been written within the "Bible Belt," in a setting that places high esteem on family and traditional roles is very iconoclastic. The image that Faulkner smashes is the invisible grip that fear and subjugation place on those who would otherwise choose independence.
Robert Frost is another author who addresses moral iconoclasm in the modern era. In his poem "Birches," the narrator reflects on his childhood and the times he spent playing in Birch trees. When the speaker says, "It’s when I ‘m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood" (Frost 43-44), one is able to infer that he, like other Americans, relates to the confusion of this time. The narrator, much to the chagrin of traditionalists and Christians, equates heaven to a recent ice storm. With phrases like "Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away / You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen" (Frost 12-13), it becomes obvious that Frost is literally confronting and smashing the image of Heaven, and then sweeps the remains away like a clump of dirt. Those who did accept Christianity were, for the most part, diligently working and praying for a home in Heaven. Frost, or the narrator, however, has a different attitude. He says, "I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk/ Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again" (Frost 54-57). He does not deny the possibility of Heaven’s existence; he merely refuses the offer. To the usual protestant who had grown up listening to sermons full of "Hell, fire, and brimstone" and to the Catholics who would probably have to recite dozens of "Hail Marys" for even reading a heresy such as "Birches," this type of rebellion was liberating. Readings of this period were so overwhelmed with the problems of life that it was almost a relief for them to read that they did not have to concern themselves with the uncertainties of life after death.
The crystallized American image of one who worked hard for fear and glorification of God and complacently toddled the path ascribed was successfully shattered in the modern period of American history. As is the nature of crystallized things, each blow to the image brought forth smaller and smaller particles. Nothing uniquely new is created, but the eye sees reflections, patterns, and shadows in the smaller pieces that would have been overlooked in the former image. This is true of the modern struggle for the new American image, as well. The idea of a society that would question the existence of God had long been proposed and acted upon by a multitude of civilizations throughout human history. Rebellion is probably as old as the human condition. Change is also as constant.
If one could piece together all the slivers of images that once
encompassed the original crystallization of human beings to discover the
nature that is the source of all human existence, one would see an
individual who is asking, "Why?" As the continuum progresses and each
generation takes aim at the pieces before them, a new outline is formed.
This was what transpired in the modern era. Writers such as Gertrude
Stein, E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner
each took their place in line as a sculptor would to portray the American
image. They did not receive unscathed material with which to work. Each
had to begin where others left off. So, when the last modern writer
had taken his final swing, the first of the next generation began. Because
no images are exactly alike, the modern American template is one that
can be described as the first successful attempt to break away from
conventional American icons.
Baym, Nina, et al. eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 5th ed. 2 Vols. New York: Norton, 19987.
Cummings, E. E. "Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal." Baym, et al. 2: 1481-1483.
Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning." Baym, et al. 2: 1630-1642.
Frost, Robert. "Birches." Baym, et al. 2: 1130-1131.
Hemingway, Ernest. "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Baym, et al. 2: 1687-1704.
Stein, Gertrude. "The Making of Americans." Baym, et al. 2: 1093-1105.
Christie L. Dooley, at the time of this writing a sophomore in Middle
Grades Education, wrote "Modernism: A Kaleidoscope of Images Reflecting
the American Condition" for Dr. Barbara Murray's ENGL 2131 class during
spring 2003 semester.
Christie L. Dooley, at the time of this writing a sophomore in Middle Grades Education, wrote "Modernism: A Kaleidoscope of Images Reflecting the American Condition" for Dr. Barbara Murray's ENGL 2131 class during spring 2003 semester.