Modernism – The writers we read who are typically labeled "Modernists" are T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner -- all born near the end of the 19th century (Eliot was the oldest, b. 1888) and so in the generation growing up with the 20th century. The works we read under the label were published between 1914 ("Prufrock") and 1929 (The Sound and the Fury). The identifying characteristics I said you could look for in a Modernist text included: ironic use of traditional sources of meaning and belief (including Sunday mornings and Easters and Grail legends), a sense that reality could best be described with terms like "anarchy and futility" or "chaos" or "nothing" and the human condition with terms like "exile" or "dispossession" or "lost," and the turn to an artistic project of radical experimentation and complexity in part to define serious literature apart from modern vulgarizations and in part to create an intricate, meaningful aesthetic refuge from what Faulkner uses "the sound and the fury" to point to. William Carlos Williams provides a helpful reminder of the limits of all big terms, like "Modernism": he is a contemporary of these other writers, and has to write about the same world they do, but as a 20th century "Romantic" (which means a chastened Romantic) he nonetheless commits his art to showing or revealing the meaning and beauty that are in the world. Along with other writers (like James Joyce) and painters like Picasso and composers like Stravinsky, the Modernists cast such a long shadow over the 20th century that most writers and literary historians think of the second half of the century as "post-Modern," though I'm glad I don't have to try to define that!

Mullen – ". . . don't call it mullen, call it Pitchiola–that's its right name, when it's in a prison" (Tom Sawyer, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, p. 327).

mythical method – a term T. S. Eliot introduced in HIS 1922 REVIEW of Joyce's Ulysses, referring to the way Joyce structures his story about Bloom in Dublin in 1904 around Homer's epic poem about Odysseus. Eliot uses a variant of this technique when he structures The Waste Land against the Grail story. Eliot says this technique of ironically juxtaposing modernity against traditional narrative structures is "a step toward making the modern world possible in art," and many other writers adopted it – including both Hemingway and Faulkner, who juxtapose the stories they tell in the novels we read against religious festivals.


Naturalism – The major American literary naturalists were Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Jack London. All were born in the 1870s and began publishing in the 1890s. The vision of their fiction was shaped by a combination of European books and late 19th-century American experience. In Darwin's biology and Spencer's sociology they found a vision of nature as what Tennyson called "red in tooth and claw," and indifferent to an individual's existence. From books like Nana (1880) and Germinal (1885), by the French novelist Zola, they learned how to define characters as determined by their environment. And the U.S. they grew up in was characterized by the rapid onslaught of modernity: the growth of huge cities, industrialization, a seesaw economy of prosperity and "panic," immigration, large corporations and labor violence and so on. Four men in a dinghy in a big storm on a big ocean, privates in the Grand Army of the Potomac during a Civil War Battle, Hurstwood poor, homeless and sick on the winter streets of New York -- for the Naturalists such extreme figures represent the plight of an individual amid what Dreiser calls "the forces that sweep and play throughout the universe." Carrie is "carried" by larger circumstances. At the same time, she "carries" the longings of humanity, which is for something more than brute survival, for something like an answer to that question that Crane's youth stutters on the battlefield: "Why—why"? The "Naturalist" fictions we read, then, focus on the compelled and possibly doomed quest for meaning and significance within a universe that seems at least potentially meaningless and indifferent.