20th Century Literature & the World Wars
ENG 109, Prof. C. Agatucci, Spring 2007
See also relevant previously assigned readings:
"The 20th Century: The Modern Age & Emerging World Culture" (Davis et al. pp. 1345-1363)
"Literary Modernism and Conrad's Heart of Darkness" (handout)
URL: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng109/Modernism_Heart2007.htm

Fin de siecle & pre-World War I (ca. 1870s - early 1900s)

Even before the catastrophe of World War I (1914-1918), many Western thinkers, writers, and artists had began to question nineteenth-century "certainties that had supported traditional modes of social organization, religion and morality," as well as "traditional ways of conceiving the human self . . . " (Abrams 119).  Loss of faith in "received" Western [so-called "First World"] ideas of progress, science, religion, politics, bourgeois morality; was influenced by new scientific discoveries and theories, and radical thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, James G. Frazer, and others.  Traditional Western structures of human life--e.g. Christianity--were questioned and challenged as self-serving "convenient fictions" created to preserve power for privileged groups, and impose artificial order & meaning on what increasingly seemed to be a random, unjust, senseless, violent world of predatory "haves" (i.e. the rich, privileged, powerful) exploiting the "have nots" (i.e. the poor, disenfranchised, powerless).

Aesthetic Movement & Decadence (ca. 1870s - early 1900s):
--Artists/Writers are increasingly alienated by “Philistine” middle-class culture, and attack bourgeois art & respectability (e.g. critical of institutions of family, education, religion; oppression of women, and European colonial empire building)
for Art’s Sake: Art’s Independence as (pseudo-religious) end in itself (e.g. Oscar Wilde):
Aestheticists champion unique, special (mythic-symbolic) value in artistic/literary form, holding language inseparable from meaning; but Aestheticism descends into excesses of Decadence: hedonistic, emotional debauchery/degeneration
--Even as literacy and access to education grows, gap between "popular" culture and "high-brow" culture, art, literature also  widens

Fin de siecle [>French = “end of century”] Mood of many Artists/Writers:
--Sense of
social breakdown, dislocation, fragmentation, and impending doom
--End-of-century ennui
(>French: world weariness, apathy):
Melancholy, witty, sophisticated ennui, cynicism, and rejection of seemingly bankrupt Western "civilization" and art forms.
--Increasing alienation from grey, bureaucratic, urban contemporary society = a sterile, materialistic “waste land” of “hollow men”:
Mistah Kurtz—he dead [> Conrad, HofD]
--Anti-colonialism rises against European imperialism/empire: > fueled, e.g., by U.K.-Boer War (1899-1902), Irish nationalism, & works like
Heart of Darkness;
--Rapid, unprecedented, unsettling changes marked the first years of the new 20th century.

Early C20 Modernist Poetry (US, UK, Europe): "Imagism" >Ezra Pound: “Make It New!
--Hard, clear, precise images > influenced by Japanese haiku
(vs. Romanticist fuzziness & emotionalism)
--Direct treatment of the thing (subjective or objective)
--Free metrical movement
--Short, sharply etched, descriptive lyric (but no method for longer, complex poems)

Yet for those enjoying unprecedented power and prosperity, and many more:
•Belief in Western Science & Technology to effect Progress achieves status of a religion in pre-World War I Western Europe
•Western European Imperialism: dominates 4/5 of Earth’s land surface, represented as enlightened force of peace & progress
•Industrialism’s 2
nd wave: electricity, chemicals, oil, transportation & communication technology:  automobile, telephone, radio, airplane

World War I (1914-1918) & Its Consequences

Catastrophe of World War I (WWI)- ironically & naively called "The Great War to End All Wars":
--WWI seemed a new Apocalypse: WWI devastation and senseless sacrifices (esp. those exacted by trench warfare) wiped out nearly an entire generation of young men, leaving a stunned and alienated group of survivors whom Gertrude Stein (U.S. writer/expatriate) famously labeled a "lost generation";
Shaken to the core is faith in
Western civilization, its cultural-social values, its imperialistic rhetoric and political-economic policies, and their violent military consequences
--Post-WWI mood is dominated by profound
disillusionment and despair, cynicism and/or mindless hedonism
break from past traditional structures of Western culture & art seemed the only possible response for many Modernist artists and writers:
seek new sources of inspiration and/or turn inward to create new art forms equal to representing their experiences and perceptions of disorder, chaos, injustice, hypocrisy, bankruptcy, and alienation; and to forging some new meaning or quest for meaning in a seemingly meaningless post WWI world.


"High" Literary Modernism
"Literary Modernism and Conrad's Heart of Darkness" (handout)
URL: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng109/Modernism_Heart2007.htm
Literary critic M. H. Abrams defines "Modernism" as follows:

       The term modernism is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts, and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the . . . [20th] century, but especially after World War I (1914-1918).  The specific features signified by "modernism" vary with the user, but many critics agree that it involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of Western art, but of Western culture in general.  Important intellectual precursors of modernism, in this sense, are thinkers who had questioned . . . certainties that had supported traditional modes of social organization, religion, and morality, and also traditional ways of conceiving the human self--thinking such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and James G. Frazer, whose The Golden Bough (1890-1915) stressed the correspondence between central Christian tenets and pagan, often barbaric myths and rituals.
      Some literary historians locate the beginning of the modernist revolt as far back as the 1890s, but most agree that "high modernism," marked by an unexampled range and rapidity of change, came after the first World War.  The year 1922 alone was signalized by the simultaneous appearance of such monuments of modernist invention as James Joyce's Ulysses, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, as well as many other experimental works of literature.  The catastrophe of the war [World War I] had shaken faith in the continuity of Western civilization and raised doubts about the adequacy of traditional literary modes to represent the harsh and dissonant realities of the postwar world.  T. S. Eliot wrote in a review of Joyce's Ulysses in 1923 that the inherited mode of ordering a literary work, which assumed a relatively coherent and stable social order, could not accord with "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." (118-119)

Abrams further explains:

     A prominent feature of modernism is the phenomenon called the avant-garde (a military metaphor: "advance-guard"); that is, a small, self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertake, in Ezra Pound's phrase, to "make it new."  By violating the accepted conventions and proprieties, not only of art but of social discourse, they set out to create ever-new artistic forms and styles and to introduce hitherto neglected, and sometimes forbidden, subject matters.  Frequently, avant-garde artists represent themselves as "alienated" from the established order, against which they assert their own autonomy; a prominent aim is to shock the sensibilities of the conventional reader and to challenge the norms and pieties of the dominant bourgeois culture. (120).

Source:  Abrams, M. H. "Modernism and Postmodernism."  A Glossary of Literary Terms.  6th ed.  Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1993.  118-121.

William Butler Yeats  (Ireland, 1865-1939) & "The Second Coming" (1919;1921)
Assigned Reading: Davis et al. pp. 1504-1508, & 1511-1512, discussed in class

On W. B. Yeats's "The Second Coming," Prof. Paul Brians explains:

Yeats was attracted to the spiritual and occult world and fashioned for himself an elaborate mythology to explain human experience. "The Second Coming," written after the catastrophe of World War I and with communism and fascism rising, is a compelling glimpse of an inhuman world about to be born. Yeats believed that history in part moved in two thousand-year cycles. The Christian era, which followed that of the ancient world, was about to give way to an ominous period represented by the rough, pitiless beast in the poem. 

W. B. Yeats's "The Second Coming," according to literary critic B. L. Reid, " moves with . . . confident mastery," the poem's "vision is sweeping and apocalyptic, the rhetoric formal, grand, and full of power, the structure that of two stately violent blank verse paragraphs"  [emphasis added: "blank verse" lines of poetry do not end in rhyme, and "paragraphs" in poetry = stanzas].  What follows is an excerpt relating to "The Second Coming" quoted from Reid's article: 

Yeats is dramatizing his cyclical theory of history: that whole civilizations, like men but on far grander scale, live in antinomy, every culture "perning" or wheeling in a "gyre" of about two thousand years, undergoing birth, life, and death and preparing all the while the life of its opposing successor--two cultures in immense rhythmical alternation "living each other's death, dying each other's life." The critical period of the "interchange of tinctures," when one era struggles to die and its "executioner" struggles to be born, will be violent and dreadful.

In 1920 the Christian era nears the end of its "Great Year" of two thousand calendar years; it is "turning and turning in the widening gyre," reeling in centripetal drunkenness. One may, perversely, recall the opening of Hopkins's "The Windhover"; but the "hurl and gliding" flight of the Christian poet's [Hopkins'] hawk was very different, and the god and the yearning spirit were in stretched contact. Yeats 's poem remembers war and revolution and inhabits an apocalyptic climate in which "the falcon cannot hear the falconer": man has lost touch with God, with any center of order. The landscape is alternately grimly graphic and splendidly vague: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blooddimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

"Surely some revelation is at hand," exclaims the appalled spectator; and his mind instinctively calls up the revelation promised by scripture: "Surely the Second Coming is at hand." But the Christian image is immediately dispossessed by an unbidden pagan form that rises out of the storehouse of timeless symbols: "Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight," a huge polymorphic figure that recalls the Sphinx of pre-Christian Egypt. Its movement is sluggish, sensual, insolent, cruel, irresistible. The flight of the birds helplessly follows the path of the widening gyre: "somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds." The lens of vision closes, but the horrified viewer knows that he has seen the rearisen god of a new and old barbarism, waking to keep his appointment with time: "The darkness drops again; but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, / And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

The rocking-cradle image is one that recurs in these late-middle poems, to emblematize the seesaw rhythm of the interlocking gyres, in the single life as in the collective life. When the rough beast slouches off to Bethlehem to wedge his heartless, mindless bulk into the cradle of Christ, the massive accuracy of the nonchalant verb is enough to show how and why Yeats was a great poet. He wrote in The Trembling of the Veil: "One thing I did not foresee, not having the courage of my own thought: the growing murderousness of the world"; and later in that text: "After us the Savage God." If he [Yeats] had not foreseen him [this "Savage God"], he had certainly found him in Spiritus Mundi, and enabled us to see him unforgettably.

Virginia Woolf (U.K. 1882-1941): Excerpt from A Room of One’s Own (1929)
(based on lecture series given in 1928) Davis et al. pp. 1570-1582

•Mental instability, abuse
•1905: Bloomsbury Group; 1912: m. Leonard Woolf
•Brilliant innovative Modernist writer of fiction & non-fiction
Hogarth Press
Room of One’s Own based on 1928 Lectures on Women & Creativity, Newnham College
A Room of One's Own = foundation of Anglo-American Feminist Literary Criticism;
  "Shakespeare’s Sister" section example of innovations in literary Essay genre  
•1941 (mid-World War II): Woolf commits suicide by filling her pockets with rocks, walking into River Ouse, Sussex, & drowning herself.
Recommended Films: The Hours,
Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway

Post-World War I . . . for more, see 20th Cent. Timeline (Davis et al. 1346-1351)

•1917-1922: Bolshevik Revolution, Civil War in Russia
•1920: Women’s Suffrage in U.S.;
Irish independence; Gandhi leads Indian independence
•1922: Soviet Union
•1924: Lenin dies, Stalin comes to power
•1925: Hitler, Mein Kampf; U.S. Scopes “monkey” Trial
•Late 1920s: German “Black Friday”; U.S. Stock Market crash; 1930s: Depression

Akhmatova’s Requiem (wr. 1935-1940; subject to censorship in USSR)

•Alienated by sick dehumanized society
•Realist protest: death of individual freedom, negation of family ties
•Realist subject: social realities, misery of ordinary people’s lives
•Art’s critical function
•Romantic individualism of visionary poet tempered by Russian communal tradition: bear witness & remember for the national conscience; personal, subjective “I” (distanced) & emotion controlled
Organicism: poetic expression creates its own poetic forms; Mixed points of view, style, form varies among poems in Requiem cycle
•Modernist fragments comprise the cohesive whole
•Readers co-create meaning, but Akhmatova is not distainful of general audience
•Powerful simplicity, directness, concrete imagery (rejects obscure symbolism):

World War II (1939-1945)

•WWI not “war to end all wars”: tensions grow 1920s-1930s:
         economic conflicts & competition among Western colonial powers
         world-wide depression in 1930s
         rise of dictators, ultra-nationalism, militarism in Europe and Asia
•Fascism (Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain) rises, vowing to reverse decline of West, preserve “pure” European culture; “Axis” incl. militaristic imperialistic Japan
•London TLS [Times Literary Supplement] chastises U.K. poets for failing to “do their duty,” for not sounding the “trumpet call” to fight “monstrous threat to belief & freedom” at outset of WWII.
Poet Cecil Day Lewis responds to “Where Are the War Poets?”

“They who in folly & mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now & bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.”

“It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse—
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worst.”

•1939: After U.K. & other W. European attempts at Appeasement of Hitler fail, World War II begins:
"Axis" (Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan & occupied territories) vs. "Allies" (led by U.K. and unoccupied W. European democracies, later to be joined by USSR and USA)
•Dec. 1941: After Japan bombs Pearl Harbor (Hawaii), U.S ends "isolationist" stance and enters WWII on side of the "Allies."
•USSR joins "Allies" after Hitler betrays initial pact with Stalin (USSR's totalitarian dictator) by invading Russia, which ultimately results in the epic Battle of Stalingrad and annihilation of Germany's army on the Eastern Front.
•1945: WWII ends after U.S. drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Japan (demonstrating human technology's capability to end our world and stimulating an arms race that continues to this day)
•Allies "win" World War II: world powers are politically defined, and a "Cold War" among these powers is waged, for the next 40 years.
•United Nations is established to re-build hope for a future of world peace (?)

•World War II was a global nightmare of devastation, suffering, and death:
--Global scale of this "world" war, waged on many fronts, affected nearly every continent and its peoples;
--Western science, technology, industrialism were applied with devastating success to waging "total" warfare; dealing serious, if not fatal, blows to residual Enlightenment faith in human reason, knowledge science, technology, education, etc., as trustworthy guides to human progress and betterment;
--Unprecedented and horrific numbers of WWII civilian casualties and deaths resulted from:
    e.g. Aerial blanket bombings (because targeting technology was notoriously imprecise) of strategic targets, as well as of cities and heavily populated areas;
    e.g. Deliberate, unconscionable genocide campaigns systematically enacted with lethal technologically-assisted success (e.g. against millions of victims interred in German and Japanese concentration camps). 

World War II: The Aftermath

•WWII's manifestation of the human capacity for evil & the apparent triumph of human nature's "dark side" raised profound moral, religious, and spiritual questions;
•WWI War criminals guilty of unconscionable acts were named and indicted, many were tracked down and brought to justice by post-WWII courts, and a few escaped. But what of passive immorality of people and nations which could not be prosecuted--that vastly greater number who knew (or should have known), who stood by and who did nothing while wartime genocide and atrocities were committed?
WWII's survivors struggled to come to terms with their own feelings of guilt and responsibility, deserved or not, for what happened in WWII, and could not bring themselves to speak/write of their unalleviated by
•A mortal wound Residual Enlightenment faith in

Post-WWII Responses: Art in Crisis
Existentialism (Sartre, Camus):
  --human condition = absurd, senseless, useless:
  --we are isolated beings cast into alien universe without truth, value, meaning;
  --we must accept radical responsibility for our own being & existence
Literature of the Absurd (Kafka & his heirs): the “real” is surreal
•Artistic autonomy: must break from past, its cultural traditions, & a world that’s lost all sense of justice, meaning, morality

Art in Crisis
•Survivor guilt & “inner emigration” (Hannah Arendt) - feelings of betrayal, withdrawal
•Failure of the imagination before the unthinkable: loss of reasons to go on living & make sense of the senseless horrors
•Heated debate: What kind of art, literature is viable, equal to the profound issues raised by WWII--its crises, disasters, horrors?
•Can art/lit help restore human values in post-WWII global society?

Holocaust Literature &  Elie Wiesel

•Jean-Paul Sartre: post- WWII  “arte engage” authenticity of form and feeling paramount (vs. Romantic sublime egotism & art for art’s sake = frivolous & irresponsible)
•New Global consciousness
Elie Wiesel’s “vow of silence” (1945), then silence broken (Night, 1960)
•Eye witness - Bear witness: testify to the unthinkable horrors
•Obligation to the dead: Do not forget!

Wiesel’s “Death of My Father” (From Legends of Our Time, 1968; rpt. 1982)

•Rejects fiction for confessional memoir, autobiography -acts of memory w/ truth value, authentic
•Confront the past
•Survivor guilt: Healing power of storytelling
•Pose tough, probing questions:  Where was God?  What happened to ethics, justice? What meaning can religious rites confer?
•Modernist search for meaning w/new urgency - will human imagination fail again?

Takenishi’s “The Rite” (1963)

•Japanese children of 1945 begin to tell their stories of sorrow, loss, grief in 1950s-60s.  Shares Wiesel’s themes:  death rites, acts of remembering
•Fictionalizes to distance? Survivors’ guilt, incomprehension
•Semi-autobiographical retelling of Hiroshima: Aug. 1945, Takenishi 16-yr-old schoolgirl; large no. of Japanese school kids killed; 140,000 dead by end 1945; 60,000+ die of longer term effects
•Long silence, denial
•Setting: one long night 10 yrs. later when Aki can’t sleep, & denied memories flood back
•Modernist narrative techniques create more authentic representation of psychological reality
•Modernist rendering of Aki’s past memories & present consciousness: free-associational, stream of consciousness
achronological, fragmented, disjointed flashbacks/forwards = broken pieces of film
•Modernist search of meaning - look back & look within to expose what has been repressed
•Remembering frees her of the past, by confronting its horrors, & performing the death rites left undone
•Readers too must experience Aki’s dislocation, confusion, alienation, etc. in search for meaning

The books we need
are the kind
that act upon us
like a nightmare,
that make us suffer
like the death of someone
we love more than ourselves. . . .
A book should serve as an ax
for the frozen sea inside us.
--Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. "Modernism and Postmodernism."  A Glossary of Literary Terms.  6th ed. 
         Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1993.  118-121.

Agatucci, Cora, ed.  "Literary Modernism and Conrad's Heart of Darkness." [Handout]  English 109:
          Western World Literature: Modern. Central Oregon Community College, Spring 2007.

Akhmatova, Anna. Requiem. 1935-1943; pub.1987. Trans. Judith Hemschemeyer. Rpt. in
          Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York:
          St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 1635-1641.

Brians, Paul. "William Butler Yeats: 'The Second Coming.'" "Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
         Study Guide."  2005. Dept. of English, Washington State Univ. 1 March 2006

Davis, Paul, and others, ed. Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2. New York:
         St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Reid, B. L. "William Butler Yeats." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 19: British Poets, 1880-1914
          A Broccoli Clark Laymon Book.  Ed. Donald E. Stanford.  Gale Group, 1983.  399-452. 
          Gale Literature Resource Center. [Online subscription database.]  Gale Group, 2006. Central
          Oregon Community College Library, Bend, OR. 1 March 2006.

Takenishi, Hiroko. "The Rite." 1963. Trans. Eileen Kato. Rpt. in  Western Literature in a World Context.
         Vol. 2.
Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 1892-1908.

Wiesel, Elie. Legends of Our Time: "The Death of My Father." 1968. Rpt in Western Literature in a
World Context.Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.1826-1830.

Witcombe, Christopher L. C. E. "Modernism." Art History Resources on the Web. Department of Art
         History, Sweet Briar College, Virginia, USA
. 1997. <http://witcombe.sbc.edu/modernism/>.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own: Ch. 3 [Shakespeare's Sister]. 1929. Rpt. in
          Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2.
Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York:
          St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 1573-1582.

Yeats, William Butler. "The Second Coming." 1919;1921. Rpt. in  Western Literature in a World Context.
         Vol. 2.
Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 1511-1512.

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