Definition of Modernism and Three Examples
Indeed, creating a true and solid definition of modernism is exceptionally difficult, and even most of the more scholarly critical accounts of the so-called modernist movement tend to divide the category into more or less two different movements, being what is known as "high modernism," which reflected the erudition and scholarly experimentalism of Eliot, Joyce, and Pound, and the so-called "low modernism" of later American practitioners, such as William Carlos Williams. Nonetheless, despite the problems of reification involved with such a task, I will attempt to invoke a definitions of at least some traits of modernism, as culled from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics:
First, [in modernism] "realization" had to replace description, so that instead of copying the external world the work could render it in an image insisting on its own forms of reality... [and] Second, the poets develop collage techniques for intensifying the sense of productive immediacy.
Preminger and Brogan 793)
Thus, the two substantively important aspects of modernism are an attempt to deal with psychological realization over mimetic representation and a general interest in the use of collage as a technique.
Indeed, under this definition, although it is often not thought of in exactly these terms, Willa Cather's novel My Antonia is indubitably a modern novel in the sense of the above ideas about modernism, in that it not only tends to employ the use of image and representation in favor of mimetic description and also for the fact that it presents a collagistic order of things rather than a purely chronological. In terms of shying away from mimetic representation, this is implicitly held in Cather's books from the first pages when Jim Burden states early on that no one could really understand life on the plains without having actually lived there. This sense of the ineffable permeates the entire books, culminating in poetic descriptions and images rather than mimetic representation. Secondly, although there is an overarching narrative to the novel of sorts, it is largely composed of vignettes, which are offered as memories of the narrator himself. Indeed, in this fashion the narrative structure is largely collagistic and based on the function of memory rather than a traditional chronological linearity.
Secondly, William Faulkner's Light in August is similarly an example of the sorts of work that we would expect to see from an author who can be successfully defined as being under the sway of so-called modernism. His use of the technique known as "stream of consciousness" throughout the novel itself both suggest an avoidance of the mimetic and an interest in collage. Indeed, since everything is stream of consciousness and explained psychologically, the flow of the prose is imagistic and representational rather than mimetic in its nature. Similarly, since stream of consciousness is subject to the rules of metonymy, which is surely as collagistic a principle as can be said to exist, then it certainly fulfills the second dictates as well. This focus on metonymy over mimesis is primarily what qualifies Faulkner's work as modernist.
Lastly, Ernest Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises, can also be said to be a work that is legitimately within the modernist vein. While it doesn't apply the sort of verbal maximalism of Faulkner's stream of consciousness technique, it still employs the kinds of metonymic and collagistic framing points that define it as modernist. Similarly, its focus on the psychological states of its characters, such as the impotence of its narrator, which appears to be both a metaphorical and literal condition, makes it representational rather than mimetic in emphasis.
Thus, two main characteristics of modernism lie in the tendency of modernist works to go in for psychological representation rather than mimetic representation and for works characteristic of modernism to employ techniques like collage (and by extension related metonymic principles) in its construction instead of a mimetic mode. Since the three works discussed above all fulfill those criteria, albeit in distinct and different ways, then they can reliably be considered "modernist."
2) Strategies of Narrative Point-of-View
Indeed, perhaps there is no greater line in terms of immediately defining the point-of-view within the narrative as Herman Melville's opening line to his great novel, Moby Dick in which the narrator speaks directly to the reader, saying "Call me Ishmael." In so doing, Melville manages to establish an immediate contact between...
He creates this sense by having his narrator introduce himself to us, just as any person that we would meet. In so doing, he immediately makes his narrator accessible and human.
In his novella, The Turn of the Screw, Henry James uses exactly the opposite notion of narration, by employing a narrator who is hearing a story that is derived from the notes and journals of another person. Also, by having the teller of the story refuse to deliver it up to the narrator and the assembled guests at first, James also creates an air of enigma and suspense around the story. In this particular fashion, then, his story's point-of-view feels quite different from the amiable and intriguing character of Ahab with whom we can identify immediately and with whom we feel a basic human connection. Indeed, the distance between the narrator and the story makes the story itself seem more strange and, indeed, alien, which is, of course, the only proper thing for a ghost story to do, in terms of the simple way in which it functions.
In her great novel, My Antonia, Willa Cather employs a first person narrator in the same fashion as both Henry James and Herman Melville do in the two works discussed above, but she places her narrative powers within the person of someone who has just met her principle character of Jim Burden on a train. Like Burden, the narrator, too, is from the plains region and grew up knowing Antonia as well. There are several reasons fro doing this: part of it lies in the idea that by having this other character seems slightly obsessed over Antonia as well, we can see that there is something beyond mere obsession in Jim Burden's idea, especially since Antonia come to be sort of a free-floating signifier that somehow indicates the entirety of the plains regions itself, as well as being an individual index of the life and times of Jim Burden.
The narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is similarly a sort of bystander in the action of the story, who, although he meets the principle characters within it, manages to stay removed effectively from the main action of the piece and thus is not involved in the great tragedy at the work's end. Indeed, Nick's role remains ambiguous, as do the nature of some of the romantic troubles that he seems to describe at the novel's inception. The authorial trick involved with dealing with Nick like this is twofold. The first effect is that, by employing this technique, Fitzgerald is able to underscore the sort of alienation that his characters experience in the novel by similarly alienating us from the narrator, who is distant and mysterious, largely unlike the overly friendly and considerably more amiable Ishmael that narrates Moby Dick.
In a manner that is exceptionally different from all of these works, Nathaniel Hawthorne in his great novel, The Scarlet Letter, narrates everything using an exceptionally flowery and verbose third-person narrator, the reasoning for which is perhaps to distance himself slightly from the title character of Hester Prynne. Indeed, there is an extremely intelligent reason behind this since Hester would have been objectionable to most people of Hawthorne's day, and, by having a third person narrator, the revelation of the fact the Hester is indeed a good person despite her actions seems more objective and real, and seems to take place within the consciousness of the reader, rather than by some conjuring trick of the narrator who has influenced everyone by using the authoritative power of his voice.
3). Is There a Typical American Hero?
Indeed, in considering the list of novels above, it would seem that there is a typical American hero, in that the typical American hero depicted in these novels is precisely atypical. Indeed, it seems that the most common mode of depicting heroes within the American tradition is by depicting antiheroes. Antiheroes, unlike traditional heroes, are often people who have some or very few admirable qualities, but who, manage to triumph and learn something and occasionally become better people. Sometimes antiheroes are considered such because there have been a series of societal effects that have affected them in such a way as to force them to be placed in the position of an outcast or an outsider. Thus, there is often a social and didactic purpose for placing such a character within the context of the role of hero. Therefore, the American tradition of the antihero can also be read as part of the tradition of the American tradition of individualism, in which people are prized for their uniqueness. Antiheroes are thus often those…
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