Imagine living through a half-century that experienced WWI, The Roaring Twenties, The 1929 Stock Market Crash, The Great Depression and WWII.
The Period from 1900 – 1945 is described as the Modern Era of American literature. Poets such as Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, authors like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald began to question their belief in American traditions and the American dream.
Couple this literary movement with the “intellectual” trends of Marx and Engels “Communist Manifesto,” Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and the popular Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” based on his theories of our “common descent” (evolution).
What took place between 1890 and 1945 was a seismic shift in how we perceive the world around us, our actions and how we approach literature.
Some point to the Modern Era of literature as the gateway to a more pessimistic view of the American dream that was based on three rather traditional ideals: unlimited promise, abundant optimism, and the triumph of the individual. But if you were living through the years described above, you might well be a bit disillusioned!
What Americans experienced during these, mostly, painful years was what some have described as a profound change in American attitudes and values. However, history compels us to define this era as more of an adjustment than a change.
Each generation has challenges to overcome and faces trends that seem to tip in favor of one segment of society or another. What we learn from studying the great American authors is that our collective and personal identity is constantly shifting and adjusting to new forms and styles. However what makes us particularly “American” is that our dream has endured.
It may look different today than during the Modern Era, but we are each required to make our way.
At least, that’s what I teach!