Modernist Period

Introduction to the Modernist Period (1914-1945)

The Modernist Period in American history came as a result of the beginning of World War I and ended with World War II. The global and internal conflicts inspired many authors and poets to construct works of literature that plays off the common themes of the era. Modernist themes are disillusionment, loneliness, disappointment, hardship, uncertainty, both physical and mental fragmentation, perspective, and understanding (notes). These themes are products of how civilians and soldiers returning from war perceived whatever they were describing in their literature. Both World Wars and the Great Depression happened within a fairly compact frame of time, thus leading to conflict after conflict for people to work through. Literature coming from both World Wars often highlights the mindset of soldiers, detailing issues such as mental or physical ailments due to the war, which can be interpreted as the fragmentation of one’s mind or body. Sub-themes such as brokenness weave together with disillusionment, confusion, and depression to create melancholic masterpieces that people can generally relate to no matter where they’re from. The Great Gatsby is one of the timeless masterpieces that demonstrate these themes clearly, alongside shorter pieces like In Another Country by Hemingway and The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Walden.

How the American Dream Reflects Itself in The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is one of the better articulated books that accurately portrays American life during a specific time period in such a way that, a hundred years later, Americans can relate and critique it as if the events of the book were happening in real time. In his article, Bewley makes the statement that the theme of The Great Gatsby is “withering of the American dream”, a concept that takes imagery in The Great Gatsby as the green light at the end of Daisy and Tom’s dock. Gatsby allows the light to represent his hopes and dreams of gaining everything he dreamed of having when he was younger and aspiring for greatness. As the book’s plot progresses, the reader gets to watch as Gatsby attains what he had set his mind to for many years- Daisy- but his image of her doesn’t reflect on the reality of who she is, thus causing him to become disillusioned with what he perceives as his dream. Gatsby is humanized by this since anyone who has major ambitions is likely to find themselves feeling almost unsatisfied after finally reaching their goal. This is what many refer to as the “American dream”, the goals and aspirations one sets as an American. The withering and decaying of the “American dream” can happen to anyone, giving The Great Gatsby the ability to transcend eras.

(Class acts: Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby ( Daniel Smith/2013 Bazmark Film III Pty Limited)

Literary Themes: Themes: disillusionment, loneliness, disappointment, hardship, uncertainty, both physical and mental fragmentation, perspective, and understanding (notes)

Modernist themes came as a result of soldiers returning home from World War I and II, many with fragmented minds or bodies that were reflected in their literature, or from the Great Depression which oppressed economic hardships upon almost every American and European. With the start of World War I, many became further disillusioned with any sort of Romanticism and instead focused on the hardships all around them until after the war ended. The perspective of many returning soldiers was melancholic and uncertain with the disillusionment of having the feeling of being complete mentally or physically ripped away from them. Many came back with undiagnosed PTSD or anxiety or other mental issues that ran alongside any sort of physical issue that they came home with. The continuing theme of missing a part of yourself was so widespread that it started to gain attention and inadvertently set into motion the movement towards understanding mental health.

Original Concept for The Letter Written to Daisy from Gatsby In The Great Gatsby:

My Daisy, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about you. About how your hair catches the wind, how your eyes glitter like a thousand stars in the darkness of night, how your smile illuminates a room brighter than any light could, how your laughter twinkles like crystals in the sun. I miss watching the sunset with you, miss kissing you breathless, miss being around you and spending time with you. Remember the promise I made before I left. I’m fulfilling that promise as I’m going to be coming home in the next few months, when I’ll be back with you, holding you in my arms, and kissing you under the starlight. I caught word that many soldiers are coming home before fall this year as the war’s beginning to end and the tide’s turned in our favor. When I was out there, in the middle of all the chaos, what gave me purpose and strength to continue on was you. Coming back home to you and starting a life with you has been my goal all this time away from you. Now, finally this nightmare will be over and we can continue where we left off. There’s so much we have yet to do together- have a wedding full of flowers and beautiful things, travel across the world together. That’s the kind of life that I want to live with you, the life I promised to give you. Do you remember that, my love? That was the best time of my life- loving you during that summer, holding you, kissing you, wanting to be around you all the time. I’ve wondered for years why I never saw you the day I was deployed and, even now, I still wonder. I waited as long as I could before they made me board. Even then, I tried to catch a glimpse of you, to finally tell you how I’d fallen in love with you but you weren’t there. There are things I should’ve said years ago when I had the chance that I wish I could wait until I were in person to tell you but I simply cannot wait any longer. Daisy, I still love you. With everything I am, I love you. I won’t stop loving you until the day I’m gone from this world. I promise you the world and more if you’ll still have me. Please tell me you still love me too.

Key Historical/Literary Figures:

Ernest HemingwayIn Another Country

James ThurberThe Night the Ghost Got In

F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby, Winter Dreams

W. H. AudenThe Unknown Citizen

Hilda DoolittlePear Tree, Heat

E. E. CummingsThe Complete Poems

T. S. EliotThe LoveSong of Alfred Prufrock

Ezra PoundA Few Don’ts

William Carlos WilliamsThe Red Wheelbarrow

Time Travel Paragraph

If given the option to go back to any specific point in this time period, I would go back to Germany in between the two World Wars and try my best to persuade all European Jews to leave Europe or at least Germany or try to organize some form of gathered resistance or try to do something to prevent Hitler from gaining any sort of platform socially or in the government, starting with Germany but moving to Austria to keep his supporters from gaining positions of power in Austria or Germany. Or maybe change Germany’s punishment after World War I so that they weren’t in an economic depression and thus in a vulnerable state where a nationalistic dictator could grab power in Germany. Or maybe I’d try to set up bombings that would target the construction sites of concentration camps while the camps are unoccupied. Or maybe form revolts after raising awareness of the camps during World War II in Germany and other occupied territories.

Fun Facts:

  1. Operation North Pole was a secret Nazi operation led by Lieutenant Colonel Josef Schreieder and Major Hermann Giskes that resulted in Allied secrets, such as specific landing zones and times, being leaked directly into Nazi hands through the capture, interrogation, and use of Allied spies (Unexplained Mysteries of World War II, pages 31-34). 
  2. An explosion in France was heard 140 miles away in England during World War I (
  3. “[H]omeless encampments” were called Hoovervilles after President Hoover ( )