Literature Subject Overview By Swift, Megan

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO6-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 23 July 2024, from


Literary modernism is a truly global and plural phenomenon, playing out in multiple cultural paradigms, in various timeframes, and in response to diverse experiences of modernity. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism reflects this expansive conceptualization of an extraordinary artistic movement, including entries from scholars and specialists on modernist literature created on six continents, in more than a hundred nations and in over twenty languages. What unites modernist literature is both a sense of breaking with tradition and experimentation with literary form, but established traditions, or what modernist poets and writers were fighting against, varied greatly around the globe. While in Europe, North America and Japan, many modernist artists were responding to a sense of profound change as the safety and predictability of traditional structures was shattered and replaced with the powerful push of urbanization, mechanization, and industrialization, in India, Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa, modernism was largely a reaction to colonialism and European domination.

At the same time, modernist literature reached beyond national boundaries in a series of networks, currents, and exchanges. Literary modernism, then, is an incredibly rich and complex artistic movement, one with both distinct and overlapping qualities, both national and transnational characteristics. Instead of a model that posits an original modernism, followed by several reproductions, this project instead envisions literary modernism as a map with illuminated points spreading out expansively across the globe, and connecting to one another in a series of webs and pathways.

The coining of the term modernism speaks to the complicated, international, circuitous development of the movement itself. Originating as modernismo in the works of a Nicaraguan poet living in Buenos Aires with a love for French romantic poetry, Rubén Darío’s appellation was adopted by European practitioners of modernism who did not remain faithful to his definition. In Paris, London, and St. Petersburg, modernism tended to signal a celebration or horror of an increasingly mechanized, urban reality. But in Australia, modernism attended the creation of an autonomous national literature corresponding to the founding of a new commonwealth; in the Middle East, modernism celebrated both a sense of national awakening and, some half-century later, a sense of post-independence disappointment. In sub-Saharan Africa modernism was connected to throwing off the European colonial yoke, while in China it rejected Japanese imperialism. In India, pre- and postcolonial modernism was shaped by a linguistic reality that included over a hundred different languages and twelve printed scripts.

In order to be viewed in its entirety and understood in all its complexity, therefore, modernism needs an inclusive, all-encompassing, indeed encyclopedic approach. Eclectic rather than homogeneous, diverse rather than totalizing, literary modernism can be contradictory in its many manifestations. On the one hand, for many modernists the movement was consonant with a belief in art for art’s sake, involving a conscious break from earlier artistic movements that placed an emphasis on the importance of morality, pedagogy, or mimesis for the literary text. On the other hand, in places like Australia and India, modernist writing could be overtly patriotic and nationalistic. For some European practitioners, the modernist aesthetic included being contentious and shocking; modernism was a political act to be celebrated in revolution-minded manifestos. And modernism was certainly received as a subversive worldview when, in the Soviet Union, Stalin criminalized it and persecuted its practitioners throughout the 1930s.

Modernist literature often thrived on cultural hybridization and cross-pollination. T. S. Eliot was American-British, Wyndham Lewis was British-Canadian; Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas conceived négritude’s doctrine of pan-African solidarity in Paris. Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky both accepted and rejected the Italian Futurism of F. T. Marinetti. Fluid and flexible, the world’s modernisms can be conceived as a raucous and riotous open-ended conversation. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism thus presents modernist literature as both global and interconnected. The curious reader will discover that the snapshots of literary modernism provided in this encyclopedia, taken together, form a tremendous, all-encompassing picture of an extraordinary artistic movement.

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Citing this article:

Swift, Megan. Literature Subject Overview. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/literature-subject-overview.

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