Modernism in Canada and The United States By Sorensen, Leif

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO15-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 13 June 2024, from


In Canada and the United States modernism emerges from transnational engagements with global intellectual movements while also grappling with local intellectual, cultural, and political developments that reflect the changing place of these nations in the world. Canadian and US expatriates played crucial roles in the emergence of European modernist thought and aesthetics. Similarly, exchanges of ideas among Latin American, Caribbean, Canadian, and US modernists affected the trajectory of modernism in the Americas. While these international movements were taking form, US and Canadian artists and thinkers developed domestic versions of modernism. The forces that influenced their efforts included the following: an influx of immigration in the opening decades of the twentieth century, the rise of industrialization and mass production, an explosion of popular culture, and a shift in the global centre of military and economic power away from Europe. Along with common modernist concerns with representation, language, epistemology, and primitivism, US and Canadian modernisms are also shaped by the emergence of pragmatism, the anthropological concept of culture, cultural pluralism, and nativism.

A growing sense of US and Canadian intellectual, economic, and political independence from Europe shapes the distinctiveness of their versions of modernism. The two wars that bookend the period, the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Second World War, illustrate this development. The conclusion of the Spanish-American War left the United States in control of former Spanish colonies ranging from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. By the end of the Second World War, the United States military occupied territory from Berlin to Tokyo and had a monopoly on the destructive power of atomic weapons. The emergence of the United States signalled a major shift in the geopolitics of the Americas as Canada, Mexico, and Caribbean nations began to position themselves in relation not only to the European nations that had been or were still their colonial rulers, but also to this new superpower.

In 1904 Henry James returned to the United States for the first time in 20 years. During his travels he encountered what he called the ‘Accent of the Future’ in a café in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (James 1987 [1907]: 99). This accent, which emerged from the mouths of the café’s immigrant patrons, converted the domestic and commercial spaces of the Lower East Side into ‘torture-rooms of the living idiom’, as it twisted English pronunciation and vocabulary in unprecedented ways (99). Policy-makers and educators in Canada and the United States shared James’ anxiety about the future of spoken language. United States officials sought to regularize language use either to resist change or to codify an independent American language. In Canada the situation was even more complex, as the status of French as an official language was recognized to varying degrees in different provinces. Consequently, the common modernist concern with language as a flawed means of representing reality takes on additional socio-political dimensions.

Where James lamented such changes, others found in them new modes of expression. William Carlos Williams declared that he got his poetry from ‘out of the mouths of Polish mothers’ (Williams 1951: 311) and Gertrude Stein used the rhythms and accents of German immigrants and African-American styles of English in her 1909 novel Three Lives. African-American modernists like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston also found aesthetic and conceptual resources in African-American English. Some artists looked farther afield for inspiration. Classical Chinese verse was important to modernist poets like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, who translated volumes of Chinese classical poetry (Pound’s 1915 Cathay and Lowell’s Fir-Flower Tablets 1921). Pound found in the Chinese character a model of immediate, trustworthy signification.

Using language to capture a direct relationship to things was a common concern of modernist poets and philosophers. The imagist movement associated with Pound, Lowell, H.D., and William Carlos Williams attempted to treat objects directly in poetry. While imagism was active only from 1914 to 1917, the concern with concrete language persists in later works such as Williams’s Paterson, the first book of which includes the line ‘no ideas but in things’ (Williams 1963: 6), and Wallace Stevens’ ‘Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself’ (1990 [1954]). Pragmatist philosophers like William James and John Dewey were similarly skeptical of abstraction, favouring practical knowledge instead.

Pragmatism was a significant development in modernist philosophy. James and Dewey, influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce, broke with the idealism of much nineteenth-century philosophy on the grounds that ‘the contradictions of real life are absent from it’ (James 1995 [1907]: 8). Instead of abstract principles, pragmatists advocated empiricism and sought to connect philosophy with the scientific method. James defined the difference between true and false ideas in terms of their utility and ability to be verified or validated by experience. The influence of pragmatism is widespread in the modernist era, affecting not only theories of language and truth but also public policy, especially regarding education. Dewey’s educational philosophies and practices – widely adopted in the US educational system – emphasized the role of the school as a space in which students can learn from experience.

Although pragmatism does not explicitly address race relations, it became an important component of modernist African-American thought because of James’ influence on his students W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. Du Bois was a leading black diasporic intellectual who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Locke helped to initiate the New Negro Renaissance, now often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, and edited the important anthology The New Negro in 1925. Both Du Bois and Locke adapted pragmatic methods to discuss the complex position of African Americans in a segregated society.

In the opening lines of his 1903 opus The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois declared: ‘the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line’ (Du Bois 1995 [1903]: 41). While it is easy to limit the ramifications of Du Bois’s statement to a comment on United States race relations, it is best understood as a reflection on the key role that ethnic and racial difference played in demarcating the boundaries of different zones of modernity, whether those spaces be the segregated neighbourhoods into which African Americans were pushed, the reservations to which the Indigenous inhabitants of Canada and the United States had been removed, or present and former colonies. The Cuban poet, essayist, and political activist José Martí raises similar concerns about the uneven development characteristic of modernization in his seminal essay ‘Our America’ (‘Nuestra Ameríca’), which he wrote while in exile in New York City and published in newspapers in New York and Mexico City in January 1891. Martí called attention to the threat posed by the United States to Latin American efforts at self-determination. He influentially divided the Americas into two groups: ‘Our America’, which comprised the nations of the Caribbean and Latin America, and ‘the America that is not ours’, comprised of Canada and the United States. Du Bois’s metaphor of the colour line complements this project by calling attention to underdevelopment within Anglophone America and Canada.

Du Bois’ work is part of a vital body of black diasporic modernist thought. Among his rivals was the pan-Africanist political activist Marcus Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914 and moved his organization to Harlem in 1917. Garvey led the ‘Back to Africa’ movement, which held that Africa was the proper homeland for all black people. Garvey and the UNIA clashed with Du Bois and the NAACP, as the latter camp sought to ameliorate racial relations within the United States. The ideas and slogans of both parties, as well as many other black activists, circulated in magazines and newspapers printed by their organizations, like Garvey’s Negro World (1918–33) and the NAACP’s official magazine The Crisis (1910–present), which Du Bois edited until 1934. The interests of black activists also crossed over with those of communist and socialist activists, especially in the pages of The Messenger (1917–28), which dubbed itself the only radical Negro magazine in America and published editorials critical of both Garvey and Du Bois.

Feminist activists also pointed out the inequalities that persisted in modernity. The most visible and broad-based activist movement was the drive for women’s suffrage, which peaked in intensity in the 1910s. In the United States, the National Women’s Party, led by Alice Paul, organized a series of protests at the White House during 1917. Other supporters of the suffrage movement included Margaret Sanger, who also advocated for women’s access to birth control as a means of sexual and reproductive self-determination. Ironically, the suffrage movement itself failed to be completely egalitarian. African-American women suffragists felt marginalized and betrayed by Paul’s lack of interest in racial equality. Other critics of the movement, like the anarchist Emma Goldman, claimed that its aims were insufficiently radical because it did not advocate revolutionary change. Canadian women on active military service or with male relatives in active service were enfranchised at the federal level in 1917, and Parliament extended the vote to all women of 21 years of age in Dominion elections in 1918. All Canadian provinces except Quebec enfranchised women between 1916 and 1925. Quebec extended the franchise to women in 1940. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920 guaranteed women in the United States the right to vote in all elections.

The radical energies of feminist thought extended beyond the fight for the vote. Attendees of Mabel Dodge’s New York City salons explored taboo sexual desires in efforts to undo the repression that Freudian psychoanalysis had diagnosed within the modern psyche and to strike back against sexual double standards. The sexually liberated ‘New Woman’ was associated with the popular image of the flapper, whose bobbed hair could be seen on magazine covers and movie screens for most of the 1920s. Although potentially empowering, the image of the flapper could also be used to trivialize feminism, making it seem to be nothing more than a fashion adopted by frivolous young women. In actuality, feminist thinkers were involved in the great debates of the era, ranging from the vote, to war, to economic and labour conditions.

Labour relations were tumultuous throughout the period, which featured many violent conflicts pitting striking workers and union organizers against agents of the employers, often supported by government forces. The bloodiest was the Ludlow Massacre of 20 April 1914, in which the Colorado State Militia attacked a camp of striking mineworkers employed by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company near Ludlow, Colorado. The development of the assembly line opened up a new relationship between workers and their bosses. This new system of automation, Fordism, is named after Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company. Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times satirizes the Fordist factory. Chaplin’s character races to keep up with an assembly line that keeps moving faster at the boss’ command. As the workers speed up, their bodies become completely dedicated to the few regimented movements required to keep the line moving, suggesting that the workers themselves have become automatons.

The situation of industrial workers opened up new avenues of labour organization. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the first union to prioritize organizing industrial workers. A confederation of anarchists, socialists, and other anti-capitalists, the IWW sought to unite all workers and played an early role in the unionization of the emerging class of migrant agricultural workers brought into being by modern agribusiness. In contrast, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) focused on craft unions and opposed industrial unionization. Tension within the AFL led John L. Lewis to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a confederation of unions that had been expelled from the AFL because of their interest in unionizing industrial workers. In addition to shaping the lives of workers, the changing conditions of labour affected high and popular art. Early folk and blues singers chronicled the lives of agricultural workers, miners, and industrial labourers and writers sympathetic to the labour movement like John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and Upton Sinclair explored class tensions in their work. Union members and their supporters were frequently targeted as subversive elements within the nation and represented as advocates of a foreign ethos. The AFL responded by adopting a nativist position, supporting restrictive legislation on European and East Asian immigration to Canada and the United States.

The turn to nativism was a response to the unprecedented scale of immigration to the Canada and the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The popular sentiment against immigration, which targeted immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, East Asia, and, to a lesser extent, Mexico and the Caribbean, is evident in publications like Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) and Madison Grant’s The Passing of The Great Race (1916). Stoddard’s book appears in distorted form in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) when Tom Buchanan refers to ‘“The Rise of the Colored Empires” by this man Goddard’ (Fitzgerald 2003 [1925]: 17). Grant and Stoddard advocated managing the United States population in accordance with eugenics, a theory of human behaviour that holds that most traits are inherited and that certain races are more advanced than others. These views were influential; prominent figures in the eugenics movement provided expert advice to the United States Congress on immigration law. Advocates of eugenics had their greatest triumphs in the 1920s. Canada banned immigration from China in 1923 and the United States barred immigration from all Asian nations except for Japan and the Philippines and imposed immigration quotas on eastern and southern European nations in 1924.

The anthropologist Franz Boas sought to discredit eugenics by critiquing the widely accepted concept of race. He researched variations in human morphology to show that what eugenicists thought were fixed and inherited physical traits were subject to change. Instead of race, Boas advocated understanding differences among people through the concept of culture, defined as a fluid and dynamic set of behaviours, beliefs, and values. He and his students, such as Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Arthur Kroeber, and Edward Sapir, practiced cultural relativism, a method that understands cultures as functional systems, and historical particularism, which held that cultures develop differently. These ideas broke from the social evolutionary theories of the nineteenth century, which asserted that cultures move through the same stages of development at different rates, becoming increasingly functional. Boas’ rejection of racial determinism and cultural hierarchies led Du Bois to invite him to give a commencement address at Atlanta University.

The question of national culture was also disputed in this period. Although radical nativists opposed immigration on the grounds that immigrants were inherently undesirable, others in Canada and the United States advocated the acceptance of immigrants willing to assimilate. In the United States the ‘melting pot’ provided a metaphor for assimilation, which included learning English, adopting national foodways, hygienic practices, and modes of dress. This metaphor took on its most spectacular form in the graduation ceremonies of the Ford English School, in which immigrant Ford employees who had completed courses in English, culture, citizenship, and hygiene, would walk into a stylized pot wearing the costumes of their native countries only to emerge, after some energetic stirring by their instructors, wearing suits, the change in costume signalling their transformation into Americans.

The melting pot had multiple critics, including Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne in the United States and John Murray Gibbon in Canada. Kallen and Bourne used pragmatic methods to advocate for cultural pluralism. Where nativists like Stoddard and Grant distrusted assimilation because they were convinced that immigrants were too different to be successfully incorporated into the nation, pluralists saw difference as something to be valued. Building on the pragmatic idea that truth can only be verified by experience, pluralism holds that different people’s experiences may not validate the same truths. For Kallen and Bourne the Ford English School’s graduation ceremony would signal not the production of newly minted Americans but instead the destruction of cultural diversity in the name of a mass-produced Americanism. Gibbon and other Canadian critics of assimilation proposed the cultural mosaic, in which each component retains its particularity while contributing to a collective design, as an alternative to the melting pot. The metaphor of the mosaic, elaborated in Gibbon’s 1938 Canadian Mosaic, provides an early version of multiculturalism, which became official Canadian policy in the second half of the twentieth century.

Cultural pluralism also signalled new developments in the roles that Canada and the United States were imagined to play in world history. In his 1916 essay ‘Transnational America’, Bourne argued that the influence of European nationalism had blinded citizens of the United States to the nation’s true status as ‘the first international nation’ (Bourne 1964 [1916]: 117). Writing before the United States entered the First World War, which he opposed, Bourne elaborated a utopian vision of the United States as an alternative to the destructive version of modernity that had engulfed Europe. Bourne hoped that a pluralist, transnational nation could transcend the divisions that troubled modern Europe and point to a cosmopolitan future in which conflicts of national interest would no longer be resolved through war.

Pluralists also saw a threat to cultural diversity in consumer culture, which distributed standardized products across the world. New media proliferated wildly in the first half of the century and improved networks of distribution allowed them to reach audiences everywhere. Methods of mass production, combined with fast and cheap distribution, resulted in a boom in popular print culture. Slick magazines like Vanity Fair promised to bring sophisticated modernist culture to readers far from metropolitan centres. At the same time, pulp magazines provided readers and authors with venues dedicated to popular genres such as romance, detective stories, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Popular music also took on a new role in everyday life. The rise of the commercial record industry and radio enabled individuals to experience music privately and regional sounds to circulate broadly. While these technologies made it possible to experience music in solitude, they also opened up new modes of sociality among those devoted to particular stations, styles, or performers. Similarly, moviegoers, grouped together in a dark room with their eyes turned to a screen, could be seen either as a sign of a dystopian future in which individuals trade authentic experiences for machine-produced simulations or as a new popular audience. The rise of the star system, in which aspiring performers were groomed to become full-blown celebrities, often changing their names, accents, and appearance in the process, prompted additional concern that popular culture was nothing more than a series of deceptive ruses. The perceived passivity of popular audiences led many modernist cultural commentators to represent mass culture as a feminized threat to male-dominated high culture.

The spectre of a mass-produced, homogenous culture, combined with a sense that the promises of progressive modernization had proven false, led many to search for alternatives to modernity in folk and regional cultures. Edward Sapir lamented the domination of mass-produced ‘canned cultures’ and the endangered status of genuine cultures, which orient their participants meaningfully in the world (Sapir 1924: 429). Although Sapir did not assume that older cultures were always genuine, the primitivist desire to find meaning and stability in cultures that seemed less affected by modernization was strong. The forces driving primitivism in Canada and the United States are similar to those at work in Europe with the important distinction that in the Americas the presence of Indigenous peoples and of a substantial diasporic black population meant that those seeking contact with the purportedly primitive could do so while remaining within the boundaries of their own nations.

The Southwestern United States became an especially popular destination for those seeking escape from urban modernity. For instance, Mabel Dodge traded her New York salon for Taos, New Mexico, where she met and married a Native American man, Tony Luhan. She and other members of the Taos Society of Artists drew international attention to the region and to the art and artefacts of the Taos Pueblo people. Notable figures like the writers D.H. Lawrence and Mary Austin, the painter Georgia O’Keefe, and the photographers Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz spent time in Taos. More broadly, the idea of taking Native American art as an inspiration for a particularly American aesthetics travelled widely. For example, the little magazine Poetry published an issue devoted to poems based on and inspired by Native American oratory in February 1917 and Harriet Monroe, Poetry’s editor, encouraged American artists to take their models from Indigenous sources rather than Greek and Latin classics in her editorials.

An element of the appeal of folk art was that it seemed to be one of the last refuges of craftsmanship in an era in which the hand of the creative individual was increasingly being replaced by machines. Literary critics like Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren established a method of closely reading individual literary works, usually lyric poems, to reveal the writer’s craftsmanship. This New Criticism arose in part as a response to the poetics of modernists like T.S. Eliot, whose essays influenced the movement. New Critics argued that contemplating literature helped readers break out of the cycles of acquisition and consumption characteristic of consumer culture and enabled critical reflection. Many New Critics taught in universities, where they sought to foster in their students this capacity for aesthetic contemplation. Other influential academics such as Northrop Frye, based at the University of Toronto, and René Wellek, who founded Yale’s department of comparative literature, proposed alternative models for the professional study of literature.

The sense that modernity’s promises might not be fulfilled, or were illusory from the start, was exacerbated by the Great Depression, which began with the New York stock market crash of 1929 and affected the global economy for the ensuing decade. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal promised to protect citizens from the instability of capitalist markets by creating a welfare state. One group of New Deal policies sought to secure employment for artists and writers and to foster public interest in the arts. The Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) employed thousands of writers. The FWP and its analogues for artists in other media fostered an image of artists as professional workers. Although many artists embraced these opportunities, others saw the enterprise as a flawed attempt to impose organization and bureaucracy on art. Among the critics of this drive to collective order was Ayn Rand, who dramatized the struggle between a rebellious creative individual and a stifling New Deal order in The Fountainhead (1943).

The economic crisis of the Great Depression was exacerbated by the events leading to the Second World War. Although a reluctant participant, the United States emerged from the war as the preeminent global power. The dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 marked the beginning of a new age of warfare and geopolitics that would quickly take the form of the Cold War. The destructive power of the bombs further emphasized the extent to which the technological developments of modernity had unleashed unprecedented forces.


1 To trace these pan-American connections, see also Amy Oliver’s chapter in this volume on intellectual currents in Latin America.

Further Reading

  • Bourne, R. (1964) [1916] ‘Trans-national America’, in C. Resek (ed.) War and the Intellectuals: Essays 1915–1919, New York: Harper & Row. 107–23.

  • Du Bois, W.E.B. (1995) [1903] The Souls of Black Folk, New York: Signet.

  • Fitzgerald, F.S. (2003) [1925] The Great Gatsby, New York: Scribner.

  • James, H. (1987) [1907] The American Scene, New York: St Martin’s.

  • James, W. (1995) [1907] Pragmatism, New York: Dover.

  • Sapir, E. (1924) ‘Culture, genuine and spurious’, The American Journal of Sociology, 29.4: 401–29.

  • Stevens, W. (1990) [1954] ‘Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself’, in The Palm at the End of the Mind, New York: Vintage. 387–88.

  • Williams, W.C. (1951) The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, New York: Random House.

  • Williams, W.C. (1963) Paterson, New York: New Directions.

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Sorensen, Leif. Modernism in Canada and The United States. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/modernist-intellectual-currents-in-canada-and-the-united-states.

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