There is a saying that ‘art imitates life’ or, some would argue, that ‘life imitates art.’ Either way, literature is a form of art which proves both statements true. The 20th century saw immense changes in industry, politics, technology, and civil rights. Books from each decade reflect the thoughts and ideas of the time period, and provide readers with an intimate historical look at the social, artistic, literary, and political opinions of the time. Some are negative, some are positive, some are neutral, but they all teach us something.
Modernist writers lived through two of the biggest, craziest wars: World War I and World War II. They also experienced the Great Depression and a massive growth of industry and cities. It is not a surprise that American and European authors started to lose faith in democracy, independence, and the “American Dream,” and developed a sense of disillusionment, reflected in such work as The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This period was also marked by stream of consciousness and a departure from the traditional style of literature.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Written by one of the most important journalists, or muckrakers, of the early 20th century, The Jungle exposed the inhumane and harsh working conditions of immigrants in the United States, as well as ridiculously gross health violations and unsanitary execution of work. Sinclair’s political fiction novel does not follow the conventions of Modernist literature, however it was a groundbreaking book and is an important asset in understanding the climate of industrialized cities in the early 1900’s.
Other notable works: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; and, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (While Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, it was one of the earliest forms of Modernist literature and had a huge impact on the next generation of literature.)
Harlem Renaissance and Southern Renaissance (1920-1940)
This period of literature overlaps with Modernism, but was distinct because of the rise in cultural significance of black artists. Many factors played into the literature of the Harlem Renaissance: prohibition, “The New Negro Movement,” the exciting climate of the “Roaring Twenties” and the “Jazz Age,” and the inevitable Great Depression. Work from this period is marked by rhythmic poetry, examination of the difficult realities faced by African-Americans, and providing uplifting words for the subjects of racism. At the same time, the southern United States experienced a revival in literature as a generation of authors far removed from slavery and the Civil War began to write about Southern life.
The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance who succeeded as a poet, journalist, and historian. His work is known for its rhythmic quality, emblematic of the jazzy-influence of Harlem Renaissance literature, as well as his pointed commentary on the lives of African American (which tended to be optimistic).
Other notable works: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby encompassed Modernism and the climate of the “Roaring Twenties,” literary and artistic periods which overlapped. F. Scott Fitzgerald is prophetic about the decline of American greatness that flourished in the 20’s while portraying the lively atmosphere of the time. Pretty much any Fitzgerald book from this period will teach you a thing or two about the “roaring twenties.”
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
This book is not so much about America’s glorious twenties as it as about post-WWI disillusionment, particularly the “Lost Generation.” As an expatriate in Paris, Hemingway shows how and why Americans were compelled to travel and live in the European city during America’s “roaring twenties.”
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Authors of Southern literature from the 1920-30’s were detached from the history that made the South infamous, namely slavery and their role in the American Civil War. Work from the 1920’s on was much more objective in its view of the South. Gone With the Wind is one of the most famous books to come from the South, which discussed Southern history from the perspective of a slaveholder during the Civil War, but was written decades later.
Other popular works of Southern literature focused on American life in the contemporary South and became a prominent genre by the 1930’s.
Postmodernism encompasses many different movements, but there are a few overarching themes of postmodern literature. This includes exhaustive studies of media and technology, new narrative techniques (that are often confusing, such as unreliable narrators), and the ideas that there can be no new ideas and culture is doomed to repeat itself over and over again. Metafiction, fragmentation, paranoia, capitalism, and irony are all major themes seen in many postmodern works of literature. Seeing as the postmodern period spans more than fifty years, you will notice how different each book is, but each incorporates elements of the postmodern movement.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Wallace’s seemingly endless postmodern novel breaks literary tradition in the most postmodern way possible. Readers must take note of all endnotes if they want to understand the story which disrupts the linearity of events; the novel explores media, film theory, and North American identity (all considered postmodern themes); and, it examines the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. Confusing indeed.