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15. What Was High About Modernism? The American Novel and Modernity

John T. Matthews

Subject Literature » American Literature

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1900-1999

Key-Topics modernism, modernity, novel and novella

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631206873.2009.00018.x


By this point in the early twenty-first century, students of culture rarely encounter terms like “modern,” “modernist,” and “modernity” without a familiar prefix: “ post modern,” “postmodernist,” “postmodernity.” We've grown accustomed to thinking of our own era as decidedly postmodernist, regardless of whether we view its principal effects as liberating or licentious, playful or decadent, connective or isolating, empowering or oppressive. The “post” in such characterizations of the present suggests the degree to which they depend on a conceptualization of the period that preceded ours, and it is the case that efforts to come to terms with the forceful emergence of new economic, social, political, and cultural practices in the 1950s and 1960s stimulated investigation into what had made the first half of the century “modern,” if the second half was granted to be its “post.” For some scholars the line of demarcation showed up most brightly in the cultural sphere. John McGowan observes that the “term ‘postmodernism’ was used in reference to architecture as early as 1947,” and then was taken up by literary critics to distinguish the contemporary fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme from their “high modernist” predecessors (leading examples would be James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner) ( McGowan 2005 : 1). Ihab Hassan was among the first literary ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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