I've only a little bit left to write...It gets a little pedantic at points, but this is what I have so far:
Defining the Indefinable: Modernism in an Impossible Nutshell
Modern American Fiction, at its most definitive, utilizes complex themes of stasis, isolation, and alienation to address social issues of race, religion, morality, and self-identity or free thought. Inextricably tied to those issues, these themes explore Modern American societal concerns through the literary arts. William Faulkner’s A Light in August and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in a reflection of the Modernist modality, confront issues of alienation, or “othering,” in terms both of race and religion, while themes of isolation address problems of self-awareness, memory, and individuality; stasis manifests itself in literally motive concepts, and obsession with the past. Through these smaller motifs, Modern American Fiction attempts to explain progress, individuality, and the outcast as they pertain to the contemporary American society.
The idea of stasis, or at least apparent stasis, accompanies ideas of progress in many of the works of this Period, and can be seen throughout both A Light in August and The Great Gatsby. In Faulkner’s work, progress seems painfully slow, if not non-existent. Lena Grove, for example, travels “in identical and anonymous and deliberate wagons…like something moving forever and without progress across an urn” which indicates a tedious and slow cyclicality of progress, the repetitious nature of her motion (wagon after wagon) merely reinforcing that idea (Faulkner 7). Reverend Hightower’s obsession with “that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse,” although different from Lena Grove’s literal motion, also illustrates a static, looping kind of existence (Faulkner 62). However, the progress merely seems never to occur because progress through cyclical time travels through an infinite space, and any progress through infinity seems incredibly minute because no solid point of reference exists. Commenting on the complexities of the concept of time in Faulkner, Rita Barnard says, “it was Faulkner…who…pushed the experimentation with time the furthest [of all the Modernists]” (54). Also, according to Carl E. Rollyson Jr. in his book Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner, “all of Faulkner’s uses of the past are prompted by his search for the meaning of history…. In Faulkner, the facts about the past are always imaginatively created and recreated and therefore subject to change,” which, certainly describing the Reverend’s backward-looking rhetoric, supports the argument that understanding and respecting the past, in Modernism, helps one move away from it and progress through the present and that, due to this intertwining of past and present, time is cyclically infinite (175). A similar problem can be found in the end of The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway muses that existence “beat[s] on, [a boat] against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Fitzgerald 199). Again, to progress one must occasionally “[brood] on the old, unknown world” and understand, but avoid becoming fettered in, the past (Fitzgerald 199). Being so chained to the intangible past leads to Gatsby’s “identity he has constructed for himself out of dreams and illusions,” according to Brian Way’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction, “[being] so fragile it disintegrates at a touch” (109). Addressing the same issue, it is the present, not the past, that denies Jim Burden happiness in Willa Cather’s My Antonia. His love, Antonia, lies in the past to which he cannot physically return, while his current wife “wishes to remain Mrs. James Burden” (literally wishes to remain “a burden”) regardless of the couple’s apparent incompatibility (Cather 48). Though being stuck in the past clearly would eliminate any possibility of progress, ignoring the past leads to baseless assumptions about the present, also hindering or halting progress.
This inward-looking, studious sense of the past ties in with the idea of memory, one of the main motifs for the theme of isolation along with intellectualism (individuality or unique quality of thought). That ones past experiences help to define his behavior and isolate (differentiate) him from others, or, as Faulkner says, that “memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders,” inevitably leads to a unique concept of self inextricably bound to the internal realm of the mind (119). Since “memory” must exist before “knowing,” or intellectual identity, isolation must be linked to the process of learning, which shapes that mental existence; Karl Zender’s The Crossing of the Ways: William Faulkner, the South, and the Modern World describes “scenes of instruction” as “the outgrowth of a complex internal dialogue…involving central questions about…human experience” (110). Rita Barnard supports the idea of experience in Faulkner as identity-shaping when she, in her essay Modern American Fiction, refers to “the persistence of the past” as one of “Faulkner’s major thematic preoccupations” (65). Without the memory of experience to define oneself, he becomes like Gatsby, whose “identity is an insubstantial fabric of illusions” (Way 108). Though Gatsby would have the world believe his past lies in riches, in reality the death of his family thrusts him “into a good deal of money” (Fitzgerald 79). The isolation from society one sees in Modern texts, begun in the learning process and memory, leads to independent thought and academic analyses of others. Byron Bunch, of A Light in August, constantly observes and remarks on the social issues around him in a voyeuristic fashion, “stay[ing] out of meanness too much himself to keep up with other folks” (43). While Byron unwittingly and ironically isolates himself from society through the need he feels to act as an onlooker, he expresses a great interest in that society. Much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Byron’s form of intellectualism, seen through his wish to observe and analyze society, isolates him from the very society he wants to understand, making him at once a part of and separate from the larger whole. This separation can also be seen in Nick Adams’s mechanical behavior in “Big Two-Hearted River,” which Barnard describes as merely “repress[ing]…the social totality” or separating himself from society through intellectualism (57). However, unlike Byron’s voyeurism, Nick Adams’s escapism purposefully isolates him.
Alienation spans by far the widest territory of these themes and is the most involved with concepts of binary opposition, addressing issues of race, religion, economics, and human interaction through the binary motifs of black versus white, moral versus immoral (or righteous versus sacrilegious), rich versus poor, and socialite versus outcast, respectively. Faulkner’s work, as Richard Moreland asserts in his book Faulkner and Modernism, deeply involves itself with ideas, much like Richard Wright’s Native Son, of racism as “implicit, axiomatic signs of inequality, indignity, and alienation” (158). And indeed, society, in A Light in August, takes a very structural approach to Joe Christmas’s racial duality in that instead of being seen as a member of the grey race, Christmas finds himself rejected by both sects of society, whites disgusted and frightened by him when he tells them “that he [is] a negro” (224), and blacks “giv[ing him] the air, turning [him] out” partly because of his partial whiteness and partly because he, too, is disgusted by blackness (236). In the same novel, religious constructs illustrate another form of alienation through Reverend Hightower’s status as outcast. The town views religion from a dogmatic, traditional angle, maintaining that the Reverend is not “the kind of man a minister should be” (Faulkner 62). A refusal to conform to tradition, or societal comfort-zones, cuts Reverend Hightower off from the community completely. The Great Gatsby discusses alienation in economic terms, establishing a binary, if not exactly of rich versus poor, of old money versus new money, which, like the rejection of Hightower, is tied to ideas of tradition and preconceived notions about behavior in the social hierarchy. When Gatsby’s own preconceived notions about wealth and the upper class lifestyle differ from those of the actual upper class, he becomes an alienated caricature, his existence viewed as “a universe of ineffable gaudiness” (Fitzgerald 115). “Wealth and class,” during the Modern period, “suddenly seemed to be a fluid matter, marked by expenditures rather than by money in the bank,” but Gatsby’s expenditures are so “great” and excessive that they simply distance him from the acceptance he so desperately craves (Barnard 61). Alienation as it concerns the binary of socialite versus outcast can be seen, among other novels, in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where Huck finds himself separated from society due to his own love of independence, combining isolation and alienation.
While Modernism cannot be universally defined or summed up, one can discover important, emblematic qualities to begin to conceptualize the genre. In the themes of stasis, isolation, and alienation, for instance, we find what would have at first seemed an unlikely common thread of the past as it exists conceptually, in memory, and in tradition. Like Modernism itself, however, the attitude towards the past is ambiguous and Protean, sometimes idealizing and requiring respect and understanding of the concept, other times vilifying such idealization.
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