Research report

1. Introduction. Literary Oblivion.

     Six American novelists during the first half of the 20th century fall into the literary oblivion, which was not something unusual in literature. All of these outstanding American Modernists are women: Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Anais Nin. The first five were born at about the same time.

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     In her works, Willa Cather, created strong female characters, who had the courage to face all obstacles in their difficult lives. She was a regionalist writer, she wrote about Nebraska, where she grew up. Indeed Cather’s fiction generally seeks the experimental quality of Modernism. Ellen Glasgow had a strong intellect. She produced novels that replaced in their appeal the so called “plantation” novels. Her first novel, “The Descendent”, was published anonymously. Edith Wharton’s characters were trapped in bad relationships, based on her life – women must fight for their realization. Her modernistic purpose was to explore the human mind thoroughly, because of the belief in science (Freud). She won a Pulitzer Prize for her “Age of Innocence”. Gertrude Stein expressed her method in only one sentence: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose!”. She was thinking of revolutionizing literature by creating in literature the equivalent of Picasso. Djuna Barnes wrote about lesbians, she was bisexual. She wrote a lot about relationships between women. Anais Nin is best known for her diaries, journals, also erotic short stories. She received large acceptance because of the surrealistic elements in her works.

     The case of literary oblivion has two main aspects: the first one is the changing interests of the reading public, and the second aspect is the influence of critics and publishers. In one way or another they manipulated readers into thinking that the author is not worth reading.

     The word “canon” originates in Christian religion as a term and describes different attitudes in religion. Modernism is a modern attitude towards religion. The canon is the oldest attitude which was applied to literature and on the top of this literature is the Lord. The canon was created by the literary manipulators – publishers, librarians, professors in literature, critics. American canon literature is defined as white, dead, male. Some of the canon-makers have openly accepted that they manipulate.

2. Edith Wharton.

     Edith Newbold Jones was born January 24, 1862, into a wealthy and privileged family in New York. She spent her early years touring Europe with her parents. . Edith’s creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.

     Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. But the marriage was not a success and in 1913 they divorced. Many of Wharton’s novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society.

     When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.

     After producing a great quantity of little-read short stories and novels, Wharton enjoyed her first true critical and popular success with the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905.

     In 1921, Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for her highly esteemed novel The Age of Innocence. She continued to write novels throughout the 1920s, and, in 1934, she wrote her autobiography, A Backward Glance. In 1937, after nearly half a century of devotion to the art of fiction, Edith Wharton died in her villa near Paris at the age of seventy-five.

     Ethan Frome, a curious and slender volume first published in 1911, is one of the few pieces of Wharton’s fiction that does not take place in an urban, upper-class setting. The novel is remarkable for its austere and penetrating impressions of rural working-class New England, especially given that its author was a woman of leisure, living in the comfort of her Paris salon. Wharton based the narrative of Ethan Frome on an accident that had occurred in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she had traveled extensively and had come into contact with one of the victims of the accident. Wharton found the notion of the tragic sledding crash to be irresistible as a potential extended metaphor for the wrongdoings of a secret love affair.

3. Modernism.

     Modernism reflects the condition of American society during WW2, it reflects high modernity. Modernism has always been seen as prestigious, even that there was no money for the authors. It is explained as an incomplete process. It is seen as a philosophy rather than a technique. The most important thing about Modernism is ideology. Modernism happened in Europe but found a happy home in the USA.

     Modernism, as a literary style, emerged after World War I, beginning in Europe and then progressing into American literature by the late 1920s. Modernism is based on the idea that works of art represent a rupture, a break with the past. Modernism is marked by a strong and intentional break with tradition. This break includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views. Modernists believe that the world is created in the act of perceiving it, which means that the world is what we say it is. They do not subscribe to absolute truth, all things are relative. Modernists feel no connection with history or institutions. Their experience is that of alienation, loss, and despair. According to modernists life is unordered. They concern themselves with the sub-conscious.
Modernist literature has a tendency to lack traditional chronological narrative, break narrative frames or move from one level of narrative to another without any warning through the words of a number of different narrators. It may also be self-reflexive about the act of writing and the nature of literature. Much use is made of the stream of consciousness technique and focusing on a character’s consciousness and subconscious – the writings of Sigmund Freud were highly influential on the movement – is a recurring technique. Unlike the literature of the 19th century, there is a breaking down of the traditional beginning-middle-end linear narrative in the Modernist novel, leaving an impression of enigma and an open-endedness to the work. Modernism is more complex than traditional writing, where there is usually one narrator whose job it is to “explain” everything to the reader. Background is just that, background. The writing is in chronological order and all loose ends are tied up for the reader in the end. Modernism is another name for anti-realism and it is only an ideology. Modernism believes that things do not change. Content is the same so main concentration is on form.

     The work of the American Henry James signalled the new direction in literature at the end of the 19th century. Other authors whose work moved in this direction around the same time were Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The works of all these writers were experimental in their structure.

     James Joyce is perhaps the ultimate Modernist. His masterly work Ulysses (1922) focuses on just one day in the life of two people, using multiple narrators, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, literary parody and stylistic changes. Few have managed successfully to follow his lead.

     D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf were both heavily influenced by Freud. The most important Modernist poets were the Americans T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the Irishman W.B. Yeats.

   Edith Wharton concerned herself closely with the ideas of modernism. She was interested in women’s lives and the forces that shaped them, including marriage, divorce, socially prescribed behavior, sexuality, money, and power. Wharton lived through
social, cultural, and political changes that affected the growth of modernism, reflected on artistic movements that led to modernism, and addressed influences on modernism in her own writing. Though not often considered a modernist, in fact she examined women’s lives in new ways that align themselves with the modernist aesthetic. In her works, Wharton uses the modernist techniques of changing and inconsistent points of view, narrative structure, rejection of the tradition, use of dirty language, radicalism, and experimentation.

4. Synopsis.

     “Ethan Frome” written by Edith Wharton is a story set in a fictional, wintry New England town named Starkfield, where an unnamed narrator tells the story of his encounter with Ethan Frome, a man with dreams and desires that end in an ironic turn of events. The narrator tells the story based on an account from observations at Frome’s house when he had to stay there during a winter storm.The frame story ( introduction and conclusion ) is told in the first person, from the narrator’s limited point of view as a visitor unfamiliar with Starkfield and Ethan Frome. However, most of the book is written in the third person limited, in which the narrator accesses Ethan’s thoughts but not those of the other characters. The novel is remarkable for its forbidden impressions of rural working-class in New England, especially given that its author was a woman of leisure.

     The protagonist’s main fight is with his own conscience, as he decides whether or not to reveal to Mattie his true feelings. His struggles are exacerbated by his surroundings – Zeena, the bleak Starkfield landscape, his home. The name of the small Massachusetts town represents a bleak, cold and dismal environment. Ethan and Mattie cannot escape their dreary life in Starkfield. The connection between the land and the people is a recurring theme of the novel. The climax of the story is Ethan and Mattie’s confession of their love for each other and their decision to commit suicide by sledding into a large tree. After crashing into the elm Zeena takes both of them in and cares for them into old age. The narrator’s introduction to the story describes Ethan as a crippled man who has had an accident, foreshadowing that way that his relationship with Mattie will meet a tragic end.

5. Critical Approach.

     Biographical approach relates the author’s life and thoughts to their works. As these tend to reflect the period in which the author lived, biographical criticism may be an important aspect of the New Historical approach. The biographical approach allows one to better understand elements within a work, as well as to relate works to authorial intention and audience. Through the New Historicism a text might be approached from numerous perspectives, but all perspectives tend to reflect a concern with the period in which a text is produced or read. No “history” can be truly objective or comprehensive because history is constantly written and rewritten; however, studying the historical context of a work, particularly in contrast with that in which it is read, can illuminate our biases and hopefully enable us to understand the text and the culture better. New Historicism is concerned with relating the idea of a text to other key concepts: culture, discourse, ideology, the self, and history. New Historicists examine intersections of text, reader, and history and with a special emphasis on literature as a cultural text. New Historicists also examine the relationship of literature to the power structures of society. Historical research might include biography, reception studies, influence studies, or even a technological approach.

6. What’s the purpose of our study?

This Research Report focuses on less common features of Modernism, found in the literary works of six American Modernist writers. The result is a more sophisticated understanding of Modernism.

7. Bibliography:

Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century: American Modernism – An Introduction.” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:


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