In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modernism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Guides
  • Associations and Virtual Networks
  • Modernity, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde
  • Other Media
  • Modernism and Its Progenitors

British and Irish Literature Modernism
Suzanne Hobson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0042


Modernism is an area of literary research particularly subject to contest and revision. Most studies converge on the period between 1890 and 1940 in their attempts to date modernism, but there is wide variation, with some accounts stretching this time frame back to the early 19th century and others forward to the beginning of the 21st century. For the major touchstones, there has long been consensus over the inclusion of writers such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, and that would now probably extend to the likes of H.D., Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence. But there has historically been less agreement over whether avant-garde movements such as the futurists and Dadaists should appear in the “canon” of modernism, or whether “high” modernism is inherently hostile to the kinds of mass cultural and political movements with which these groups engaged. More recent studies have pointed out that if modernism is to include writers outside the usual metropolitan locations of Berlin, London, New York, and Paris, then it needs to become a more flexible and polycentric category that is less firmly attached to a period that favors Western—and more specifically English-language—writing. Modernism has always had a close relationship with the academy, making it particularly susceptible to changes in critical approach. It entered the academy along with the New Criticism in the United States and Practical Criticism in the United Kingdom, both formalist approaches that modernist poetry seemed to legitimate and, insofar as it resists easy reading, to demand. Modernism has also been usefully subjected to, and sometimes seemed to anticipate, the rigors of feminist, psychoanalytic, queer, post-structuralist, and cultural studies readings. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine feminist literary theory without Woolf, or Derridean deconstruction without Joyce. This bibliography provides a sense of the way that modernist studies has evolved over the last fifty years or so, and how this has changed the scope and the makeup of the category of modernist literature itself.

General Overviews

The earliest overviews of modernism tended to emphasize formal innovation and experimentation in poetry, following the example of the Cambridge school in the United Kingdom and the New Critics in the United States. Wilson 1931 and Leavis 1932 (the latter cited under Poetry) are often mentioned as the first examples of monographs on modernist writers. Modernism is still closely identified with a set of formal characteristics, including emphasis on the fragment, inconsequential events, contingent and weak plots, literary impressionism, stream of consciousness, in medias res beginnings, incomplete endings, unstable or partial focalization, and unreliable narrators. Personalities and influence have also played a major role in overviews of modernism. The first major book in this category was Kenner 1971, which identified modernism with Ezra Pound and the group of writers who gathered around Pound in the 1910s, especially T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Revisionist studies, including Scott 1995a and Scott 1995b, have emphasized the influence of women writers, including Virginia Woolf and H.D., while other overviews have adopted a flat and pluralist (rather than hierarchical) approach to networks or groups. Levenson 1995 traces the genealogical roots of Eliot’s and Pound’s modernism back to French political and philosophical thought, and to now largely forgotten figures such as T. E. Hulme and Allen Upward. Goldman 2004 looks forward to see how affiliations formed in the 1910s and 1920s were renegotiated in response to the changed political and artistic landscape of the 1930s and 1940s. From the 1970s onward, overviews of modernism tended to stress cultural upheaval and crisis as the background and driving force behind modernist innovation and critique. Bradbury and McFarlane 1991 (originally published in 1979) set the standard for subsequent accounts of modernism as a code-switch developed in response to a sense of wider cultural catastrophe. More recent studies play down the emphasis on crisis, preferring to show how modernist developments in the representation of character, events, objects, space, and time respond to changes in, and in attitudes toward, the matrix of narratives—personal, familial, imperial, national, religious, artistic, sexual—that formed public culture at this time. A variation on this approach, seen in North 1999, is to focus on a particular year as a limited test case of the relationship between modernist cultural production and the public scene to which it belonged. For more on this kind of approach, see Cultural and Material Histories. The essays in Eysteinsson and Liska 2007 show how modernism developed unevenly throughout the world—sometimes independently, sometimes with reference to a “global” movement in the arts, and always showing evidence of regional or national influences.

  • Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890–1930. London: Penguin, 1991.

    A seminal overview of modernism as a literature of crisis and upheaval. For Bradbury and McFarlane, modernist literature represents a cataclysmic break with the civilization and the culture of the past. Originally published in 1976.

  • Eysteinsson, Astradur, and Vivian Liska, eds. Modernism. 2 vols. Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007.

    A collection of essays looking at modernism in an international context. Here, “modernism” is treated flexibly to cover diversity in the ways modernist cultural production is understood, periodized, and translated across different languages and cultures.

  • Goldman, Jane. Modernism, 1910–1945: Image to Apocalypse. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    A guide to some of the major transitions that determined the background, the content, and some of the formal innovations of modernist texts. Goldman interrogates the thinking behind the demand for change as well as the backlash against some modernist tendencies, including the patriarchal bias and political conservatism that led to regroupings in the 1930s and 1940s.

  • Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. London: Faber, 1971.

    A foundational book for the study of modernism as a historically specific and recognizable literary project beginning in London in 1914 and most closely associated with the experimental work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. Influential in returning Pound to prominence after World War II.

  • Levenson, Michael H. A Genealogy of Modernism: English Literary Doctrine, 1908–1922. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Detailed study of the intellectual roots and political and aesthetic affiliations of the individuals and groups that emerged in the 1910s and early 1920s.

  • North, Michael. Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    An important attempt to return modernism to the public world from which earlier studies had sometimes removed it. The year 1922 is a “test case” allowing for detailed investigation of key events and debates alongside the major works published that year (The Waste Land and Ulysses).

  • Scott, Bonnie Kime. Refiguring Modernism. Vol. 1, The Women of 1928. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995a.

    Redraws the map and chronology of modernism to give precedence to the women who had been neglected in earlier overviews of the period.

  • Scott, Bonnie Kime. Refiguring Modernism. Vol. 2, Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West, and Barnes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995b.

    Influential in promoting new scholarship on writers such as Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall, and H.D.

  • Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930. New York: Scribner, 1931.

    Often identified as the first monograph on the modernists, who in this version find their origins in the symbolists. Contains individual chapters on W. B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.

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