Towards a Definition of American Modernism

This is an excellent article.

It lays out how the Victorian culture of the 19th century had divided the world into sharp hierarchies and spheres – in race, sex, class, gender roles, civilization – and how the Modernist culture of the 20th century violently reacted against its predecessor and set about dismantling all of those sharp hierarchies and spheres for being barriers to the individual self and its pursuit of “experience.”

This is a long read but it lays out the significance of the cultural revolution that happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in everything from biology to physics, mathematics, astronomy, psychology, philosophy and art. This was going on in parallel with the Second Industrial Revolution.

Towards a Definition of American Modernism:

“Moreover, Modernism in this formulation has cast its influence well beyond the intellectual elite to encompass much of contemporary middle-class Western society. Its values, though somewhat diluted, are held by a majority of present-day Americans, and its style is manifested in such diverse contexts as suburban architecture, television advertising, and popular music. In short, the definition being proposed here suggested that Modernism deserves to be treated as a full-fledged historical culture much like Victorianism or the Enlightenment, and that it supplies nothing less than the basic contours of our current mode of thought.

To locate the inner dynamics of Modernism and to see how it came into being, it is necessary to return briefly to the culture against which the early Modernists rebelled. Victorianism, whose reign in America ran roughly from the 1830s to the early twentieth century, was closely associated with the rapidly expanding bourgeois class of that era …

The first true signs of Modernism appeared in Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century in the form of a succession of small movements, each making its own unique contribution to the new culture that was gradually coming into being. Most conspicuous at the outset were the French symbolist poets, beginning with Charles Baudelaire in the 1850s, who overturned the traditional mimetic conventions of art by writing as much about what was transpiring within their own minds as about events or objects in the “real” world. “Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces,” ran Stéphane Mallarmé’s dictum. To that end, Symbolist verse employed highly allusive language and imagery that described the subject of the poem only indirectly, but conveyed as fully as possible the poet’s emotional responses to that subject. The Symbolists were soon joined by the Impressionist painters, who in similar fashion devalued the ostensible subject matter and resolved to capture on canvas their own subjective reactions. Both movements, in other words, moved beyond the stable, rational, and seemingly objective world decreed by nineteenth century positivism in order to explore the far murkier and less predictable operations of human perception and consciousness. In Symbolism, Impressionism and other allied movements, then, one sees emerging one of the foremost tendencies of Modernism – the desire to heighten, savor and share all varieties of experience.

At the same time developments taking place in more organized fields of thought were providing a philosophical underpinning for this urge to seek out experience. Writers as diverse as Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James agreed in rejecting the prevailing theory that divided the mind into separate compartments or “faculties,” and in depicting experience as a continuous flux of sensations and recollections – what James would term “the stream of consciousness.” That raw sensory flux, they concurred, was as close as human beings could come to knowing reality. Abstract concepts, along with all other products of rationality that the Victorians had gloried in as the highest achievements of civilization, were seen as inherently faulty and misleading precisely because they represented an attempt to stop the experiential flow and remove knowledge from its proper dynamic context … Yet the main thrust of their writings involved the obligation to loosen formal and rational restraints, expand one’s consciousness, open oneself to the world, and perfect one’s ability to experience experience – exactly what the Victorians had most feared.

Further momentum for this cultural sea change came from new findings in the physical sciences. “In the twenty years between 1895 and 1915,” notes Allan Bullock, “the whole picture of the physical universe, which had appeared not only the most impressive but also the most secure achievement of scientific thought, was brought into question. The certainties of Newtonian mechanics, and the Euclidian geometry on which it was based, gave way to a new physics in which everything depended on the relative position and motion of the observer and the object being observed. Non-Euclidian versions of geometry abounded, all equally verifiable, until Henri Poincaré was led to suggest in 1902 that “one geometry cannot be more true than another; it can only be more convenient.” Radical theoretical shifts that served to demolish a host of familiar and distinct concepts were taking place at both the cosmic and microscopic levels: space, far from being a void, was now seen as filled with fields of energy, while the atom, far from being solid, was itself made up of tiny particles that orbited each other at a distance. The discovery of radium, demonstrating that seemingly solid matter could turn into energy, was shocking enough, but it was soon followed by Albert Einstein’s proof early in the century that space and time could no longer be construed as separate and distinct entities, but must be placed on a continuum. Clearly, the new science had little use for the rigid, dichotomous categories that the Victorians had relied upon to organize their world; it was as enamored of dynamic process and relativism as the new philosophy and art …

What all these various manifestations of Modernism had in common was not only a passion for opening the self to new levels of experience, but also for fusing together disparate elements of that experience into new and original “wholes,” to the point where one can speak of an “integrative mode” as the basis for the new culture. Put simply, the quintessential aim of Modernists has been to reconnect all that the Victorian moral dichotomy tore asunder – to integrate once more the human and the animal, the civilized and savage, and to heal the sharp divisions that the nineteenth century had established in areas such as class, race, and gender. Only in this way, they have believed, would it be possible to combat the fundamentally dishonest conception of existence that the Victorians had propagated, free the natural human instincts and emotions that the nineteenth century had bottled up, and so restore vitality to modern life. In the blunt words of William Carlos Williams: “Man is an animal, and if he forgets that, he is living a big lie, and soon enough other lies get going.” In short, Modernists were intent on nothing less than recovering an entire aspect of being that their predecessors had tried to banish …

In the realm of social action, it was this stress on breaking down barriers that created the necessary cultural preconditions for the twentieth century’s concerted campaigns to eliminate a “separate sphere” for women, and to overthrow that most noxious by-product of Victorian dichotomizing, racial segregation. …

Thus the Modernist worldview has taken shape. It begins with the premise of an unpredictable universe where nothing is ever stable, and where accordingly human beings must be satisfied with knowledge that is partial and transient at best. Nor is it possible in this situation to devise a fixed and absolute system of morality; moral values must remain in flux, adapting continuously to changing historical circumstances. To create those values and garner whatever knowledge is available, individuals must repeatedly subject themselves – both directly, and vicariously through art – to the trials of experience. Above all they must not attempt to shield themselves behind illusions or gentility, as so many did during the nineteenth century. To be sure, with passing time the Modernist worldview has, especially at the hands of the mass media, undergone some tendencies toward corruption and routinization that have beset other major historical cultures. But in its ideal form at least, Modernism – in stark contrast to Victorianism – eschews innocence and demands instead to know “reality” in all its depth and complexity, no matter how incomplete and paradoxical that knowledge might be, and no matter how painful. …

Surely the two key figures in the process of importing to this country and giving it American roots were William James and John Dewey …

Indeed, one might rightly speak of two predominant “streams” of American Modernist culture, proceeding respectively from James and Dewey. The Jamesian stream centers its interest on the individual consciousness, celebrates spontaneity, authenticity, and the probing of new realms of personal experience, and flows mainly through the arts and humanities. The Deweyan stream, by contrast, tends to focus on society as a whole, emphasizes the elimination of social barriers (geographic, economic, ethnic, racial and gender), and tried to weld together reason and emotion in the service of programmatic social aims. …”

Modernism was to the 20th century what the Enlightenment was to the 18th century. It created the values and beliefs of our world which emerged in the interwar period.

Note: Victor Davis Hanson is kind of cringe. He isn’t wrong though about when our century began.

About Hunter Wallace 12366 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. Historical cycles have always existed and we already have defined cycles by historians for the 20th century. Your definition of “modernism” is too long, ambiguous, unclear, and unproven to be a serious theory in academia.

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