A Brief Survey of the Modernist Canon

Written by Nathan Allen Pastrano

“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”

Richard Wright

Writing is more than just for entertainment purposes. It is a way to speak truth. The early 20th century marked a turning point in literary history for marginalized groups, particularly in the United States, opening a window for oppressed writers to vocalize their experiences within a literary canon that had been dominated by elites for centuries. This period became known as the modernist era.

Even as a third-year English major, I had an unclear understanding of modernism prior to enrolling in my African American Literature and Culture class.

Upon visiting UT’s Harry Ransom Center, I discovered that a lot of modernist literature has yet to be explored by contemporary literary scholars. Richard Wright’s Black Boy (American Hunger) particularly captivated my interest for its visceral exposure of industrialization’s negative effects on America’s economic structure. Wright was one of the many novelists who used the modernist movement to critique his mid-20th century society.

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Author Richard Wright. Image by Library of Congress. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) license.

Wright’s Black Boy and other coming-of-age narratives made their way into the modernist canon through their unique writing styles. These writing styles criticized and questioned the ideologies of white society while ultimately maintaining neutral ground in the novels’ resolutions, leaving readers to ponder questions about society, economics, and politics instead of concluding with a definite answer.

Professor Clare Callahan, who specializes in American literature from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression and program coordinator of UT’s Humanities Institute, weighed in on the typical conventions of coming-to-age-narratives and how they contributed to the modernist canon.

“Modernist writing, with its emphasis on the human consciousness, is typically perceived as a counter to the kind of realism that a lot of the social novels, which wanted to paint a realistic picture of industrial society and the injuries of capitalism, employed,” Callahan said.

“Coming-of-age narratives typically tell a story of the protagonist’s assimilation, with some healthy resistance, into a society’s dominant norms and expectations,” she added.

Callahan then elaborated on the ambiguous endings that characterize these coming-of-age narratives. “We can certainly see this theme of the confrontation between the individual and society in Black Boy (American Hunger)…but that Wright is a black male growing up in the Jim Crow South fundamentally alters the genre.”

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Black Boy Cover © Harper & Brothers

“We are not left with a romantic resolution at the end of the novel, but an unresolved conflict, and the acknowledgement by Wright of having to inhabit this ultimately unresolved contradiction between him as an individual artist and the Communist Party that he rejects but still supports,” she said.

Readers, myself included, often find themselves exploring the inventive conventions and structures of modernist novels. These new writing styles and forms of rheotric that were encouraged during this period were largely in response to the conditions of 20th century America and still intrigue audiences today.

 

Featured image: ©Anthony Preston. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) license.

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