Themes in Modern American Literature

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  • 0:03 Modern American Literature
  • 0:31 Theme of Alienation
  • 1:12 Theme of Transformation
  • 1:49 Theme of Consumption
  • 2:26 Theme of Relativity of Truth
  • 3:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson identifies four important themes in Modern American Literature: alienation, transformation, consumption, and the relativity of truth. These themes reflect the distinct sensibilities of both the modernist and postmodern aesthetic movements.

Modern American Literature

Modern American literature includes twentieth and twenty-first century fiction, poetry, and drama. The period is marked by two significant aesthetic movements: modernism and postmodernism. Modernism describes the avant-garde styles of the early twentieth century, while postmodernism describes the period of art that evolved after World War II. Now that we know the different movements, let's look at the common themes found in this type of literature.

Theme of Alienation

Alienation, an important theme in modern literature, responds to the impact of World War I. Modernist writers describe the effects of war in terms of disconnection. For instance, the speaker in T. S. Eliot's famous poem, ''The Waste Land,'' wanders around a barren scene, trying to reassemble the ruins into some kind of coherent meaning. Alienation is also reflected by the types of narration that modernist authors favored. William Faulkner's novels, for instance, use multiple perspectives or viewpoints to suggest that reality is broken and fragmented, depending on the subject. Characters are alienated from each other because each lives in a world of her own making.

Theme of Transformation

Poet and literary critic Ezra Pound's declaration, ''Make it new''. emphasizes the importance of transformation to the modernist aesthetic. Modernist artists are known for refashioning classical or mythic forms. For instance, T. S. Eliot's poem, ''The Waste Land,'' modernizes Greek mythology by alluding to Greek gods in the context of the modern scene of war. Postmodern fiction also portrays how art, like reality, is always being reshaped. Postmodern narratives often end inconclusively to suggest that narrative is ongoing, always subject to change.

Theme of Consumption

Another important theme in modern fiction is consumption. In the twentieth century, capitalism expanded across the globe, and fiction reflects this expansion by portraying the excesses of consumer culture. Don DeLillo's ''White Noise'' is famous for its critique of consumer culture. The narrative portrays characters who are addicted to shopping. The main protagonist shops in order to avoid thinking about death. By associating consumer culture with distraction, ''White Noise'' suggests that modern capitalism tries - but ultimately fails - to overcome the problem of human mortality.

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