The Concept of Modernism in Stephen Spender The Struggle of the Modern

Originally understood as general sympathy for the modern condition, the 1920s saw the term “modernism” become directly associated with the artistic experimentation that was beginning to develop within Western culture (Faulkner, viii). With experimentation as such a central part of the imaginative framework during this time, it is no wonder that the creative efforts of modernists are characterized by unique and highly individualized creative visions. Indeed, the incredible variety of modernist works is what makes it so difficult to establish an exact definition of modernism (Faulkner, ix).

What is perhaps more pertinent than nailing down this concept with an exact definition is understanding that the nature of modernist literature is the result of the uniquely traumatic time period from which it originated.

The crisis of World War I has been credited as the historical event that prompted the birth of formal experimentalism within the modernist movement (Van Der Wiel 17-8) and the means by which American writers were able to justify their new avant-garde style (Limon 85).

However, more than identifying experimentalism within a post-war context, it is crucial to locate it within the specific cultural context of wide-reaching trauma. Modernism encompasses a generation of writers who were indeed victims of that trauma, and in the attempt to reconcile their pain with a suitable language for it, they were forced to reconsider and experiment with the possibilities and limitations of language and literature.

Trauma theory itself verifies this theory because as I have established, the experiences of trauma cannot adequately be expressed through conventional language, and thus the traumatic requires a degree of experimentation for the sake of communication.

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Literary trauma theory rarely discusses modernism, and yet the historical and artistic context of the early twentieth century promotes trauma as a major entity which influenced the ethos of modernism and figures within it.

In The Struggle of the Modern, Stephen Spender writes that “modern art is that in which the artist reflects awareness of an unprecedented modern situation in form and idiom” (71) and that “the principle of reality in our time is peculiarly difficult to grasp, and that “realism” is not an adequate approach to it” (176). It becomes clear from Spender’s observations that modernism is characterized by an innate and fundamental conflict with the nature of modernity, which we already know was the result of World War I. This new and unbearably irrational world became the ultimate challenge for modernist writers, one that Hemingway and his contemporaries eagerly accepted.

However, since life as it was before the war was no longer an option, this generation was left to struggle with the question of what this new, post-conflict world was supposed to look like. With this in mind, modernism can be understood as the efforts of a traumatized generation to faithfully illustrate the indecipherable reality that was the essence of their modern times.

Spender’s observations also highlight the artist’s innate difficulty of illustrating a reality that eluded the principles of realism and which made the standards of literary convention rather impractical for the modernist writer’s purposes. It thus becomes apparent that in the aftermath of World War I, writers were moved to invent modernism as a varied collection of their own uniquely individual artistic standards and conventions. It was each writer’s highly individualized commitment to stylistic innovation and experimentation that defined modernism.

Writers of this movement are characterized by the endeavor to envision and carve their idea of the truth out of a bizarre reality, and this goal becomes a means by which we can broadly organize modernist writers. While this unifying goal captures the intentions of the movement, the essence of the modernism lies rather in the virtue of individualism. Uniquely different attempts to experiment with literature were what ultimately distinguished these broadly unified figures from one another, allowing them to rise as independent titans of the literary world. The only true quality which pertained to all of these figures was a shared history of disillusionment, suffering, and the seemingly impossible desire to heal.

Roger Luckhurst writes that, “the [trauma] aesthetic is uncompromisingly avant-garde: experimental, fragmented, refusing the consolations of beautiful form, and suspicious of familiar representational and narrative conventions” (81). Though this definition of trauma rhetoric speaks to the importance of experimentalism, this literary concept must also be interpreted as that which suggests “bleakness, darkness, alienation, disintegration” (Bradbury and McFarlane 26). Because they arose from such a chaotic and confused atmosphere, the literary innovations of the period must be noted in connection to modernism’s distinctive inclination towards pessimism and disillusionment. While avant-garde style is a hallmark of modernism, such experimentalism also has a unique and indelible connection with trauma theory and the relationship between the two concepts can be witnessed throughout works from the modernist period, regardless of artisticmedium.

Modernist illustrations of trauma are also notable in how they endeavor to include the reader as a participant in the trauma of the narrative. When speaking of Somerset Maugham’s quintessentially modernist novel, Of Human Bondage, Ana Carden-Coyne posits that the text “imbued the disabled civilian with the sensitivity to interpret the brutal world around him” (2). Though touching upon only one, specific work of literary modernism, Carden-Coyne’s statements speaks to the general nature of modernist texts, which encourage the audience’s participation in the characters’ education of the true nature of the world. It is in this sense that modernist literature hinges upon an author’s intention of disillusioning the audience’s preconceived notions of a world that operates on lofty ideals (such as courage or honor).

The real world, as these authors would have it, puts no value on such principles and shows no mercy towards the individuals who hold them, oftentimes educating those same individuals through the lessons of immense brutality that were taught by World War I. As a concept, trauma has a prominent and highly relevant position within the context of modernism and post-World War I culture, which was highly influential in shaping the craft and style of Hemingway.

While all modernist writers are characterized by their unique and experimental style, Hemingway stands out for establishing less a style than an ethic (Norris 59). To understand this distinction, it is necessary to return to the foundation of the Hemingway style: the self-described “Iceberg Method.” The concept speaks to a minimalist and unsentimental prose style that would both propel the story and draw attention to that which was left unsaid within the narrative.

Hemingway’s belief was that omission was a more effective means of leading readers to discover the significance of the narrative, since the nature of the prose would enable them to uncover it for themselves. Hemingway coined this stylistic term as a means of justifying his writing style to those who would undoubtedly misinterpret it as vapid and ineffective prose (Moreland 48). Hemingway’s iceberg theory was both effective and highly influential, but most importantly, it exemplifies the modernist preoccupation with experimentalism and audience engagement, strategies which ultimately prove instrumental in communicating trauma.

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The Concept of Modernism in Stephen Spender The Struggle of the Modern. (2022, Dec 14). Retrieved from

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