The early 1900s was a turbulent era for America. As World War I raged in Europe, the Spanish flu ravaged nations and communities around the world, leading to the death of millions, and becoming one of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of mankind. While America dealt with the aftermath of prohibition and the Great Depression, Russia and Ireland were engulfed in civil war, leading to major political shifts that reverberated throughout the Western hemisphere. It is no wonder, then, that some historians and scholars refer to this decade as “The Crazy Years” (Lamb 195). The sentiments of these times have also been inevitably recorded by the memoirists of culture, two of which are Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot. In Hemingway’s short story, “Big Two-Hearted River” and Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J.R. Prufrock”, the protagonists of their narratives struggle with the era’s consequential effects on the individual: isolation from a society that is transforming into a more open and dynamic culture, and alienation from the previous generations. These characters reflect the sentiments of the culture through their preoccupation with, on the one hand, the senselessness of war, and, on the other hand, the isolation of the individual from society. In so doing, both Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot occupy a distinct niche in the history of Western literature in that they embody the transition to Modernism, the literary movement that utilize a conscious break from tradition and the pursuit of the new.
Hemingway’s short story “The Big Two-Hearted River” deals with Nick, the story’s only character, who gets off a train in Seney, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for an overnight trout-fishing and camping trip. Nothing much happens in the story, but, as with nearly all of Hemingway’s best fiction, what is not stated is more important than what is. Hemingway focuses on descriptions of Nick’s fishing and camping, through Nick’s thinking, but in the third person. The “swamp” across the river, is also a constant symbol of Nick’s dread, but throughout the story, he struggles to conquer it. In the second part of the story, Nick fixes his breakfast of coffee and pancakes, and sandwiches for lunch. He fishes and looks across the river down to the swamp. The reader is made to feel at the end of the story that Nick will overcome his psychological wounding, because, although he has avoided the “tragic adventure” ahead of him down river, the narrator provides an optimistic perspective where “there were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp (Hemingway 992).
On the other hand, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, is the profile of the titular character, whose psychologically tortured by his own overeducated neuroticism. Prufrock addresses a lover and seems to pursue the aim of consummating their relationship. The narrator’s introspections move from different physical settings, but are concerned with the singular inquiry into his isolation and loneliness, in the process revealing his insecurities about his social life and his inadequacies as a human being.
Both Hemingway’s Nick and Eliot’s Prufrock embody the concern for loneliness during the 1920s. Nick, in a more concrete sense, alludes to his experiences during the war. The camping trip is, in fact, his desire to concentrate on the details of fishing and hunting rather than remembering his experiences. Although this is not explicitly stated, the contextualization of the short story – as a product of the 1920s and as the work of author who once served in the front – reveals that this may be the most likely interpretation.
Hemingway, through his sparse prose, reveals Nick’s inner conflicts and psychological stress through the landscape, where the “swamp” serves as the memories that Nick is so trying hard to escape. On the other hand, Eliot also uses the setting of Prufrock’s introspection in rendering the inner thought processes of his protagonist. Although less concrete in his descriptions, Eliot structures his poem as a series of unanswerable questions and interrogatives, the most interesting of which is “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (MicIntire 79; Eliot 673). The addressee, although never explicitly revealed appears to be a larger-than –life cultural superego, silent in Prufrock’s questions. To be sure, the dilemmas that Eliot poses is sexualized, but Prufrock’s questions are no less universal in their exploration of loneliness in the modern world.
Both Hemingway and Eliot are distinctly modernist authors. Hemingway’s exploration of Nick’s psychology breaks away from the traditional and literal interpretation of prose. Formally, moreover, Hemingway uses the sparseness of his writing to create worlds that are better left undescribed within the narrative – a technique that was novel to 1920s literature. Likewise, Eliot’s utilization of untraditional rhythms and the mixture of colloquial language and allusions to previous great works in the history of Western literature also signify the author’s exploration of new techniques, methods, and styles in exploring the thematic obsession with loneliness and isolation.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in At Home and Abroad: American Fiction Between the Wars. Harold Bloom (ed.). New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2004. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Big Two-Hearted River” in At Home and Abroad: American Fiction Between the Wars. Harold Bloom (ed.). New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2004. Print.
Lamb, Andrew. 150 Years of Pop Musical Theater. Yale: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.
McIntire, Gabrielle. Modernism, Memory, and Desire. Cambridge: CUP, 2008. Print.