The literature written during the 1920s brought to life America's fixation of rising to the top within social ranks. The themes and ideals presented in novels and poetry during the 1920s were a depiction of the fantasy that was the American dream. The fantasy, often associated with leaving rural life and joining the ranks of the modern city, was one that most people can still relate to today. Literature in the 1920s highlighted this and offered it as an antidote to rural life. In the twentieth century some American modernist’s decided to blend the concept of pastoral tradition with modernist views, thus shaping a relationship between rural and city life. Authors and poets took the idea that rural members of society were ‘backward’ and used the concept to promote themes of capitalism, social status and the darker side of society. During the 1920s writers creatively experimented with language and method. They pushed boundaries and introduced the 20th Century to a movement of literature that is widely known as a classic style, where pastoral traditions meet modern forms.
The question most posed by this movement is whether modernist writers used a new form of pastoral tradition? Or did they just pull old forms into a new-obsessed world? The
literary movement known as Modernism began around 1890 and continued through the late 30s. However, its ultimate moment was known as a time of experimentation. Authors transformed the structure of novels and poems. The narrative was pushed to a different boundary for a more creative form and voice. With a change of voice and narrative came a new development of characters through opinions, objection, and inner monologue of that made them more interesting and exciting. The plot structure became unconventional; each plot became full of deeply complex characters and symbolism. While modernism was seen around the world, the American literature is the most well-known and revered of this era. Through pastoral tradition the modernist works gave two senses of feeling, one innocent and one cynical, which renders the pastoral tradition very relevant to the city-loving modern world. To further understand this blend in modernist literature, pastoral literature must be analyzed.
Pastoral literature is a class of literature that presents the society of shepherds as free from the complexity and corruption of city life. Many of the idylls written in its name are far remote from the realities of any life, rustic or urban (Encyclopedia Britanica). Modernists sometimes took literature far away from the realities of life, yet blended it will real pieces of both rustic and urban ideals. While a relationship between the country and the city has always been evident, often modern devices were used as metaphors for rural values in a historical sense. Some note that there were different ‘trends’ in the pastoral tradition within the modernist movement. That possibly they were not new writers pushing new boundaries, but yet using old forms and saying they were new.
Terry Gifford describes three different kinds of pastoral:
1) Retreat and return.
2) Contrast between country and city.
3) The pastoral as “pejorative”. Here, Gifford recognizes post-pastoral censure and questions the remote possibility: Can the pastoral exist in the twentieth century? (Gifford 2).
The pastoral tradition is often questioned as far as its existence in modern literature. With the impact that war and industrialization has had on modern society, can pastoral then survive in relation the new modern city life? The changes in society are what brought about the changes within the structure of literature. The pastoral, in the traditional sense, is not what modernist’s used, but more of a pastoral sentiment. Modernist writers who used pastoral tradition developed a unique metaphorical distinction between rural life and city life. That is not to say, they did not attempt to carry on the pastoral tradition. The antagonism between rural life and city life will always remain intact. Thus, modernists engrained the use of metaphors to mirror the country and city. The pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery, and it has not yet lost its hold upon the native imagination (Marx 3).
The antagonisms between the race verses race, industrialization verses farming and the refined man verses the hillbilly is most evident in modernism. This sense of pastoral tradition within a modernist view is what makes 20th Century literature unique, beautiful and classic. However, in today’s society it is often revered as savage, due to the nature of its language. For instance Hemingway, a celebrated American author with a vast amount of influence on the modernist movement, is often seen as a blatant racist, simply because of his
colorful language and overabundant pastoral use of the word ‘nigger’. This language is what defined a lot of the modernist movement and, while sometimes offensive, it does hold a significant place in literature whether an individual abhors its presence or not. This is how modernist writers conveyed the ideal that the city trumps the country through pastoral tradition, through the use of two distinct styles of language, one city and one rural. This technique is most often associated in the works of Mark Twain, who used contrasting characters, each with a distinct style of speaking, in a pastoral tradition. Often this was stated in the foreword of the novel directing the reader on how to read the characters:
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri Negro dialect; the extremist form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
The modernist author who wrote in pastoral tradition immersed readers in a world that was damaged by the industrial age, exploitation of technologies, and the deeply damaged places a writer could take a reader within metaphors, language and a sense of the old within the new. Their poetic language held a sense of rural society and helped weave nostalgia into the new, city life. Pastoral is a genre known for its nostalgia, its yearning for an imaginary past in which human beings inhabit a gracious “middle landscape” (Marx 4). The modernist
movement took the best of both worlds and ignored its insufficiencies and weaknesses. Modernists demand deeper and more radical rewards: modern men and women must become the subjects as well as the objects of modernization; they must learn to change the world that is changing them, and to make it their own (Berman 1). Thus, they were not ‘just pulling old forms into a new-obsessed world’ they were changing it, which made the pastoral tradition very much relevant to the modern world. The pastoral tradition was not depicted as an antidote, but more of a gateway to understanding modern society.
Many modernists shared an ambitious, aspirational belief in the role and place of the artist in contemporary life, believing that art had replaced religion in providing coherence, guidance, and insight into the human condition (The American Novel). This brought about historical themes intertwined with the sense of myth. Eventually, causing some modernist authors to evaluate the meanings of myths and explore it with a new perspective. Thus pastoral took on a sense of non-traditional with some writers. While they used a sense of nostalgia or history, they ultimately put a modern spin on old ideology. Clearly pastoral tradition was not an antidote at all to modern life, but a theme that played a crucial role in the attempt to overcome everyday life in general. Human beings often yearn for the opposite. Both modernism and pastoral tradition complimented one another.
In conclusion, the Modernist movement used a new form of pastoral tradition. They didn’t just create new forms, they demanded them. The movement to date is one of the most creatively non-constrained and productive movements in literature history. From poetry to novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald to T.S. Eliot, the literature produced in this era is nostalgic and modern. Known as a time of experimentation, these writers transformed myths into legends and the structure of writing as we know it today.
Pastoral tradition acted as a guide for writing with a sense of nostalgia, in a language that mimicked the naturalness that comes with rural life. Modernist writers set very high precedents for future authors to follow. The alternative mode of vision that was presented in the merriment of pastoral tradition and modernism helped the authors take writing far away from the realities of life, and blend it will real pieces of both rustic and urban ideals. This movement brought on some of the most creatively explosive content.
The American literature of the 1920s explored a new stream-of-consciousness, within technique, form and boundaries. This literature took something the present and related it to the past. The concept these authors implored was of the naked self. They themselves went beyond the institutions of literature and wrote using the real essence of human beings. Human beings are nostalgic, yet love the sense of moving forward. Humans embrace social change and the characteristics that it brings about, so why should literature not capitalize on this? The introduction of pastoral tradition in American literature of the 1920s did just that. The modernist movement wasn’t just a wonder, but a miracle that carried literature to a whole new level.
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