Critical definitions of Modernism

From Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
"a general term applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the literature (and other arts) of the early 20th century.... Modernist literature is characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19th-century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader: conventions of realism ... or traditional meter. Modernist writers tended to see themselves as an avant-garde disengaged from bourgeois values, and disturbed their readers by adopting complex and difficult new forms and styles. In fiction, the accepted continuity of chronological development was upset by Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner, while James Joyce and Virginia Woolf attempted new ways of tracing the flow of characters' thoughts in their stream-of-consciousness styles. In poetry, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot replaced the logical exposition of thoughts with collages of fragmentary images and complex allusions..... Modernist writing is predominantly cosmopolitan, and often expresses a sense of urban cultural dislocation, along with an awareness of new anthropological and psychological theories. Its favoured techniques of juxtaposition and multiple point of view challenge the reader to reestablish a coherence of meaning from fragmentary forms."
From Holman, C. Hugh, A Handbook to Literature (3rd ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.
"A term applied to one of the main directions in writing in [the 20th] century.  It is not so much a chronological designation as one suggestive of a loosely defined [collection] of characteristics. Much twentieth-century literature is not "modern" in the common sense, as much that is contemporary is not. Modern refers to a group of characteristics, and not all of them appear in any one writer who merits the distinction modern.

In a broad sense modern is applied to writing marked by a strong and conscious break with traditional forms and techniques of expression. It employs a distinctive kind of imagination that insists on having its general frame of reference within itself. It thus practices the solipsism of which [mid-20th century American poet and critic] Allen Tate accused the modern mind: it believes that we create the world in the act of perceiving it. Modern implies a historical discontinuity, a sense of alienation, loss, and despair. It rejects not only history but also the society of whose fabrication history is a record. It rejects traditional values and assumptions, and it rejects equally the rhetoric by which they were sanctioned and communicated. It elevates the individual and the inward over the social and the outward, and it prefers the unconscious to the self-conscious. The psychologies of Freud and Jung have been seminal in the modern movement in literature. In many respects it is a reaction against realism and naturalism and the scientific postulates on which they rest. Although by no means can all modern writers by termed philosophical existentialists, existentialism has created a schema within which much of the modern temper can see a reflection of its attitudes and assumptions. The modern revels in a dense and often unordered actuality as opposed to the practical and systematic, and in exploring that actuality as it exists in the mind of the writer it has been richly experimental with language and with form, with symbol and with myth."

Reader-defined Modernism (from

Highbrow readers were modernists on a quest for "literary" culture, or a notion of culture that transcended mass consumerism and supported the concept of the individual. For highbrow readers, the "literary" involved an exchange between two individuals; a single genius author or poet spoke through literature to an individual reader. Highbrows valiantly defended this older notion of the literary, because it seemed threatened by new forms of cultural production based on "collective production and mass distribution" (Radway 222). Film, for example, a new collaborative cultural form, reached thousands of viewers simultaneously. Gone, through this medium, were the days when one individual related a story to another. Highbrows also looked down on the new media as purely profit driven and claimed that their own literary search was comparatively disinterested, solely for the sake of art itself. Indeed, in the modernist highbrow readers' stance, one can read "a heroic resistance to a decline in the nature and position of the literary" (222). In an age when new cultural forms made the reading of literature less relevant, highbrow readers protected literature from the base masses and clung to the notion that "culture" was synonymous with the literary.

Many highbrow readers, such as professional literary critics, author critics, academics, and editors, were simultaneously writers who distinguished between the high and the low, and advocated literary culture for the few. In their writings, they constructed the high literary as the property of those belonging to an "aristocracy of taste" (257). Only those with superior perception could appreciate and claim authority over the literary domain. Ironically, through the construction of a select audience, highbrows simultaneously advertised literary modernism as something highly desirable, because it was so inaccessible. In reality, highbrows were not interested in attracting "other" readers. Those with contrary opinions and tastes were hardly welcomed into highbrow circles. In fact, other readers were often coldly dismissed or boldly attacked. For example, highbrow readers railed against middlebrow book clubs because they failed to distinguish between the high and the low, or the cultural and the economic (254). Furthermore, book clubs seemed to destroyed the highbrow notion of the independent reader who was free to make reading selections on his or her own. But what the highbrow failed to recognize was that while the middlebrow had recommendations dictated to him, the highbrow merely based his "independence" upon the dictates of highbrow authorities.

Reading for the highbrow was a strenuous, time-consuming, intellectual activity. It was, in essence work, rather than a passive leisure experience or pleasurable form of entertainment. A highbrow reader believed in active engagement with a text and participation in its creation. Yet, the reading method advocated in the modernist period by the New Critics privileged the text as a self-contained object, to the point that it eclipsed the reader. The book became primary while its readers became peripheral. Furthermore, many modernist texts seemed to wage war on ordinary readers, pushing them away through complex, allusive, and inaccessible language. High modernist texts like Ulysses, The Waves, and The Sound and the Fury, with their fragmented non-chronological forms and multiple subjectivities, certainly challenged readers, but also served to distance them. Such modernist texts often made the common readers hesitant to embrace high modernism. Thus, for the highbrow reader with high modernist texts, reading became a difficult activity that demanded only the most serious readers.

Middlebrow readers were upwardly-mobile modernists who based their reading choices on the divergent authority of professional book reviewers. Indeed, the term "middlebrow" itself emerged in the 1920s as readers from the professional managerial class sought to demonstrate their connection to "culture." "Oriented always to the gaze and assessment of others," (Radway 283) middlebrow subjects were constantly concerned about their "cultured" appearance. Furthermore, although the middlebrow was an intellectual laborer, he spent most of his time in an office, not a library; therefore, books became one way to show his true culture or learnedness. Though the middlebrow may not have had much leisure time to read, he could consume; he could purchase culture in a textual form and could thereby create the self anew or further his success. (See for example, advertisement for Harvard classics above.)

Eager to consume culture, many middlebrow readers belonged to book clubs like the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, which were devoted to the circulation and distribution of books. These clubs advertised themselves as offering "high" quality books, though not necessarily high modernist literature. In fact, contrary to common belief, the middlebrow did not simply strive to imitate the tastes of the highbrow. The middlebrow saw high modernism as too cynical, inaccessible, and limited in its outlook toward life. Indeed, the middlebrow therefore avoided books that were too "academic" in tone (39). Since middlebrow reviewers felt high modernism inappropriate to a "general audience," (279) "literary modernism" appeared only peripherally on book club lists in a "special tastes" category (274). In short, the literary, for the middlebrow reader, was "only one more category among many," (274) for book clubs trying to reach mass audiences, categorized books according to many genres. Offering books in categories such as "adventure," "western," "mystery" and "childrens," enabled book clubs to unite particular books with precise readers and subsequently to reach a wider audience. The book clubs asserted that "books were different, just as readers were different" (264) and made it a goal to offer books according to the diverse types of readers and their desires, rather than to simply judge texts as appropriate to a few as highbrow critics did.

Although middlebrow readers posited their difference from highbrows, they also shared many of the same fears in relation to the low or the threat of mass consumer culture. To position themselves as distant from the low, many book clubs used highbrow rhetoric in their advertising. One Book-of-the-Month Club promoter even used a "selection committee to foreground the status of his books as literary objects rather than commodities" (263). Middlebrow readers could thus feel confident that the texts they purchased were approved by a group of literary experts as literature. Yet, despite their pretensions, middlebrow book clubs in reality joined book selling with Fordism. In the form of book clubs, middlebrow reading was "the organizational equivalent of a perpetual motion machine" (261). Sending new books to subscribed consumers every month enabled book clubs to create a continual market for books. Thus, although the middlebrow claimed its difference from the low, in essence it hid "the same machine-tooled uniformity" behind a "mask of culture" (222). In fact, the middlebrow brought together the distribution forms of the low with the language of the high, creating a dialogic space in which high and low met.

"Lowbrow" Readers were essentially imaginary. Based primarily on the fears and negative criticisms of highbrow and middlebrow readers, the lowbrow had no distinct voice of its own. The lowbrow epitomized the threat of mass culture and marked the region where an age-old notion of reading may have stopped due to new forms of media like radio and film. According to Janice Radway, "the category of the lowbrow was understood to include all standardized cultural objects that were generated through a corporately organized mode of production, including motion pictures, radio programs and pulp novels" (222). Thus, while the lowbrow reader may have read print, in the form of pulp fiction--cheap paperback texts--or read popular moving picture magazines, he or she most probably read images on screens or sounds from radio sets. Furthermore, new mass media forms destroyed the highbrows and middlebrows' conceptions of reading, whereby the individual author spoke to the individual reader. Now the masses read forms collaboratively produced and usually sullied by a proximity to advertising. Finally, as the highbrow and middlebrow readers complained, the lowbrow read for pleasure or entertainment. The lowbrow read passively, without thought, consuming images and sounds on a purely sensory or bodily level. In sum, the low comprised all that threatened the others' notions about reading and "true" culture.

Page citations from Radway, Janice A. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.