Modernism Vs Postmodernism

You cannot have one, without the other: Modernism vs. Postmodernism.

In American Literature there are different movements that affect the author’s styles in their writings. Modernism and postmodernism are two of the major movements that we covered in class. Modernism is based on rationale and logic; while postmodernism is based on subjectivity and one’s belief. The authors in the modernism movement focused on interiority, like Alan Seeger and William Faulkner. Seeger used a sense of disillusionment in some of his writings that led the readers to be objective and to interpret the text as they wish. The literary movement that followed modernism was postmodernism. Postmodernism is based on unscientific and irritational thoughts and prose baseline. The authors in postmodernism movement focused on exteriority, like Ralph Ellison and Allen Ginsberg. Ellison used irony and skepticism in his writing to display the attitudes of his characters and tried to avoid suggesting underlying meanings for the reader. Despite that both movements have the word modernism in their name, they are distinctly different; but you cannot have one and not the other.

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The modernism movement was from the early 1900s-1965. Britannica’s definition of modernism is A radical break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism was popular and commonly used after the end of World War I and during the Great Depression. Modernism was the rebellion of realism. Realism was a faithful representation of reality, and it focused on the middle class. Modernism authors/writers tried to reveal profound truths of experience and life. In Alan Seeger’s poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death was told by a WWI soldiers point of view and how he may have to face dying in the war.

It may be he shall take my hand

and lead me into his dark land

and close my eyes and quench my breath-

it may be I shall pass him still. (Seeger Lines 7-10)

Modernism was based on using rational and logic reasoning to help the reader draw their own conclusions on the piece of writing. Modernism was the rule breaker of all the movements, it deviated from the normal style of writings.

I have a rendezvous with Death

On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow-flowers appear. (Seeger Lines 11-14)

In Seeger’s poem he compares lively spring to the inevitable of death it makes the poem not as harsh due to the imagery and the contrasting of the two main points of the poem. Seeger’s idealism contributes to the tone of the poem. The poet does not push the thought of death away, he seems to welcome it. Seeger was optimistic in this poem, despite the possibilities of what could happen. In the article I read, George Watson said:

On a longer view, classic Modernism was a decadent version of literary humanism. (Watson 261)

Literary humanism can be defined as a system of thought that focuses on humans and their values. Another characteristic of modernism is that often times the poem, in this instance, meanders through thoughts that feel fragmented. Take William Carlos Williams’s poem The Red Wheelbarrow for instance:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white

chickens (Williams Lines 1-8)

The eight lines in this poem is very simple. But the use of the strange break points in this piece, makes certain word have more emphasis than if it was not broken up. This poem also has no main character, which is yet another characteristic of modernism writing.
The postmodernism movement was from mid 1965s and slowly started to fade with the evolution of technology. This movement started at the end of WWII. This was the reaction again modernism. Authors in this movement avoided drawing conclusions or suggesting underlying meanings, instead they let the reader draw their own conclusion. In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the story is about a black man living in a racist American society and he felt trapped. Whether it being trapped in his body, or trapped in this society. Subjectivity is one of the main characteristics of this movements writings.

It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man. (Ellison 197)

In this direct quote, the author is telling the reader that he is invisible and it stated a person’s blindness, and that was being meant as metaphorically; that the perception is flawed by the person. Postmodernism is based on unscientific and irrational thoughts and perceptions. It uses a mixture of conventional writing styles. Black/dark humor is another characteristic of postmodernism. One of the well-known authors of this movement was Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg wrote a highly controversial piece of literature that was banned when it was first written due to the sexual content, offensive language, and raw material that he wrote about.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving

hysterically naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry


angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the

starry dynamo in the machinery of night.(Ginsberg Lines 1-6)

The text describes the “suffering and persecution” that these people are experiencing, there is a generation who is clearly lost, hurting and is crying out for acceptance. Frustration or falsehood could also be used to describe the style in which the authors write in. For instance, in the above quote, it used the idea to covey that everything is not always as good as one believed it to be.

Postmodernism has redefined the relationship between two spheres in which the work of each of us lies: the critical and the social cultural. The possibilities of representation within this cultural shift are greater than before. Postmodernism does not deny these possibilities any more than it denies reality. (Merwick 4)

Postmodernism is hard to define, but is usually written in clear, easy to read language.

There are only a few similarities between these two major movements in American literature. Each movement is based on changes in cultural and social behavior around the world. Not only did modernism and postmodernism influence literature, they also influenced art, architecture, culture and society. They are both difficult to define but by trying to define them, it may have limited the movements ability to grow and expand.

So, in conclusion, modernism and postmodernism are widely and well known American literature movements that have influence the world today. Modernism is based on rational and logic; while postmodernism is based on subjectivity and one’s belief. While the going theory of modernism was that it could be harmful and not beneficial, it took flight. And many believed that postmodernism was the worst time in history, but due to the cultural events that took place, both of these movements helped influence American literature today. If modernism did not exist, neither would postmodernism; they go hand in hand. Despite that both movements have the word modernism in their name, they are distinctly different; but you cannot have one and not the other

Works Cited

  1. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ninth edition, volume E, edited by Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton, 2017. 190-207.
  2. Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ninth edition, volume E, edited by Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton, 2017. 487-494.
  3. Kuiper, Kathleen. Modernism. Encyclop?¦dia Britannica, Encyclop?¦dia Britannica, Inc., 2 Jan. 2018,
  4. Mambrol, Nasrullah. Postmodernism. Literary Theory and Criticism Notes, WordPress, 31 Mar. 2016,
  5. Matteo, Virgina. What’s the Difference Between Modernism and Postmodernsim in Literature? Owlcation, HubPages, 9 Feb. 2018.
  6. Merwick, Donna. American Studies International. Oct93, Vol. 31 Issue 2, p4. 13p. 1. Academic Search Complete,EBSCOhost, Black and White Photograph.
  7. Murad, Mahbub. Major Similarities and Dissimilarities Between Modernism and Post Modernism. Online Educare, 15 Dec. 2014,
  8. Seeger, Alan. I Have a Rendezvous with Death. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ninth edition, volume D, edited by Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton, 2017. 204.
  9. Watson, George. The Phantom Ghost of Modernism. American Scholar, vol. 54, no. 2, 2001,pp. 253268.
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