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Lauren Arrington

Although Irish writers were foundational to English-language modernism, Irish Modernism is a new field in literary studies. Embedded imperial frameworks and assumptions about Irish traditionalism have been an obstacle to recognizing Irish Modernism, despite the importance of Irish writing to the development of modernism as a whole. Informed by postcolonial and transnational theory, a reading of Irish Modernism accommodates writers who lived and wrote in and about Ireland, as well as those who were Irish by birth but who lived and worked outside of the country, such as James Joyce; who wrote in languages other than English or Irish, such as Samuel Beckett; or whose political allegiances are at odds with the rise of the separatist nation state, such as Elizabeth Bowen. Irish Modernism has its genesis in the Irish Revival (ca. 1880s–1910s), a popular movement that sought to create a distinctive Irish culture. The little magazines and literary theaters that arose out of the Revival were often aesthetically conservative in themselves; nonetheless, they became venues for literature that was radical in form. Just as early modernist writing arose out of the Revival, high modernist literature was provoked by a rejection of the Revival’s values. These reactions are exemplified in William Butler Yeats’s poetry from The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910), in which he castigates the Irish public for its religious conservatism, and in Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Late modernism, which is typified by a weakening of the tropes of high modernism to make way for a more politically engaged literature, not only includes well-known Anglophone writers but also the work of Brian Ó Nualláin/Flann O’Brien and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, whose satires were formally and politically radical.

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The year 1922 has been known as the annus mirabilis (“miracle year”) of Anglo-American literary modernism, chiefly because of the near-simultaneous publication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. The distinctive historical character of 1922 remains an ongoing concern: the year was at once a time of traumatic memory of World War I and a moment of renewed ambition for the radical experiments of modernism. During the war, Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf had enjoyed an unusual opportunity to revise and extend their aesthetic ambitions. Each of their works registers the more defiant provocation of postwar literature, but each confronts the powerful resistance of cultural and political authorities who saw the efforts, especially of Eliot and Joyce, as both meaningless and dangerous. The postwar period also saw the rapid expansion of new technologies (especially in transport and telecommunications) and a consumer society keen to enjoy the availability of freshly circulating material goods. D. H. Lawrence described the end of war as both a relief and a menace. This double valence captures the contrast between searing memories of battlefield death and anticipation of pleasure and plenitude in the Jazz Age. The central figures in this entry are at once newly confident in the adversarial mission of modernism and fully aware of the social complacency and cultural conservatism arrayed against them. The immediate felt disturbance of these works came through their formal challenge, in particular through the intersecting uses of many-voiced and multi-perspectival montage, an assemblage of fragmentary views, and a diversity of speaking tones. This conspicuous technique appears in closely related terms within the early films of Dziga Vertov and the postwar philosophy of logical atoms developed by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the formal inventiveness exhibited during the year is no more prominent than the social concern. Especially as in 21st century, historical studies of the period have recovered the depth of interest in questions of race, empire, sexual debility, and social failure.