Like any literary movement, the more one tries to narrow down the definition of Modernism so that it can cover every writer judged to be a devotee, the more slippery the movement becomes. Any attempt at an application of a singular overriding thematic concern of movement intended to cover so many individual literary examples is doomed to frustration. How, after all, can one truly expect to seamlessly fit together the experiences and works of T.S. Eliot, Richard Wright and F. Scott Fitzgerald so that they seamlessly complete a puzzle also occupied by James Joyce, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf? Modernism must be expanded to a singularly penetrating core in order to retain any meaning at such a broad application and perhaps that is best accomplished by suggesting that what truly defines Modernist literature is a pervasive awareness of the disintegration of long-held conventions, cherished beliefs, unquestioned assumptions and Old World values in the pursuit of a self-identity actually chosen by the self rather than one imposed upon them directly as a consequence of the society which arose to establish those conventions, beliefs, assumptions and values.
The question of identity is central to African-American literature precisely because everything about their shared culture is an imposition from without. The desperate search to re-establish autonomy over the self almost certainly contributed to the arrival of Modernism coinciding with the most fecund flourishing of African-American creativity in the arts in history. The fundamental aspect of being allowed to expose the failures of classicism and to expose its hypocrisy through rejection of everything it stood can be seen as central thematic components in the stories of two of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The opening lines of the very poem that first established Hughes as a literary figure of note cries out for awareness that identity is constructed upon history, but that history is always progressing forward: “I’ve known rivers:/I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older/than the flow of human blood in human veins” (Hughes). The speaker is a universal “I” telling the world that the black race did not arise as property working for whites; they are ancient and proud and human. In one fell swoop, Hughes uses the axe of Modernism to cut loose generation of misguided assumptions about his people to define himself within the contextual framework of a distinctly Africanized Americanism. Contrasting to this reconstituting of an identity constructed for him by outmoded values of a foreign culture is the stance taken by Nora Zeale Hurston in “How it feel to be Colored me.” The distinction is clear, but so is the shared agreement of rejection of classical thinking: “I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads. I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong” (Hurston). The Modernist preoccupation with the fragmentary nature of an identity which must has first been destroyed in order to be rebuilt is present in both these examples of African-American literature, but where Hughes seeks to travel a path that neither rejects nor invites the inclusion of white society, Hurston seeks to escape the ravages of forced assimilation through a renegotiation of the terms of accommodation.

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That accommodation of whites by blacks rather than the reverse represents a key component of how Modernism sought to turn history on its head. Hurston’s means of finding representing the self-identity of blacks through the experience of blacks involves taking on white assumptions at their word rather than lending it any particular political dimensions. A good instance of this occurs right near the end of “The Gilded Six-Bits” when the store clerk individualizes a more universal sentiment among the white community: “Wisht I could be like these darkies. Laughin’ all the time. Nothin’ worries ’em” (Hurston). An effective literary technique for Modernists to undermine the failures of the past was to subvert stereotypes which Hurston does here by confronting the stereotypes that whites have of blacks to turn it back on them and in the process make a devastating comment on the empty quality of the traditional “truths” held so ear. Langston Hughes subverts stereotypes in a much different way and toward a slightly different purpose in “The Blues I’m Playing.” Here he targets the character of Mrs. Ellsworth as the inhabitant of classical values that Modernism must aim toward breaking into pieces, but the fragments can lay there on the ground and rot. Assimilation is no longer possible. That accommodation must be rejected is elegantly framed in the characterization of the corruption of the future of black identity white society composed of members who “talk about the romantic history of France, the wars and uprising, the loves and intrigues of princes and kings and queens, about guillotines and lace handkerchiefs, snuff boxes and daggers” (Hughes). For Hughes, all these romantic revelries represent European white history which no longer exists following the devastation of World War I.

The consequences of World War I forever changed the identity of Europe by marking the end of the end of aristocracy which had dominated politics for centuries. The massive death toll would form and shape revolutions in labor and politics which directly led to the extreme left of the Soviet Union and the extreme right of Nazi Germany. That loss of sheer manpower would also reverberate across the Atlantic and become an essential component in America’s rise to superpower.

The fragmentation of identity took another turn following World War II where the depths of evil to which supposedly “normal” people could sink was exposed for the first time. The monsters created to symbolize what had been viewed as manifestations of the extremities of an insane mind slowly lost their power to scare; what was a vampire limited by daylight or a werewolf who appeared only once a month in comparison to Nazis torturing and gassing tens of thousands on a daily basis. The most lasting effect of World War II was the recognition that evil not only walked daily among, but looked just like us.

  • Hughes, Langston. “The Blues I’m Playing.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2016. .
  • Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2016. .
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it Feels to Be Colored Me.” Mules and Men., n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2016. .
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. “”The Gilded Six-Bits”.”, the African American Literature Book Club. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2016. .