Modernism in America Post WWI

Although I am in my senior year at the University of Louisville, I somehow had the bright idea to take most of my core communication classes before my general education classes. This probably has something to do with communication being my fourth major. Once I found what I enjoy, I was excited to learn about a field I’m interested in, what can I say? The problem is, it’s been 11 years since I wore my high school cap and gown. Plainly, some of the topics I’m studying this time around have become a bit fuzzy or are completely new to me. Can’t wait for statistics and biology next semester! (Can you sense the dripping sarcasm?)

That being said, I was excited to have a spot left for an introduction to literature class before graduating from U of L next year. I love to read, but I can’t really allow myself to read for fun when I’m in school and working full-time. For me, being forced to read classic American literature by a professor is something I actually like. ūüôā

Our class just finished reading Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life by Sherwood Anderson. Anderson published this work in 1919, and it is regarded as one of the first American works of post WWI Modernism. Winesburg, Ohio was birthed from the aftermath of WWI and the subsequent artistic shift to modernism. Anderson went on to influence authors such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Sadly, Anderson never achieved the same acclaim that his mentees were eventually met with.

Modernism can be defined¬†as a conscious break from traditional forms of artistic expression.¬†Artists and writers were utterly discouraged¬†by the¬†government’s response¬†to the rampant death¬†the world had experienced after WWI.¬†¬†Experimentation ensued by artists and writers alike with the rejection of Victorian ideals and values.¬†For example,¬†high rhetoric, or language that was unlike normal conversation, was replaced with everyday conversational language. Radical topics like sex and infidelity¬†were now broached in literature, where they hadn’t been previously. Many of¬†the works in this time period¬†were very dark in nature.

My professor did an interesting exercise with the class to help us understand why Winesburg, Ohio and other works of the time may have been so bleak.¬†I will warn you that¬†the statistics¬†I am going to present are dismal, but the exercise¬†made an impression on me that¬†would only work if we were charged to compare¬†America’s past and present states.

Before discussing the book, my professor asked us a few questions about two wars that have happened in our time: the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. First we were asked to write down our round-about guesses of the casualties for both sides in these two wars. Then we were asked to write down how many casualties we thought there were in WWI.

When the class polled our answers, it was apparent that most of us, myself included, had guessed the number of casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be significantly larger than they are in actuality. On the other hand, the actual number of casualties in WWI blew away what we had guessed. Here are a few of the numbers that made an impression on me.


Casualties (deaths, wounded, POW, missing) in WWI

  • United States: 323,018
  • Britain: 3,190,235
  • France: 6,160,800
  • Russia: 9,150,000
  • Italy: 2,197,000
  • Germany: 7,142,558

Over 65 million troops were mobilized in WWI and 57.5% of those mobilized resulted in casualties. Because of the technological and medical advances our world has seen since WWI, it would almost be impossible to rival the devastation this war left behind. I chose to write on this topic because I have seen the trials and heartache that America has faced in the wars of my lifetime, so I can not even imagine what it would have been like to have lived through the aftermath of WWI. By no way do I mean to discredit our soldiers now by this comparison, I just have a much better understanding of why many art-forms and ideals changed in general after WWI.

Thanks for Reading,



2 thoughts on “Modernism in America Post WWI

  1. Laura Roberson says:

    Wow, amazing, sobering statistics‚Ķ Especially in the light of current president‚Äôs decision to close down an open air WWII monument in Washington‚Ķ It was sad last night to watch veterans who had come from miles away be turned away by police barricades, because of politics. Boo. At Indiana Caverns the only discount we offer is to veterans and their families… I shake their hand and tell them how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice to our country. Thanks for reminding us to be grateful to these brave men and women. Americans should not take our freedoms for granted, but with the deceptiveness of the gradual‚ÄĒit happens.

    • Amanda says:

      I agree. It really put things in perspective for me. As I said, it’s really impossible to have a war of that magnitude again, but its easy to overlook what our ancestors went through.

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