Literary Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries


The new Time magazine (the one with Dixie Chicks on the cover, but that’s another entry) has a brief little blurb about baby names.

Apparently the most popular choices for newborn boys last year were biblical names; girl’s names leaned toward nontraditional and “spiritual-sounding,” names like Destiny (#32) and Neveah (#70, “heaven” spelled backward).

The change is markedly post 9/11, and stems from a “dual drive for meaning and individuality,” according to baby-name-book author Pamela Redmond Satran.

Which has me thinking about Literary Movements. Wait, wait! Honest, it’s not a non sequitur! Let me explain.

You are probably aware that literature tends to be described in movements, that literature of a time period tends to be distinguishable from that of other times. People who study literature give the different groups names, to help distinguish them.

The 20th Century started toward the tail end of the Realism Movement in American literature. The Realistic writers wrote…well, realistically. They didn’t use flowery metaphors (compared to the Victorians and Romantics, anyway), and they didn’t write about Greek Gods. They mostly described the real world, the way it really was (Naturalism was an offshoot of Realism that focused on Nature and man’s natural place in it as yet another animal).

World War I, the Great War, ushered in the Modernism Movement. Before Modernism, most literature was faith-based or classical, but the Modernists chose to turn their backs on religion and tradition in favor of science. God was outdated, and scientific man would now solve all our problems. So Modernism builds on Realism but praises intelligence and research. It was a new era: we had left our history of tilling the soil and built instead towering cities of steel and factories to produce commercial goods quickly and cheaply, and our literature needed to be equally orderly and manufactured.

But World War II, the war after the “War to End All Wars,” popped the bubble of faith in science, and Post-Modernism was the result. People realized that science could solve a lot of problems (cue penicillin), but the people problems, the underlying reasons we go to war, were still an issue. So, left without faith in God OR science, literature lost heart. Postmodern literature tends to be very dark and rarely has a happy ending. Characters are lost, seeking unsuccessfully to find a purpose for their lives. And if there’s no purpose for life, there’s little purpose for literature. Hence a lot of literature of the absurd (I think of Sissy Hankshaw’s huge thumb in Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).

A lot of people say we are still in the Post-Modern movement. But I think not. One of my literature professors said 10 years ago that he believed we were already into the next literary movement. He said the new movement shares a lack of faith in both science and religion with the Postmoderns, but their bleakness is replaced by a sweetness, an affirmation of life as it is: crazy and messy and difficult (I wrote about this in my review of Raising Hope by Katie Willard). I call this movement Forwardism, just to distinguish that we, as a people, have decided to move forward and choose to be moral and find joy even if there is nothing bigger than ourselves.

OK, enough professorizing. Let’s get back to baby names and the Times article. Back to the statement that the change in baby names is directly traceable to 9/11. I connected it to the inexplicable (to my mind) rise of Inspirational Fiction. And how many books are on the bestseller lists (fiction and nonfiction) right now that are directly related to Jesus Christ? I know, I know, people say they all sprang from the incredible success of The Da Vinci Code. But a single novel (especially one that wasn’t written all that well) cannot become a phenonemon unless it strikes something that already exists in the general population.

Here’s my point: I think we moved past Forwardism on 9/11. I think history will show that we are now in a new movement altogether. I believe we, as a people, have determined it’s just too frightening to believe there’s nothing bigger than us (now that we see just how very small we can be). Therefore we choose to believe in a Deity we do not think exists. Many of these new believers (not fully converted, mind) don’t want to follow a rigid code; as the article stated, we still want to keep our individuality. But we also want the purpose and deeper meaning to life that our great-grandparents got from religion. So we choose faith again, timidly, against our logic (what we know), but eagerly nonetheless. A paradigm shift from the nonbelievers we were before 9/11.

But what to call it? Post-Post-Post Modernism definitely doesn’t work.

I think I’ll call it Singular Sentenism, from the Latin singularis (individual, singular; unique, extraordinary) and sententia (meaning or purpose).

Note: These are extremely simplistic descriptions of the movements, based solely on what I remember from long ago college courses. Oh, and yes, I do know I’ve fractured the Latin.


7 Responses to “Literary Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Can I hear what your blog entry about the Dixie Chicks would have been?😉


  2. Anonymous Says:

    Can I hear what your blog entry about the Dixie Chicks would have been?😉


  3. Anonymous Says:

    very wonder ful & interest thanks

  4. Sojilesage Says:

    Am not yet cleared about what the 21st movement is or should be. Thanks.

  5. David B. Villanueva Says:

    I don’t think 911 brought back faith into people, I think we, as a highly developed country began to take into account the fact of lesser nations and countries. We were so shocked, you know, when it happened. Everyone was asking, “Who could do this?” “Why would someone do this?” “Who could be this inhuman?” because we were so use to our own normality and law-biding structure in our own country that to know some other nation can come and publicly hurt us, was almost widely unheard of(since pearl harbor).The question is, how are we today responding to threats and the awareness of lesser nations? Are we protesting for world peace or advocating racial separation? Whatever it is, that’s our current movement that we’re all focused around.

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  7. RIDE IT Says:


    Literary Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries | Stone SouP

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