What is Modernism? (A Quick Guide)

By Kevin Heintz


In the summer of 2015, I was nervous about teaching my first English literature course. It was a survey of literature for ninth-graders. I was supposed to teach modernism and postmodernism in one class, which is a formidable task. I was struggling to find an effective plan to explain these huge, complex concepts. With no solid ideas, I needed guidance. I texted my friend Miles, whose passion for modernism far surpasses mine. He responded with this text (above), which I ended up reading aloud on the final class. The text gave the students a better, more concise run-down than any textbook or lesson plan could. 

As a refresher, or for those unfamiliar with these two genres, this text summarizes them simply and beautifully. The 'self-portrait on the mirror' represents the self-consciousness of modernism and postmodernism. Breaking the mirror refers to the artists, writers, and philosophers who broke the cultural forms of the past that were no longer suited to this new era. To understand the last part, look up Hans Richter or Marcel Duchamp on youtube. Some scholars have found these genres hard to precisely define, but this text does it quite laudably.