Early 20th century



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After the death of Queen Victoria a century of decline was beginning for Britain, especially in the years following the First World War. Britain’s first colony to obtain independence, America, was a very rich and powerful country and there were new inventions, such as the typewriter, the telephone, the phonograph, the electric bulb, the first Kodak camera and Ford’s cars. A lot of people left their countries in Europe and moved to America following the “American dream” in search of better conditions and new opportunities for life. In Britain in the first half of the 20th century there are several important reforms, which assured medical services. The slaughter of the First World War shocked the world. In Britain a group of poets, called War Poets denounced this tragedy. The same desperation can be found in poems by Eliot and Yeats. After the war Britain had to deal with the problem of the independence of Ireland. Ireland was divided in two parts: the North, still tied to Britain, and the Irish Free States, later recognized as an independent state. The 1920s was a period of social unrest caused by unemployment and low wages. It culminated in the General Strike led by miners, which ended with a defeat of the workers. But there have been also important achievements such as the women’s right to vote advocated for many years by the suffragettes. In America the cinema was one of the most favourite entertainments and a new cinematographic industry was started in Hollywood. The 1920s in America was also known as the Jazz Age. With the Wall Street Crash a period, the Great Depression, started, which was characterized by reduced business activity and a high unemployment-rate and was involved also the Europe.
The early 1900s were a period of originality in art. The most important examples were Matisse, Picasso and Chagall. The developments in the arts were expression of revolt and emancipation. Although the people of Europe had to rebuild their lives after the war, by the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of people in Britain had more money and spare time to enjoy themselves than ever before. The most popular kind of entertainment was the cinema. Most films were made in the USA. There were new styles to music. The first Dance Palace opened in London and was soon copied in other cities. Music could also be heard at home, on gramophones and radios. The BBC was founded and began to transmit programmes of news, talks and music. Listening to the radio became a very popular kind of entertainment at home. After the BBC started the world’s first television service. Women, who had gained the vote, could go out alone, smoke in public, drive a car... A new generation of young women followed new fashions for short skirts and hairstyles, met and socialized with men more freely. Women were allowed to divorce for adultery. Religion became a less powerful part of daily life. In Britain they began to build council houses. Many middle class people could buy their own house by taking out a lean from a bank. The early 20th century was a favorable period for the USA, a very rich and powerful country. More and more people could buy a car, a radio, a refrigerator… The First World War made the USA even richer. The “American Dream” gave birth to the conviction that America is the country where it is possible to achieve wealth and success. Optimism wasn’t universal and several writers and intellectuals expressed this doubts. The stock market crash started a spiraling downward of the economic life of the country. The Great Depression was a disaster. Some countries in Europe abandoned democracy. There was the Spanish Civil War. Europe was sliding towards another war.
Modernism is a term associated with the great changes, which affected all the arts in Europe and America. The main characteristic is the radical break with the literary tradition of the 19th century. Another characteristic is to try new ways of expression. There is an urgency to represent the variety of modern urban life, one way of trying to create order out of the chaos of the modern world is the recourse to primitive myths. There is also the analysis of interior life, the conscious and the unconscious. Freud, in his The Interpretation of Dreams, explained that the development of our personality is greatly affected by the unconscious, the hidden part of ourselves. Another important aspect of Freud’s theories is libido: man is obliged to recognize that unknown irrational forces regulate his behavior and his relationships. Freud gave great importance to the interpretation of dreams and to the free association of thoughts. Some writers are fascinated by his methods of investigating human personality. The most important examples were James Joyce and Virginia Wolf. One of the most novel and extreme movements of Modernism was Italian Futurism, which had its most important representative in Marinetti, whose Manifesto appeared in Le Figaro. Futurism exalted the machine age, glorified war and demanded revolution and innovation in all the arts. The Imagists use precise images. The most important examples were the American Ezra Pound and Thomas Ernest Hulme. The French Symbolists had a great influence on the Imagists.
Georgian poetry consisted to short, simple, sentimental lyrics permeated by a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, which exalted nature, country life, love, beauty and youth. The War Poets were young poets who took part in the First World War. They wrote poems on the war, in which they describe life in the trenches and the experience of suffering and of witnessing the death of their friends. They supported the first part of the war because a profound sense of patriotism and because the enthusiasm they felt to fight against the enemy, but, as the war continued, their enthusiasm gave way to the awareness of the horror of life at the front and of the massacres provoked by generals with no scruples. As a result their poetry became very realistic, and their lines were imbued with anger, sorrow and despair. Rupert Brooke was a poet, remembered for his sonnets, who died very young, a victim of the First World War. Wilfred Owen describes feeling like brotherhood, love and compassion but also anger, hatred and disgust. Siegfried Sassoon at first showed an enthusiasm for the war, but soon he changed his mind and showed a strong antiwar attitude. In A Working Party, Sassoon recreates the horror of the war. Eliot published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land. Spoon River Anthology is the masterpiece of Edgar Lee Masters.
Regeneration is a novel based on a true story. Siegfried Sassoon, a soldier and a poet, wrote a Declaration protesting against the continuation of the war against Germany. He was sent to Edinburgh in a War Hospital, where doctors treated his ‘nervous breakdown’.