Humanism and Modernism are two completely different stances that American writers have used within their writings. Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that all human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. This ultimately means that humanism embodies that fact of building a more human society through a set of ethics based on human values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism does not accept supernatural views of reality. Modernism is a complete rejection of history and conservative values. It leans toward innovation and experimentation with form with a tendency to abstraction, and places emphasis on materials, techniques and processes. Within the era of Modernism thinkers and artists rebelled against every conceivable doctrine that was widely accepted by the Establishment. The artists purposely distanced themselves away from anything held sacred by Western Civilization. The texts that will be discussed below are The Mending Wall by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, Babylon Revisited by Scott Fitzgerald, Barn Burning by William Faulkner, and Mowing by Robert Frost. Within the next few paragraphs five different texts will be discussed that will show how the traditional Humanist view of life is no longer valued in favor of a Modernist perception. The characters within these stories will show how the modernist values such as loss of control, isolation, fragmentation, rebellion, and how life with no value overtakes the humanist values that characters such as these hold on to or represent.
The Mending Wall by Robert Frost is a poem that illustrates no matter what the speaker and his neighbor do to try be civilized by having a fence between their properties nature keeps tearing the fence down. This deals with the modernist views of fragmentation, isolation, and loss of control. The poem deals with the fact that the speaker and his neighbor must rebuild the rock fence separating their properties every spring. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast” (Frost). This sentence illustrates that the neighbors continue to fix the wall every spring even though they know that forces of nature will continue to tear apart their efforts. This is starting to show that they have no control over nature. The neighbor seems to think that he can control the natural world and keep it in order. He does this by stating, “Good fences make good neighbors” (Frost). No matter how many times they rebuild the wall the neighbor seems to think that the wall being rebuilt asserts control over the forces of nature. Nature within this poem is shown as breaking down what people build up. Nature is ultimately mocking the neighbors’ attempts at “civilization.”
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost is a poem that describes how we as humans have no control on our journey through life. This rejects the humanist value that we as humans control which direction our lives go based upon what decisions or actions we take. The speaker starts off the poem by stating that he has come upon “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” (Frost). This is illustrating that the speaker has come upon a fork in the road in his life, but that he is only able to take one path at a time. The speaker is then forced to decide. “And be one traveler, long I stood” (Frost) is illustrating that the speaker must take a while to decide on what road he needs to take while also wondering why the he is only allowed to only take one path and not both. While trying to make this decision, the speaker tries to look ahead down the paths of life in front of him, but could not see anything by stating, “And looked down one as far as I could” (Frost) “Then took the other the other, just as fair” (Frost) refers to the fact that both paths looked equally the same, and it made no difference which path the speaker takes. After the speaker takes the road it is stated, “Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back” (Frost). This shows that once a decision is made there is no way to go back to change the course that your life has taken. This shows the Modernist approach that we ultimately have no control over our lives at all.
Babylon Revisited by Scott Fitzgerald is a story that is filled with modernism. Charlie is trying to get his daughter back after a rough patch in his life, but in the end the modernist view of life having no value is illustrated when Charlie is ultimately left with nothing but the delusion that he has been living in. “I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days come along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone” (Fitzgerald) refers to the fact that Charlie is remembering his past within the city. He remembers being a severe alcoholic, and he tried to use alcohol to cope with the fact of losing his wife, child, and ultimately all his money. Currently, he refuses to accept the past as a reality, and looks at it form the perspective of a delusion. “We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us” (Fitzgerald) refers to the fact that Charlie felt in the days when he was rich and powerful that he was untouchable, and that he was in a class or world above all others. “I take one drive every afternoon, and no more” (Fitzgerald) is Charlie stating that he believes he is gaining control over his life by only take one drink and not allowing himself to go into a drunken state once again. Charlie is trying to put value back into his life by controlling his drinking, so he can get his daughter back from Lincoln and Marion. It looks as if Charlie is going to accomplish his goal of getting his daughter back, but in the end the past and reality always comes knocking on life’s door. Duncan and Lorraine figured out Lincoln’s address and her last comment of “All right, we’ll go. But I remember once when you hammered on my door at four A.M. I was enough of a good sport to give you a drink” (Fitzgerald) sealed Charlie’s pursuit of a life with value. Charlie was denied his daughter, and in the end “went directly to the Ritz bar” (Fitzgerald), and to the delusion that he had been living in all along.
Barn Burning by William Faulkner is a tale of how the complete and clear thoughts of humanism is replaced by chaotic streams of consciousness of modernism. As Sarty’s father feels that he is being looked down and dehumanized it leads to a breakdown of society and of social values. In retribution Sarty’s father begins to burn down barns because of the devalue of human life that he is facing. Faulkner experiments with the concept of time within this story. Faulkner’s narrator within the story occasionally leaps backward or forward to provide a temporal perspective, noting the father’s activities during the war; the family clock frozen at 2:14 of some “dead and forgotten day and time” (Faulkner). The concept of time is also represented in the way that some of the sentences are structured within the story. “But he could hear, and during those subsequent long seconds while there was absolutely no sound in the crowded room save that of quiet and intent breathing it was as if he had swung outward at the endo of a grapevine, over a ravine, and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time” (Faulkner). Within this sentence it is showing Sarty’s perspective of how it seems to him time has stopped as if he is waiting of his father’s sentence for barn burning in the General Store. The fact that it is stating that Sarty felt like the swing had been caught over a ravine shows that his perspective of the situation was that it had reached the point of no return. Sarty knew no matter the sentencing that things would never be the same again.
The modernist view of space is also stated within this story. From Sarty’s point of view, the father is repeatedly described as a “flat” (Faulkner) shape, “without…depth” (Faulkner) as if cut from tin. This abstraction in this story conveys the father’s actual appearance at night, but it also represents his crude, unrelenting power. This also highlights Sarty’s sense of his father’s ultimate weakness in contrast to “the serene columned backdrop” (Faulkner) of the de Spain mansion, with its associations of peace, joy, and dignity. In the end Sarty’s father tends to show no respect to the elevated class of society because of how he feels his life is being valued. This causes Sarty’s father to rebel against his unfair treatment by disrespecting authority and even burning barns.
Mowing by Robert Frost is a poem that illustrates how the humanist view of getting paid for the work that you do is replaced by the modernist view of enjoying the labor of one’s work instead of looking forward to the benefits that it could bring. “It was no dream of the gift of idle hours, Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf: Anything more than the truth would have seemed to weak To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows” (Frost) illustrates that the labor is done in love because it is something the speaker loves doing instead of the thought of making “easy gold” (Frost) from his labor. “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows. My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make” (Frost) also refers to the fact that the only thing the narrator has learned is how to enjoy the labor he is doing rather than the compensation he would get from the labor. The modernist view of isolation is also referenced in the poem stating, “There was never a sound beside the wood but one, And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground” (Frost). This isolation and solitude give the person time to enjoy what they are doing while enjoying the peace of working alone.
Most people around the world look at their lives through a humanist perspective. People tend to see the value of their life and feel that they have control of every aspect of where their life is going. Some people even believe in a spiritual force such as God that is leading them down the paths of their lives. Modernism is a viewpoint that throws those ideas and perspectives away. In the end, according to modernism, there is no value in human life and ultimately no one is in control of anything in their lives. Within the above texts it has been illustrated how different characters illustrated how modernist values overtook the very values of life that humanism considers important. It shows the characters’ rebellion against humanistic values in their attempt to live their lives.