Postmodernism is a term with various definitions. To some, it is a broadly defined philosophical concept that describes a skeptical cultural reaction to such monumental historical events as World War II, the Holocaust, and the nuclear arms race. To others, postmodernism is a purely artistic movement that arose in response to the modernist sensibility that predominated in the first half of the twentieth century. Still others claim that post modernism is a way of thinking that blends science and art, thus combining ideas that had previously been considered inherently separate. Finally, some extreme theorists of post modernism (and many of its harshest critics) conceive of it as a philosophy that rejects absolutes of any kind, including good and evil, truth and falsehood, history and fiction. No single definition of postmodernism has become the clearly accepted standard, a problem that has caused considerable anxiety among writers. Postmodernism as a literary phenomenon is somewhat unusual that it is derived as much from philosophical theorists as from artists and writers.
THE BIRTH OF POSTMODERNISM:
The coinage of the term postmodernism is generally attributed to Federico de Onís, a Spanish literary critic of the 1930s. In the introduction to an anthology of poetry published in 1934, he used the word ‘postmodernismo’ in reference to a school of Spanish-language poets who were producing work that contrasted significantly with the modernist style that prevailed not only in Spain, but also in England, America, and most of Western Europe. Postmodernism was first used in English by the distinguished British historian Arnold Toynbee in describing the historical period following the Franco-Prussian War, which ended in 1871.
MODERNISM : AN OVERVIEW
During the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘50s; writers such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner popularized a form of writing that became known as modernism, a movement that also found vigorous expression in architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright), painting (Pablo Picasso), and music (Igor Stravinsky).
Modernism was perceived as a radical break from the past, both in terms of artistic expression and often in politics. World War I was culturally and personally traumatic for a number of the most prominent modernist writers and their works often reflect bitter irony and a sense of lost innocence. The modernists broke with “old” traditions like Victorianism and created a new art that they felt more accurately reflected the altered and pessimistic state of the post-WWI, western world. While the specific ways in which modernism sought to “make it new” (Ezra Pound’s often-quoted rallying cry to his fellow modernist writers) varied, a number of themes and techniques recurring with great enough frequency to characterize the movement as a whole:
1) symbolic associations with archetypal themes, especially those derived from folklore and/or mythology: an ironic pessimism toward humanity’s potential for goodness;
2) an emphasis on personal reason over tradition (or, in political terms, democracy over monarchy);
3) individualism that asserts the natural rights of women and members of other traditionally subjugated groups; a solemn sense of seriousness;
4) notable self-consciousness and a search for higher truths through psychological insight;
5) a preference for abstract or at least impressionistic depictions over strictly realistic ones.
POSTMODERNISM: AN OVERVIEW
Postmodern literature generally builds on a number of these modernist characteristics, although the work of the authors most closely associated with postmodernism also tends to exaggerate or otherwise modify modernist philosophies before using them.
The editors of Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology identify the following concepts (some of which are direct echoes of modernism) as central to postmodernism:
• an assault upon traditional definitions of narrative. . . . particularly those that created coherence or closure
• the theme of the suburbanization of America, the declineof the city, and apocalyptic visions of the devastated city
• fascination about how the public life of the nation intersects with the private lives of its citizens
• questioning of any belief system that claims universality or transcendence (the ability to surpass the boundaries of human comprehension)
• the proliferation of the nonfiction novel [e.g., Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) or Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)], a genre that "extends the experiments of the New Journalism and further undermines the distinctions between journalism and literature, fact and fiction”
• the creation of “ruptures, gaps, and ironies that continually remind the reader that an author is present” and which demonstrate “how individuals use fictional constructions to make order of real-life events.”