The Ruins of American Modernism

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In the years after the Great War, many national literatures registered anxiety about the course of Western civilization. American modernism sometimes presented itself as exceptional on this subject – as untouched by European prospects of decline, or as vitally wedded to regeneration through violence. This chapter considers poetic responses to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). As a poem written by an American living in Europe, The Waste Land both raises the apocalyptic subject for American writers and allows opportunities for national self-definition by contrast. To Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, Eliot’s pessimism seemed to abandon the distinctive potential of American literature; in The Bridge (1930) and Spring and All (1923), these poets treat apocalypse in American history as an opportunity to encounter the new. Troubling the distinction implied here between conservative and radical apocalypticism, the chapter also illustrates how Eliot’s tragic apocalypse has been relevant to hemispheric writers of color, seeking to represent the cataclysmic settling of a continent. In his Rights of Passage (1967), Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite reworks from The Waste Land a sense of apocalyptic time wherein the past – including The Waste Land itself – is perpetually disfigured but remains ruinously present.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationApocalypse in American Literature and Culture
EditorsJohn Hay
PublisherCambridge University Press
Publication date2020
ISBN (Electronic)9781108663557
Publication statusPublished - 2020
SeriesCambridge Themes in American Literature and Culture


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