Search for Innocence in American Modernism Essay

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Search for Innocence in American Modernism

American Literature from its very beginning has been centered around a theme of innocence. The Puritans wrote about abandoning the corruption of Europe to find innocence in a new world. The Romantics saw innocence and power in nature and often wrote of escaping from civilization to return to nature. After the Civil War, however, the innocence of the nation is challenged. The Realists focused on the loss of innocence and in Naturalist works innocence is mostly gone. During these periods of American Literature it seems almost as if a hole was being dug, a sort of emptying of innocence, and after World War I the Modernists called this hole the wasteland Many Modernist works focus on
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Secondly, a return to innocence is almost like a return to virtue. The example of this that comes most readily to mind is the complete turn around of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. It is remembering that the world really can be a place filled with beauty and wonder, virtue and meaning, and then acting so as to belong to that world, rather than the world of the wasteland.

What does it mean to belong to the world of the wasteland?

Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. (Eliot, 1448)

"Son of man" refers to "Ezekiel II, I" where God directs Ezekiel to stand. The inhabitants of the wasteland are fallen and unenlightened, their personalities and world fragmented. There is no love in the wasteland, only alienation. The couple in "Hills Like White Elephants" find themselves unable to communicate, as is shown by their meaningless and shallow conversations and their inability to understand one another when they do say anything meaningful. This lack of communication is also displayed in the following lines of The Wasteland:

My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

I never know what you are
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