The History of Modernist Literature

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Modernism, as an artistic movement, was notoriously explicit about depicting sex. Indeed much of the history of Modernist literature involves censorship and legal embargoes against work which was deemed too obscene to be permitted general availability and Modernist novels ranging from Joyce's Ulysses to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer would have to overcome legal hurdles before they could be read. The importance of Paris as a center for publication activity cannot be understated here: both James Joyce and Henry Miller were able to have their work published in Paris when no-one in an English-speaking country would take the risk. But this was established before Modernism a generation earlier, Oscar Wilde's play Salomé was written in French, but was banned from being staged in London for its religious (rather than sexual) content. It is worth asking, then, what role was played by explicit sexuality in defining Modernist art and Modernist consciousness. An examination of works by Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Djuna Barnes may demonstrate that, to a large extent, the description of sexuality served a two-fold purpose: it helped Modernism define itself against the proprieties of earlier literature, but it also represented an inward turn for art. By emphasizing the interiority of consciousness, Modernist novels were making an implicit turn away from dealing with the outer political turmoil of the decades which produced not only Modernism, but the two World Wars. It is the
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