5 literary movements that shook the world

It’s not just wars and prime ministers that can change the world. The literary world may seem quiet and remote, sometimes, boxed away in libraries, its practitioners muttering to themselves in tiny box rooms-slash-studies and corners of the public library, but words have power, and their cumulative effect can rattle the world—culturally, politically and philosophically. What literary movements, then, have changed the very way we think? Here’s five to start with:


1. Romanticism

Think Wordsworth and Byron; think early 1800s; think anti-Enlightenment! Before you think too much about daffodils, though, let’s see what Romanticism did for us. Moving literary discourse away from the disengaged rationality of writers such as Kant, Romanticism favoured emotion and the individual’s response to the world.

The aesthetic experience of the sublime was central to these guys’ way of thinking. What this meant was that the individual imagination was given, for the first time, priority. In literature that’s still in effect today, with the psychological focus on a main character still a prominent trope in our novels, and politically, it led to an emphasis on the self-determination of the nation-state: hello, modern Europe!

2. Modernism

The spurt of industrial development in the late nineteenth century, amongst other factors, made for a shift in literary sensibilities; writers like Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound sparked off a paradigm shift in the way stories were told.


Woolf’s stream of consciousness (see Gertrude Stein for an even odder example) departed from the objective accounts we were used to from George Eliot et al, picking up theories like Henri Bergson’s idea that our lived experience of time differs from the scientific notion. Our conception of how reality is constructed was totally altered by the Modernist, as they instigated a mistrust of authority and received wisdom that we still retain today.

3. The First World War Poets

Less a movement, perhaps, than a group, but a significant one, at that: these guys (the trenches were a pretty male domain) dug poetry out of the bloody ditches of France, and showed the general public the horrors of warfare in an uncompromising style that shattered all the romantic illusions of knights and heroics that were still hanging around from previous bouts.Gas, gas, quick boys, said Wilfred Owen, who went on to die in active service at the age of twenty-five.


The poets themselves (Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, etc) as well as their works, have remained vivid in our collective memories: Pat Barker ad Sebastian Faulks (and many more) are still, with reason, hung up on them.


4. The Beat Generation

Love ’em or hate ’em, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs’s gang was arguably one of the most influential movements of the mid-twentieth century; while other, more experimental trends like Oulipo and Imagism were rocking the literary boat, the Beats were rocking the whole world. A generation of American kids wanted to take to the railways like Kerouac’s drifters and hedonists; they saw these writers as setting out a stall for non-conformism in a counter-cultural movement that rebelled against the structures of WWII’s legacy.


Meanwhile Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Ginsberg’s Howl were famous for their involvement in anti-obscenity trials that reshaped the entire publishing industry. Liberation from censorship, a more relaxed attitude to drugs and an increased eco-awareness are only some of the societal after-effects attributed to the Beats. Definitely game-changers…

5. Spoken Word

Last (on this list, anyway), and more recent, there’s the performance-based poetry phenomenon that is Spoken Word. It grew at least partly from the Harlem Renaissance in the early twentieth century, with the working-class black history poetry of Langston Hughes being a clear precursor; and in music, Gil Scott-Heron’ 1970 poem, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, from the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, grabbed everybody’s attention.


Today, slam poetry nights are ten-a-penny; prose writers perform at international Literary Death Matches; and music festivals have Spoken Word stages. Gone are the days of garrett-dwelling solitary writers; and, more significantly for the world at large, literature has become accessible: it’s in the clubs, pubs and gigs, it’s urban, it’s immediate and newly relevant for the clubbing generation. Bring it on!


1 reply

  1. In his book “Better Angels of our Nature” Steven Pinker makes the claim that declining levels of violence is one of the big rarely talking about trends. His main explanation for the decline in violence is the increased reading of fiction in the 18th century. “Fiction is empathy technology.” Steven Pinker. He describes his theory here http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/01/extract-better-angels-nature-steven-pinker about how the epistolary novel reduced war, murder, ended slavery and generally was quite handy

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