Modern Literature" and "Contemporary Literature" are names of literary periods. Literary scholars commonly ascribe certain characteristics to the literature of each period. Identifying historical literary periods can be broadly helpful in organizing our sense of the evolution of literary practice. At the same time, however, it is well to remember that writers do not ordinarily begin to write by considering what typifies the period they are writing in. Literary expression begins with a personal impulse. A specific work often typifies its period, although it may not.
Literary Modernism and the Great War
As a literary movement, modernism began as early as the 1890s, and intensified with The Great War of 1914 to 1918. Much of the new literature, such as Hemingway's three great early novels -- "The Sun Also Rises," "A Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" -- described war from the viewpoint of a single protagonist who was not a hero, but an ordinary man. John Steinbeck, Theodor Dreiser and other influential American novelists and poets wrote sympathetically about the urban and rural poor.
Some Essential Characteristics
Along with a critiques of social class, modernist writers broke down literary form. "Free verse," without meter or rhyme and novels with shifting and deliberately inconsistent viewpoints reflected and amplified a European and American society in nearly constant flux. Another characteristic of modern literature was its sympathy, or at least its tolerance, for previously unacceptable social types and racial minorities. African-American Richard Wright's novels, "Native Son" and "Black Boy," influenced the direction of American racial politics. Wright's novel "The Outsider" also named a new and alienated type of anti-hero -- the outsider -- who, like Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," rejected or opposed the basic tenets of contemporary society. The total effect of literary modernism was to loosen and even destroy previously accepted social, political and literary boundaries.
Angry Young Men, Beats and Hippies
Scholars commonly fix World War II as the beginning of the contemporary period in European and American Literature. Scholars increasingly refer to the period as "postmodern" rather than "contemporary," perhaps because in the 21st century it is counter-intuitive to call a work written in the 1940s as "contemporary." The first indicators of a further shift in subject and style in this period were England's so-called "Angry Young Men," notably John Osborne and Kingsley Amis. Both wrote angrily about the English establishment and were frankly sympathetic to those who refused to conform to its norms. In the United States, Norman Mailer's sprawling, sometimes brutal and sexually frank war novel, "The Naked and the Dead," was followed by Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road," and Allen Ginsberg's narrative poem "Howl." Both are considered the seminal documents of "The Beat Generation"-- young Americans disenchanted with capitalism and politics. Both works further loosened stylistic boundaries and employed idiosyncratic vernacular speech. William S. Burroughs carried this stylistic revolution further with "cut-ups," which are novels that are at least partially collaged together from various sources selected by chance operations.
The Limitations of Period Characterizations
William Faulkner's novel, "The Sound and the Fury," was published in 1929. It introduced the "stream of consciousness" literary techniques often imitated by generations of American writers who followed. James Joyce's novel, "Finnegan's Wake," was published in 1939. In more than 600 pages, it recounts the fragmentary recollections of a single event in a fluidly experimental style as nebulous as a dream. These two magisterial centerpieces of the modern period, "The Sound and the Fury" and "Finnegan's Wake" introduce most if not all the innovations in subject and style that supposedly characterize the later contemporary or postmodern period in English and American Literature. This is not to say that descriptions of literary periods are invalid. They are useful -- but imperfect -- aids to understanding the general interests and preoccupations of the writers in a given period.