World War One was a hinge moment in our culture. History has certain hinge moments, that come unexpectedly, but that change everything once they occur. Imagine a man attempting to walk a straight path on a fog covered road. He has to look down to see the road, and to see his feet, and to be sure that he has not gone off course. At some point he comes to a fork in the road, but so caught up is he in simply keeping his feet straight and on the path, that he doesn't even recognize the choice he's been forced to make. He takes one path instead of another. The path that will make all the difference.
Before the year 1911 western civilization had been enjoying a century of relative peace, during which prosperity greatly increased and scientific knowledge took leaps and bounds. After the year 1911, western civilization, and the entirety of the world, entered a dangerous new chapter. It might be said that World War One broke Europe. The countries involved in that war would certainly never be the same again. A new menace of totalitarianism emerged from the wreckage and the new technology developed by western science showed that it could be a menace just as much as a cure. In a single day, during the Battle of the Somme, Great Britain lost 19,200 men, most in the first hour. The sheer loss of life that the participants in World War One experienced in such a short period of time was something dreadfully new and unprecedented.
The confidence of the collective culture was shattered. This does not mean that western culture stopped, or that it was ruined. On the contrary, some of our greatest works of art were created during this crisis of confidence. The desperation and danger that many felt following World War One caused them to create works of great beauty and lasting value. One need look no further than the English language itself for the perfect example of what kind of new culture emerged out of the battlefields of France.
Prior to 1914 and World War One, the English language had been a language of long sentences and stately prose. Writers like Charles Dickens and G.K. Chesterton mastered the long form with eloquent balance. Their sentences flowed in a smooth rhythm across the page. They would have perfect introductions, that naturally led into further expositions, followed by neat summaries. This is not to say that all good writers sounded alike, but they all followed a certain style template that had been first set down by writers like Samuel Johnson during the 17'th century.
After World War One, two great writers helped to break this mold and changed the language, the way most English speakers speak and write. Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, an American and an Irishman, created a new and very different prose style than that which had been developed originally in England.
Hemingway used short choppy sentences that broke their rhythm to make you notice them. He wrote ambiguous paragraphs that left their final point and meaning up to the reader. His writing was sharp and extremely informal whenever possible. His language sounded like the new dangerous modern world that was revealed by the battlefields of World War One. His sentences were like telegraph messages and newspaper headlines, quick and to the point.
James Joyce followed Hemingway in the new sentence form, but used it to write about subjects that had never been written about before. He explored the inner lives of his characters, attempting to write their inner monologues, and reveal a world more confusing than traditional prose would allow. He played with the boundary between prose and poetry and made his work experimental in the same way that the new science was.
Both of these artists and their many imitators created a style that has filtered down into almost everything you'll ever read. From the regular magazine article, to the prose in a novel, their style is now the rule rather than the exception. Many times the early modernists that came after World War One are seen as simply oddities, that came and then were gone. The example of Hemingway and Joyce show otherwise.
The culture that you live and breath was created in large part shortly after World War One, by a handful of artists and the many people that they influenced. They were reacting to a tragedy and trying to make sense of life in the wake of so much death. There can be little doubt, that if World War One had not occurred, much would be very different about the work they created and the world that absorbed it.
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