© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

In the larger sense, “modernity” refers to the entire long historical phenomenon that began with the Renaissance and is now nearing completion with the globalization of capitalism. But the term “modernity” is also often used in a more restricted sense to indicate the years from the 1890s through the 1920s, when dramatic transformations in almost every aspect of life brought widespread awareness in the West that life was now fundamentally different than it had been even as recently as the mid-nineteenth century. During this period, developments in quantum mechanics and relativity brought a completely new fundamental understanding of the way the world works, an understanding not available in classical Newtonian physics. Technologies such as electricity, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, and so on radically changed the texture of daily life. Some of these technologies also led directly to cultural changes, such as the development of radio and film as crucial media for the delivery of culture to mass audiences. Meanwhile, artists working in literature, painting, sculpture, and other more conventional media also often felt that they needed to seek new ways to use these media to represent reality. This realization led to the development of a widespread artistic phenomenon that came to be known as modernism, which we will discuss in much more detail later in this semester. First, though, it is useful better to understand some of the historical phenomena that informed this more limited version of modernity and that would eventually drive the evolution of modernity.


In the late nineteenth century, most Western capitalist economies collapsed into a state of depression. Lasting roughly from 1873 to 1896, this period was typically referred to as the “Great Depression,” until the 1930s, when historians and economists, especially in America, began to use that term to describe the collapse of capitalist economies that occurred in that decade. Since that time, the depression of 1873–1896 has been widely referred to as the “Long Depression.” Some European historians still refer to the earlier phenomenon as the “Great Depression,” however. Such phenomena are complex, but, to a first approximation, the depression of 1873–1896 can be attributed simply to overproduction. The biggest problem capitalists had through most of the nineteenth century was how to produce enough goods to meet demand. By the 1870s, they had increased production to the point that it exceeded demand, leading to excess inventories piling up in warehouses. In response, factories began laying off workers as part of a cutback in production. But workers provided a great deal of the demand for products as well, which meant that these layoffs also decreased demand. In response, factories cut back production even more, laying off more workers and further decreasing demand. And so on. Eventually, this cycle spiraled out of control, leading to widespread unemployment and an unprecedented economic crisis.

Among other things, this economic crisis shook the long-established confidence in continual progress that had informed Western ideas about history since the Enlightenment. This progress was further shaken as it became clear that, especially in England, which was at the forefront of modernity, the quality of life (as measured by indicators such as average height and average lifespan) had actually decreased over the course of the nineteenth century. This crisis in confidence contributed to the rise of modernism in the arts, but it also contributed to transformations in society at large. For example, social programs were radically expanded. Across the Western world, voting rights were extended to more and more individuals, including working class men and (eventually) women. At the same time, free public education was extended to far more people than ever before, leading to a substantial increase in literacy—to nearly 100% in advanced Western societies.

This extension of education was partly designed to ensure that working-class children, by the time they were old enough to vote, would have been indoctrinated in mainstream bourgeois values, thus mitigating the effects of the expansion in voting rights. Indeed, across the Western world, extending voting rights to whole new segments of the population seems to have had surprisingly little political effect. Indeed, history has shown that the extension of voting rights to working-class men and to women had relatively little initial impact on the kinds of individuals who were elected to high offices—who still tended to be rich, white men.

In addition, the extension of public education to the working class also helped with the development of a better-trained and more skilled labor force of the kind that was needed as capitalism shifted into a more complex new phase. Indeed, the real solution to the Long Depression came when capitalism itself was transformed into a new consumerist phase with an emphasis on marketing and advertising that contributed to a dramatic growth in demand for consumer goods, thus allowing production to be ramped up once again—in a process that was significantly aided by contemporary advances in transportation and communication.


One of the strategies that was employed to try to bring capitalist economies back from the Long Depression involved the dramatic expansion of the great European colonial empires. In particular, the colonization of Africa (which had previously been left mostly uncolonized) was vigorously pursued after the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 allowed the major European powers to divide the African continent among themselves in an effort to avoid conflicts. Unfortunately, this effort was not entirely successful, and tensions still grew among the European powers involved in the colonization of Africa, especially between Great Britain and Germany.

There were other important political tensions on the European continent as well. Most importantly, Western Europe was dominated by increasingly modern capitalist powers, while Central and Eastern Europe were still dominated by the essentially medieval political systems of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, with the struggling Ottoman Empire still representing a significant force at the southeastern edge of Europe. These and other tensions (including simply the overall sense of crisis and instability that informed this period in history) created a situation in which a near-global war could erupt. And World War I did erupt in 1914, leading to the most destructive conflict in human history, driven by new and horrifying weapons technologies. But World War I was also horrifying to many because it was unclear why the war was happening at all or what the goals of the participants really were.

However, confusing the reasons for the war might have been, World War I furthered the process of modernity by sweeping the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires off the map once and for all, thus removing the major political entities that stood in the way of capitalist modernization. But the level of destruction, combined with the fact that there was no clear reason for it, also exercised a traumatic impact on the entire European continent, deepening the sense that the Enlightenment project of building a better world had gone badly awry. This impact was widely reflected in modernist art and literature, many of the producers of which became even more convinced that the world was in the midst of radical changes to which artists and writers needed to respond.


Ireland found itself in an odd position as the nineteenth century approached its end and Europe prepared to move into the new century with its leading powers the colonial masters of vast stretches of the rest of the world. While many parts of Eastern Europe found themselves in secondary positions relative to the still largely medieval reigning powers of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian Empires, and even Ottoman Empires, they were not truly colonies—and in any case those empires were all historical relics that were about to be swept away by World War I. Ireland, on the other hand, was the only European political entity that was genuinely a colony in the modern sense. It was, in fact, England’s oldest colony—and the place where Britain had learned to be a colonial power, beginning all the way back in the thirteenth century, when Pope Adrian IV granted overlordship of Ireland to Henry II of England, followed by a period of roughly a century during which the English solidified their rule.

The English-Irish relationship later became caught up in the battle between Protestantism and Catholicism in England. With Protestantism triumphant in England and with a Catholic majority in Ireland, this conflict naturally led to considerably tensions between the Irish and their English rulers. Three Irish rebellions were brutally suppressed during the reign of Elizabeth I. Another rebellion, begun in 1641, led to the Irish Confederate Wars, part of a larger conflict that involved Scotland as well. Here, upstart Irish Catholic forces were eventually crushed with special brutality in 1649-1650 by English armies under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, fresh off of his leading role in the English Civil Wars. Hundreds of thousands were killed in Ireland during this conflict, in which some historians have described Cromwell’s anti-Catholic tactics as near-genocidal.

Ireland periodically rebelled against British rule going forward, but always failed. For example, in 1798, an Irish uprising was undertaken with the expectation that the French, already an enemy of the British, would come to the aid of the rebels as a way of weakening Britain. The French did, in fact, send a fleet of ships to Ireland to support this uprising, but this invasion was mostly aborted due to bad weather at sea, with only one ship actually reaching Ireland. The uprising subsequently collapsed, contributing to the long legacy of Irish military defeats at the hands of the British.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Irish opposition to British colonial rule had mostly shifted from military to political and (especially) cultural strategies, though it would ultimately be armed conflict that would lead to Irish independence. At the beginning of the century, however, the Irish Nationalist movement sought to move toward independence by producing a distinctively Irish culture that might help the Irish develop a national sense of identity apart from the British. One of the greatest figures to emerge from this effort was the poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), an active participant in the Irish Literary Revival who became one of the greatest poets of world literature in the twentieth century. We will look at one of Yeats’s poems in detail later in the semester. The other greatest Irish literary figure—and probably the greatest figure in world literature in the twentieth century—was James Joyce (1882–1941). Joyce himself was rather suspicious of the Irish Literary Revival, partly because of his suspicion of nationalism in general and partly because he felt that this particular movement was too dominated by a Catholic Church that Joyce felt to be at least as oppressive an influence in Ireland as was the British Empire. But he clearly profited from the energies of the Revival, which was gaining momentum just as he reached adulthood. Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) is widely regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and it is primarily on the basis of this book that Joyce is so widely regarded as the ultimate modernist writer. However, one can already see the beginnings of Joyce’s greatness in Dubliners (1914), a collection of short stories that he began writing when he was only twenty-two years old. We will read this collection next in our course.