Modernism and the Search for Self

Essay One:  Modernism and the Search for Self

To a large extent, one of the central questions that comes up with the study of any national literature is that of identity.  With American literature, that is certainly the case, and we have many sorts of iconic figures that represent “American Identity” at different stages in history—the Pilgrim, the Frontiersman, the sort of “everyman” who embodies those ideals of individualism, self-reliance, and forward-thinking that we hope define us as a nation.

The early 20th century signifies a change in that sense of homogeneity we often associate with the early American character.  As Baym, et. al. notes:

American literature . . .registers all sides of the era’s struggles and debates, while sharing a commitment to explore the many meanings of modernity and express them in forms appropriate to a modern vision.  Some writers rejoiced while others lamented; some anticipated future utopias and others believed that civilization had collapsed; but the period’s most influential voices believed that old forms would not work for new times, and were inspired by the possibility of creating something entirely new. (Baym, et. al, 2008, p. 1882).

Using one of the prompts below as the basis of your paper, write an essay that explores that central idea of the American as seeking and creating the “new.”  Consider, too, the ways in which Baym suggests that “At the heart of the high modernist aesthetic lay the conviction that the previously sustaining structures of human life, whether social, political, religious, or artistic, had been destroyed or show up as falsehoods or, at best, arbitrary and fragile human constructions” (Baym, et. al, 2008, p. 1888).  How does the literature you chose demonstrate that desire to reject the old standards of identity/role?


  1. Analyze James’ “Daisy Miller.”  If we look at Daisy and Winterbourne as examples of Americans, what characteristics does James give to the modern American?  What seems to be the message about non-conformity and resistance of tradition here, given what happens to Daisy and Winterbourne?
  2. Choose one of the short stories from our seminar (Jewett, Freeman, & Chesnutt).  What is the story’s central point about individuality and conformity to social and cultural expectations?



 Textual Support:  You must use at least one texts from our readings in seminars 1 and 2 in your essay as support for your reasoning.  Expect to provide clear quotations that are closely analyzed from the text to demonstrate how the reading during those first two seminars creates a sense of questioning what it truly means to be an American and the ways in which those writers are seeking to redefine their own roles (either in terms of literary heritage, in terms of race, or even in terms of class or gender).  Do not use On the Road in this paper.

Length:  Your essay should have no fewer than five paragraphs (you’ll actually need more) and should be no fewer than 1250-1500 words (approximately five double-spaced pages in Times New Roman 12 point), not counting the title page and references page.  Note that this is a minimum length.

Thesis Statement:  Please formulate a clear thesis statement that directly presents your argument point.  Do not use a purpose statement, a quotation,  or question as your thesis.  Please see page 11 of The Writer’s Brief Handbookfor a discussion of how the thesis should function.  Consider previewing the main literary texts you are analyzing in that thesis and/or the introduction paragraph.

Organization:  Note that this type of paper does not rely on plot summaries.

Your first task is to really decide which literature you want to work with and that will largely determine how you cover the topic.  Once you’ve done that, you’ll be looking to set up a clear sense of what the character is rebelling against and how they refuse to conform, as well as the consequences of that decision.

Additional Requirements:

  • Do not use first person (“I” or “we”) or second person (“you”) in this essay.  The focus is on textual analysis and making a larger interpretive argument, so personal experience and narrative tone are not appropriate.
  • Do not rely on large, block quotations for support.  Ideally, your paper will not contain block quotations, as you’ll be using paraphrase and concise quotations.
  • Your paper should be edited.  Make sure you’ve spelled authors’ names correctly and employ spell checker.
  • Your assignment should be in APA format with a title page and references page.  Note that the entire paper should be double-spaced and should use APA style citations


You can choose from the following reading selections

Readings by Seminar

James, “Daisy Miller: A Study” (pages 1508-1549)
Jewett, “A White Heron” (pages 1596-1603)
Freeman, “A New England Nun” (pages 1621-1630)
Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (pages 1668-1681)
Chesnutt, “The Wife of his Youth” and “The Goophered Grapevine” (pages 1644-1657)
Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk” (pages 1715-1731)

Here is my textbook title:

Baym, N. (Ed) (2013). The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Eighth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


ISBN 978-0-393-91885-4


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