Introduction

Over the course of the semester as we explored a variety of modernists works, it became clear that the relationship between the past and the present was an important motif that ran through these works. However, it appeared to us that two different patterns of thought emerged in these works, both of which have been laid out here by looking closely at excerpts from a variety of works.

One pattern that surfaced was one that treated the past as an important part of progress. The past was treated in many Modern works as an aid to movement forward rather than a hindrance to advancement. This idea is explored here first through “Song of the Son” from Cane, which shines a positive light on keeping alive the memories of a generation. To build off of this, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is shown as an example of how a Modernist treats claiming the past as beneficial. Then, excerpts from Quicksand show how the novel’s protagonist is negatively impacted from fighting against the past, rather than using it as a tool to move forward. Lastly, Gertrude Stein’s writing is shown as an example of how a Modernist utilizes the idea of the past as a necessary stepping-stone on a stylistic level. 

The second perspective offered throughout the semester is that memories of the past are destructive forces in the face of change, which can be seen in several works including The Great Gatsby, “Sunday Morning,” “Objects” from Tender Buttons and Quicksand. Fitzgerald’s novel demonstrates the dangers of clinging onto a past love affair with the desperate conviction that one’s relationship can be what it once was. Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” takes a more holistic look at the past as it examines the function of the afterlife, ultimately concluding that the afterlife is fleeting and reincarnation occurs quickly. Both “Objects” and Quicksand present a more nuanced depiction of the past. “Objects” evokes the past with the use of an antiquated word, petticoat, and redefines the connotations associated with it until it begins to look like a feminist term. Finally, Larsen’s Quicksand demonstrates the effects of the past in a haunting, resonant story: Helga spends the novel looking for new experiences to drown out the gloomy memories of her childhood as a biracial enigma, but cannot truly move on because she is obsessed with making up for her past unhappiness.