The Twentieth Century

Carradale House, London
Carradale House, London

On or about December 1910, human character changed.~Virginia Woolf

It appears likely that poets in our civilization,
as it exists at present, must be difficult. . . .
The poet must become more and more comprehensive,
more allusive, more indirect, in order to force,
to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
~T.S. Eliot


It’s safe to say (at least for a little while longer) that if you’re reading this page you were born in the twentieth century. Moreover most of your life to date has been lived during the twentieth century. While it is, thus, the period we are most familiar with in terms of our personal experience, the one closest to us in time, it is also a period that saw immense changes in society and literature. It was a period that was marked by two world wars, by a great, worldwide economic depression, by the dissolution of the British Empire, by increasing democratization of society, and by the advent of new technologies.

Not surprisingly, the literature of the century is just as varied. At the turn of the century the Georgians and the Decadent or Aesthetic movements were two streams of poetry that derived from, and were in reaction to, the poetry of the Victorian era. In fiction, the realistic novel was dominant. But just as World War I shattered many assumptions about society and humanity, the poetry of the first world war and the literature that came afterwards was often unsettling, disruptive and emphasized new interests and approaches. Imagism and Modernism (as distinct from simply modern) flourished in the period between the two world wars. In the post-World War II era, various reactions to Modernism (including Postmodernism) appeared. With all literary periods, what we later come to see as its signal characteristics is not always immediately evident and is not always neatly contained within a set of dates. As products of the twentieth century, we may find it even more difficult to make a definitive statement about the period, especially since in many ways the twentieth century is still with us and still part of us today.


1901: Queen Victoria’s death
1902: Boer War ends with British Sovereignty, Publication of Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, Irish National Theatre Movement founded in Dublin
1903: Women’s Social and Political Union founded
1904: J.M.Barrie‘s Peter Pan first performed, the Abbey Theatre opens its doors in Dublin
1905: Bloody Sunday massacre in Russia, Albert Einstein publishes his theory of relativity, the Dungannon Club starts (beginning of Sinn Fein)
1906: First women in the world get to vote in Finland, Henrik Ibsen dies
1907: J.M.Synge‘s Playboy of the Western World opens and causes a riot in Dublin
1908: First airplane takes off from English soil, First Congress of Freudian Psychology occurs in Salzburg, Cubism is born
1909: Anton Chekov’s The Seagull is first performed in Britain
1910: Edward VII’s death, Filippo Marinetti (the founder of the Futurist movement) speaks in England at a women’s club, the first exhibition of the Russian Union of Youth,
1911: First Portuguese republic, first use of the term ‘expressionism
1912: Titanic sunk, Imagism introduced, August Strindberg dies
1914: World War I begins, Publication of James Joyce‘s Dubliners
1916: The first Dada play is performed in France, the Kingdom of Poland is reinstated
1917: The October Revolution begins, Hogarth Press is founded
1918: World War I ends, women are allowed to vote in Great Britain, Russian royal family murdered, Wilfred Owen killed in battle
1921: Hitler becomes the leader of his party in Germany
1922: Publication of Joyce‘s //Ulysses// (in France) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Mussolini rises to power, the USSR is officially established
1923: Yeats wins the Nobel Prize for Literature
1924: Lenin dies
1925: First Surrealist group art exhibition in France, the first part of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway are published, Shaw wins the Nobel Prize for Literature
1926: Foundations laid for British Commonwealth of Nations (former territories of the empire)
1928: Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera premieres in Germany
1929: The Great Depression starts in the USA, resonates through Germany
1931: Economic crisis affects France
1932: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is published
1933: Hitler’s party comes into power, Lorca published three new works
1936-1939: Spanish Civil War
1936: George V dies, Ulysses is published openly in Great Britain, Lorca assasinated
1937: Guernica is bombed, The Great Terror occurs in the Soviet Union
1939-1945: World War II
1947: India and Pakistan become independent nations (beginning of decolonization)
1949: Republic of Ireland
1972: Britain joins European Common Market
1982: Falklands War
1998: Hong Kong returned to China

Twentieth-Century Literary Contexts

Drama in the Twentieth Century
Modernists’ Perception of the Past
The First World War and Literature
Imagism and Modernism and Beyond
The British Empire: Imperialism, Post-Colonialism, Literature
The Celtic Revival and the Abbey Theatre

Twentieth-Century Authors