A key point of modernism is that it was self-consciously "artistic" in the sense that it deliberately sought to find new literary forms, built on and alluding to existing works in the canon. Modernist authors didn't only write to entertain but set out to create works that were likely to feature on the emerging literary syllabuses of the early 20th century. Take Joyce's famous alleged quote about Ulysses that:

‎I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that is the only way of insuring one's immortality.

In many respects beat literature, with its focus on spontaneity and the lived experience, is the opposite. It's been accused of being anti-intellectual and in fact, there's already a question on the site about this: The Beat-Generation and anti-intellectualism

I'm aware that some authors in the modernist tradition supported emerging beat authors - William Carlos Williams corresponded with and encouraged Allen Ginsberg for example. But nevertheless, the contrast between the two is so strong it made me wonder whether a purposeful rejection of modernism - or at least its more austere aspects - was part of the point of beat literature? Did the early group emerging at Columbia University deliberately try to move away from the modernist style?

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    I think your claim that Modernist authors were the first who "didn't only write to entertain but set out to create works that were complex and worthy of study" might be a little overblown. How about Herman Melville? George Eliot? They certainly didn't write their novels solely to entertain. Their books are definitely complex. And they're still being studied, so I'd say they are probably more "worthy of study" than than many now-forgotten modernist novels.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 28 at 21:55
  • @PeterShor my point is simply that the modernists deliberately aimed to create things for academics to pore over. Melville and Eliot didn't because when they were writing, literary academic was largely confined to classics. I will edit it to make it less egregious. Mar 1 at 8:52
  • @cmw entirely fair, please see my answer to the other comment above Mar 1 at 8:52
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    @Matt: I understood more or less what you wanted to say; I was objecting to the wording; the question is much better worded now.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 1 at 13:09
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    Popular fiction has always been more widely-read that Modernist literary fiction, so I think it's quite possible that beat literature developed with no regard to Modernism.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 1 at 14:16


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