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Modernism: 1. Context

2. Content/Form

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about the relationship between content and form in modernist writing, using the example of a famous argument between the writers H. G. Wells and Henry James concerning literary technique. While Wells proposed that novelists should employ a method of ‘saturation’ which produced a narrative rich in social detail, James’ method of ‘selection’ was more focussed on the presentation of his literary material in a well wrought artistic form. We consider the two sides of this argument and evaluate their significance for modernist literature, which is now more frequently associated with James’ focus on form than Wells’ emphasis on content.


In this course, Professor Max Saunders (King’s College, London) explores the literary movement of modernism in the context of the broader concept of modernity. We begin by introducing the terms ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity’ and think about the relationship between modernist literature and the social history of the modern in the late 19th and early 20th-century. In the second module, we begin to explore modernism as a literary movement in more detail, focussing on the emphasis modernist writers such as Henry James placed on the form of literature (how a piece of writing is presented) over and above its content. We then move on in the third module to think about the First World War and its impact on modernist literature, focussing particularly on how it influenced the way in which the modernists thought and wrote about human psychology. The fourth module looks at how developments in modern science and technology influenced modernist literature, while the fifth module explores modernism as a movement informed by literary tradition but nevertheless significantly orientated towards the future.


Max Saunders is Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute, Professor of English and Co-Director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London, where he teaches modern literature. He studied at the universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and was a Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He is the author of Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, 2 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1996) and Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature (Oxford University Press 2010); the editor of five volumes of Ford’s writing, including an annotated critical edition of the first volume of Ford’s Parade’s End: Some Do Not . . . (Carcanet, 2010). He has published essays on Life-writing, on Impressionism, and on a number of modern writers. He was awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship from 2008-10 to research the To-Day and To-Morrow book series; and in 2013 an Advanced Grant from the ERC for the Ego-Media 5-year collaborative project on Digital Life Writing.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Saunders, M. (2019, January 31). Modernism: 1. Context - Content/Form [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Saunders, M. "Modernism: 1. Context – Content/Form." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 31 Jan 2019,

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