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Created by Daniel Wheatley


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 Minimalism: An Overview


    As a movement, Minimalism consists of a bare-bones approach to art and literature.  The main idea was to strip down the work to the essentials, which then leaves the audience to fill in the rest.  The term can be applied to visual arts, architecture, music, film, and literature.  While much of the work in the minimalist movement did not appear until the 60s and 70s, the roots can be traced back to ideas originating late in the Modern era.  Writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Ernest Hemingway, all considered "modern" writers, laid the groundwork with their sparse language and careful syntax.


The Beginnings: Minimalism in Thought
T.E. Hulme

    Minimalism can be seen at the beginning of Modernism in T.E. Hulme's classic Modernist essay "Romanticism and Classicism."  Hulme was a major thinker of the Modern era, and while he died too early to see his ideas for a new literary movement come to terms, his essays and poetry inspired Ezra Pound (Hulme 92).  In his essay "Romanticism and Classicism" Hulme condemns the previous literary tradition of Romanticism, famously calling it "spilt religion" (95).  The problem with romanticism was that it placed too much emphasis on the "infiniteness" of man, which led to a crisis of faith.  "You don't believe in God, so you begin to believe that man is a god.  You don't believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth.  In other words, you get romanticism." (95).  To combat this, Hulme proposes a return to the classic verse: "a period of dry, hard, classical verse is coming" (101). Only such a carefully controlled writing style would put man and God back in their proper places.

    Hulme would be killed in 1917 during World War I, but his prophesy of minimalism would be carried on by his close friend Ezra Pound.  In his essay "A Retrospect" Pound repeats Hulme's call to action with his famous phrase "Go in fear of abstractions" (Pound 60).  While Pound is considered by most to be an imagist, many of his views could also be applied to minimalism.  His list of "don'ts" in "A Retrospect”, for example, echo minimalistic sentiments: "Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something," "Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'. It dulls the image" and "Use either no ornament or good ornament." (60).  


Minimalism in Action

Ezra Pound
    While the term "minimalism" wouldn't come into use until later, many writers of the Modern era can be described as having a minimalistic style.  Ezra Pound’s famous poem "In the Station of the Metro," is minimalist in that Pound takes an everyday image—a crowd milling through a subway station—and describes it in two short, succinct lines without wasting a single word.

    Along the same lines, William Carlos Williams' poetry can be seen to be taking this stripped-down approach.  Like Pound, he avoids vague, abstract, and unnecessary words "oppos[ing] the use of poetry for general statements and abstract critique. 'No ideas but things,' he wrote" (Baym 1264).  His sparse style is exemplified in "This is Just to Say", in which William's lack of extraneous words serves to give it the clipped air of a letter left on a kitchen counter, an everyday note that anybody could have written or picked up.

    However, minimalism isn't just confined to poetry.  Sherwood Anderson serves as an excellent example of a prose minimalist, a writer who uses the most simplistic language possible to convey his meaning.  His collection of short stories “Winesburg, Ohio” is an example of Anderson’s use of common terms and simple sentence structure.  Anderson’s writing would influence later minimalist writers, including famous minimalist Ernest Hemingway.

    Hemingway helped establish minimalism in the modern era, emphasizing the power of the unspoken word.  He once compared writing well to an iceberg: “the dignity of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water” (Hemingway).  Like Anderson, Hemingway shunned excess words and overly-descript passages.  For example, Hemingway’s dialogue tags remain “he said” or “she said", letting the reader infer the emotion from the actual dialogue, and leading to much more complexity and depth within the characters.


The Effects of Minimalism 

    Minimalism strives to put the control of the work back into the hands of the reader.  Unlike Romanticism and other vividly detailed pieces, a Minimalist piece may at first be obscure and confusing.  The reader may be angry at the writer for not including “enough information” to tell a story.  For instance, the author does not provide a lot of scene-setting descriptors, adjectives, or adverbs.  Every word which is not absolutely necessary for the perpetuation of the plot is excluded or edited out.  Yet this is the aim of Minimalism: to make the reader do some work of his or her own to help create the story.  The reader isn’t a passive observer in a Minimalist work; the reader is another writer, taking the clues and hints from the context of the story and then piecing them together.  In this way, the reader is not depending on the writer to give a "message" or to direct them into trusting or liking one character over another.  It mimics reality in this manner.  A byproduct is that blatant emotion is cut out and the author is not trying to convince the reader or asking him or her to sympathize with a character's feelings.  Instead, the emotions have to come directly from the reader.  While minimalism may be explained as a “bare bones” approach to writing, it rarely ends up that way—it’s just that the reader puts the flesh on the bones, not the writer.



Works Cited


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 6th ed. New York: Norton & Company, 2003. pg. 1264, 1282


Hemingway, Ernest. Ernest Hemingway Quotes. 25 April 2007. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ernesthemi117343.html>


Hulme, T.E. "Romanticism and Classicism." 20th Century Literary Criticism. Ed. David Lodge.  Longman: New York, 1986. 92-104.


Pound, Ezra. "A Retrospect." 20th Century Literary Criticism.  Ed. David Lodge.  Longman: New York, 1986. 57-68.



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Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 10:30 am on Apr 2, 2007

Daniel, you are right to say there are some analogies between minimalism of the 60s and 70s and the earlier forms of concentration associated with Hemingway and Pound. I wonder if you can get beyond simply noticing the analogy. I'm pretty sure you'll find that some writers like Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver will be on record as saying that Hemingway was deeply influential. Similarly, some of today's language poetry looks back to William Carlos williams and even Pound for inspiration. It would make for a stronger page for our purposes to cast this more carefully as a "influence of modernism on later literatures" essay, and actually trace that rather than merely suggesting stylistic similarities.

Anonymous said

at 7:48 am on Apr 25, 2007

Daniel, I like your approach to this topic. Any chance for a few visuals and some more links to external sources?

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