The Einstein phenomenon: Modern American writers and the popularization of relativity theory

Elizabeth Cornell Goldwitz, Fordham University


Warped space. Bent light rays. The annihilation of time. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity opened a whole new world of possibilities in the early twentieth century. Following British astronomers' confirmation of the theory in 1919, both the mainstream and avant-garde American press erupted with news about it, offering commentary that ranged from clear-sighted explanations and editorials to cartoons and limericks. Drawing upon this diverse discourse, which continued throughout the 1920s, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Untermeyer imaginatively incorporated facets of relativity theory into their work. Though critics have recognized the impact of relativity theory on modernist literature, no extended studies have yet attended to the mediating factor of these public narratives and their engagement by modernist American writers. The critical foci that do exist concentrate on how relativistic space and time inspired atemporal time shifts and stream-of-consciousness narration. My study widens this inquiry to include a host of other subjects that relativity theory evoked, from the notion of the theory as a revolution in thought to figurations of a determined universe. By directing attention to this complex intersection between high and low culture, I demonstrate how Untermeyer, Frost, Williams, and Faulkner's sophisticated and versatile use of relativity theory helped shape both the content and form of their work. My study thus offers a new picture of American literature as shaped by physics and highlights historical ties between the sciences and the humanities.

Subject Area

Modern literature|American literature

Recommended Citation

Cornell Goldwitz, Elizabeth, "The Einstein phenomenon: Modern American writers and the popularization of relativity theory" (2013). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3563424.