“In those days we did not trust anyone who had not been in the war, but we did not completely trust anyone.”
– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
The term “The Lost Generation” was used to describe a group of literary figures of the 1920’s living in Paris. It was used to describe writers who came of age after World War I and before for the Great Depression.
Hemingway made the term popular in his novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” Gertrude Stein gave him the term when describing the displaced generation of World War I veterans who lost their innocence in the war. She acted as a literary godmother to many of the writers of this generation.
The group rejected the post-World War I values of America. They believed due to the carnage of World War I there was a loss of morals. The phrase “do good unto others and have good done unto you” was no longer true. The idea of hope was lost.
World War I
The Industrial Revolution would change warfare in World War I (WWI). Death was caused killing on a massive scale- tens of thousands of men killed in a single day.
At the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest of the war, 1 July and 18 November 1916 more than a million men were wounded or killed. J.R.R. Tolkien was wounded in this battle, and it greatly influenced his writing of the “The Lord of the Rings.” Nothing like this killing was seen on this scale before.
On the first morning of the battle, more than 20,000 British Soldiers were killed, and 37,000 were wounded. In the end, it gained the allies only 8 miles of land.
Battle of the Somme
There was a thought at the start of the industrial age that machines should serve humanity. The idea of machines to slaughter people was never possible before. Tanks, gas, submarines, planes, machine guns- overwhelming massacre of humanity by the very machines that would be used to serve it.
WWI was a turning point in history because technology was used for mass violence on an almost industrial scale. Many veterans, including Hemingway, Tolkien, Fitzgerald and C.S. Lewis were changed forever by the violence of what they saw.
Hemingway said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
The artistic energy in Paris in the1920’s was immemorial for its time and unsurpassed in its creativity. The decade exploded with life full of experimentation and promise.
Genius thrived, classics were created, and careers were made. The men and women who made this possible left their nation behind. Yet, in their writing captured its spirits. In self-imposed exile, they wrote some of the most acclaimed and influential literature of all time.
Poets and writers worked to recreate the literary form. Hemingway worked to create a single, simple style of prose. This is how it began.
Before World War I
On the eve WWI, American students immersed themselves in the works of European literature. All of them were descended from the “old country.” They hoped to discover their own artistic voice.
Young American writers found little in their homeland to influence their writing. They read about epic events in the books of the French writer Émile Zola and Russian writer Leonard Tolstoy.
They were educated in the values of old-world Europe. They learned from European books the ideals of courage, valor, and hope. As WWI started and got worse, they felt compelled to save that culture. The culture of their fathers and grandfathers.
The Ambulance Service
Archibald MacLeish was an American poet, writer, and future Librarian of the US Congress. He joined the ambulance service in France. A fresh out of high school Hemingway followed to escape his Midwest upbringing.
The Red Cross Ambulance service in France and Italy almost served as a college extension courses for romantic Americans wanted to take part in the great adventure. The ambulance service gave them great food, congenial experiences, furloughs to Paris and uniforms to meet girls.
John Dos Passos went to the famed prep school, Choate Rosemary Hall. After graduating from Harvard University in 1916, he served as an ambulance driver in the war.
As a modernist writer, and most overlooked, he became connected with the Lost Generation. He was drinking buddies with F. Scott Fitzgerald. His Harvard classmate was E. E. Cummings. He was a longtime friend of Ernest Hemingway.
It was on Dos Passos recommendation that Hemingway would move to Key West, FL.
The Aftermath of War
Europe was lost in the carnage of WWI and destroyed. Amid the destruction of Victorian Europe, Dos Passos and the other writers developed left-leaning politics that left them against war and in support of workers’ rights.
As ambulance drivers, these young Americans saw war at its worst. They served in the trenches, they saw disfigured soldiers, and watched the flower of European society die in mass slaughter.
Dos Passos was at the battle of Verdun. MacLeish lost his brother. Three months after the war he found him lying in a ditch in Belgium in his full uniform. It destroyed him.
These aspiring poets and writers watched the destruction of their beloved Europe. Gone was the world they had read about. In 1919 they returned home.
America came into the war only in the last 18 months. Over 100,000 Americans were killed and twice that number wounded. But due to America’s geographical isolation and rich mineral resources, the country prospered while Europe was in shambles.
The casualties for the British was 900,000 killed and more than 2 million wounded. France lost 1.3 million men and 4 million wounded. Germany had similar numbers with double wounded. America had largely been untouched by the war.
We start to see the first glimpse of the superpower that America would become. America refused to join the League of Nations.
While they had been gone, the country had changed. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing in American, and the idea of Prohibition starts. The stock market was booming. A time similar to the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Many American veterans felt they had sacrificed for nothing. The American WWI vets felt disenchanted. Their values changed by their experience. They felt lost in a haze of aimlessness.
They felt that no one understood what they had experienced. No one knew who they were. This is decades before we understood such psychological trauma. Many of them had several jobs and felt restless.
The Return to Paris
Writing was a time-honored impossibility in America. Very few writers managed to make a living enough to support their families. Rumors of cheap living overseas got back to the veterans because Europe was in shambles. The American dollar was very strong due to the booming US economy.
Graduates of Ivy League schools were once again influenced by the books they had read in college. The chance to return to Paris and to experience the stuff they had read about was too much of a temptation to resist.
Many of the WWI vets had fond memories of Paris from the war. The first writers of the Lost Generation went forward to their future in Paris.
The Changing Values
After the destruction of Europe, there was a relief of being alive. Everyone wanted to celebrate. It was the reverse of survival guilt- it was a Survivor Celebration.
The American writers walked into a city that had a wild desire to dance, drink, to squander what little they had and to have sex. A gasp of relief to feast on life.
All the rules were broken both social and taboo. It was an atmosphere where anything went. There was no judgment because there was a sense of doom because they all realized life is short. It was an environment of changing ideas.
Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach
Picasso was redefining art. Gertrude Stein was reimaging prose. French saloons are the central point of conversation and gossip in Franco society.
Stein’s saloon at Rue des Fleurs was constantly busy with people coming and going. It was a mandatory stop for culture and talks of avant-garde art.
Stein with her life partner Alice Toklas loved to entertain. Her guest list reads like a who’s who of literary and art greatness in the early 20th century.
Pablo Picasso was a central character early on in Stein’s saloon. His Cubism would go on influence an entire generation of painters. He painted a famous portrait of Stein.
Sylvia Beach’s bookstore “Shakespeare and Company” was a literary crossroads. A Princeton grad in WWI she had been a nurse. She had a soft spot for WWI veterans.
Her store was a central hub for the growing number of returning veterans. They used her store mail, money, and inspiration.
The Seine River divides Paris into two parts- the left bank and the right bank. May of the lost generation artists were drawn to the left bank of the Seine in Paris due to the cheap apartments and cafes. The right bank was the decadent part of the city where all the hotels were.
As they arrived many of the writers began to write. MacLeish observed that the youth of Europe had been slaughtered. Paris was the reaction to this carnage.
Death of a generation implied the death of tradition. It was the start of the Modernist movement. Modernism is characterized by a self-conscious break with traditional styles of poetry and art. Modernist writers experimented with literary form and expression, adhering to Ezra Pound’s maxim to “Make it new.”
Liberated from the tradition artists and writers in Paris sought to make art new. They weren’t sure how to do it. Ezra Pound was a poet of immense talent. He translated French, Chinese and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics into modern prose.
A restless and energetic man he edited T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” into a tight, sharp poem. The haunting poem invokes images of a generation living in the aftermath of war.
The poem was the first successful product of a Midwestern American living in Paris in the 1920’s. It would not be the last.
Learning the Craft
James Joyce was an Irishman living in Paris. His book “Ulysses” was published by Sylvia Beach on February 1922, in Paris. It is considered to be one of the most important works of modernist literature.
Ulysses’ stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose changed the writers thought of the craft. The book is full of puns, parodies, and allusions, as well as its rich characterizations. It is a funny story the chronicles the appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904.
The book is a highly regarded novel. It is no small fact that the book changed the course of modern fiction. Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921. He immediately starts honing his writing talent. He borrowed books from Shakespeare and Company.
He read D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence was an English novelist and playwright who wrote about emotional health, vitality, spontaneity, and instinct. His work represents an extended reflection upon the dehumanizing effects of modernity. He loved the themes running through the work.
He read the titans of the Russian literary canon, such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. He felt changed and moved by his experiences.
Under Pound, he found an editor and publisher. He learned to distrust adjectives and to tell a tight story with short, simple sentences. In return, Hemingway taught Pound how to box.
Partying Like Rock Stars
Stein acted as a mentor to Hemingway. She told him a writer see things while a reporter merely sees words.
Stein could not understand the excess of the young writers. She thought that between the ages of 18 to 25 a person becomes civilized. Men who went to war at that age could not be civilized. She continued to play host and teacher in her saloon.
Paris cafés were well lit. You could stay there all day as long as you ordered coffee. Due to the shattered French economy, foreigners were forbidden to take jobs. They milled around sharing ideas.
The Lost Generation drank in excess. They didn’t go home to eat or sleep. They went from café to café to live public lives. Prohibition had started in America.
The two favorite bars frequented by the expatriate Americans was “The Dingo” and “The Jockey.”
MacLeish became acquainted with the silence his poetry required. He spent days in the Paris library reading everything he could. Pound’s advice to his friend was to read and to get to the European classics inside and out.
All of them felt if they immersed themselves in ancient literature while living this extravagant lifestyle they felt they could somewhere with it. Another poet who followed this advice was E.E. Cummings.
In 1917, with the First World War ongoing in Europe, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, along with his college friend John Dos Passos.
Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. He fell in love with the city, to which he would return throughout his life.
Cummings returned to Paris in 1921 and remained there for two years before returning to New York. His body of work encompasses approximately 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays and several essays. He was an artist with numerous drawings and paintings.
Cummings is remembered as an eminent voice of 20th century English literature.
John Dos Passos traveled all over Europe and Asia using Paris as a stopover to rest and plan. He captured all of it in his novel “Manhattan Transfer.” It was all about the tactile experience that could be used to fuel writing.
American writers living in Paris were writing about their native land. Paris allowed for a deepening of their ideas. It strengthened their concept of what they were doing and what they wanted.
In time they become a collective grouping of the way forward for writing. Even as their writing became more widely read they were not popular with big publishing companies. The long-established publishers saw them as brash and arrogant.
As in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” small presses allowed a lot of younger writers to get the word out. The best part was with no censorship.
Hemingway’s first set of short stories was published this way. America immediately took notice of the lean, muscular prose and vernacular writing filled dialogue. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who introduced Hemingway to Scribner and Sons publishing.
Scott had already published “This Side of Paradise.” The novel turned the Princeton grad into the chronicler of the Jazz Age. He was an overnight American success story. Along with his wife Zelda, he embodied the excess of the Jazz Age.
Upon arriving in Paris as a successful writer had the opposite effect. He was not seen as a serious writer because he had not suffered for his art. Being poor and scrounging had a certain nobility to it.
Scott was more Right Bank Paris. A place filled with deluxe hotels and gold, white lobbies. This is the image of all that was wrong with America for the Left Bank writers.
Hemingway was the darling of the Left Bank. The real difference between Fitzgerald and Hemingway was the discipline they brought to writing.
South of France
Fitzgerald went to the South of France to finish his book, “The Great Gatsby.” Here he met Sara Murphy. She had dated Picasso and was now married to Gerald Murphy.
Gerald and Sara were wealthy, expatriate Americans who moved to the French Riviera in the early 20th century. With their generous hospitality, they threw legendary parties.
They created a vibrant social circle that included a great number of artists and writers of the Lost Generation. They made an art out of eating and drinking.
For Scott and Zelda to in the orbit of Gerald and Sara was an exciting thing. This experience would become the basis for “The Great Gatsby.”
Learning a Craft
Hemingway would agonize over his manuscripts. He would make corrections and scribble things out and rewrite. Over and over until he got it just right with the right words.
Hemingway felt that writing was something to be done to perfection. Hemingway felt that writers like Fitzgerald, who changed their writing for slick magazines like Esquire hoarded their talent. Too much could destroy the talent of the telling the truth.
When Hemingway read a rough draft of the “The Great Gatsby” he knew it was a masterpiece.
Hemingway went to Pamplona, Spain for the bullfights. It gave him the material for “The Sun Also Rises.”
His landmark novel of wild years spent in Paris and Spain popularized the expression of “The Lost Generation.” In the work, there are clear, sad overtones of an unhappy ending.
In The End
The phrase along with Hemingway’s book depicted this generation as characterized by doomed youth, hedonism, and uncompromising creativity. The wounding of their generation, both literally and metaphorically, by the experience of war.
To varying degrees, these virtues and vices were to be found in the life-story of nearly every member of the Lost Generation. It was their way of finding sanity in a world gone mad.
Aside from their wild lifestyles, though, what is most striking is the astonishing range, depth, and the influence of the work produced by this community of American expatriates in Paris.
This outburst of creativity was supported by an explosion of small-scale entrepreneurialism in the creative arts. Much of the literature produced by the American Modernists was published by small presses, also run by expatriates, including Shakespeare & Company, Contact Editions, Black Sun Press, Three Mountains Press, Plain Editions, and Obelisk Press.
A list of the canonical works of inter-war American literature produced in Paris, following the landmark publication of Joyce’s Ulysses by Shakespeare & Co. provides a key to the literary future of the United States.
Fitzgerald described the generation as finding, “All Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.”
I believe we have stumbled on such a unique in time again in the here and now. The new “Lost Generation” are the two million American men and women who have fought for the last decade-plus in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Churchill was referring to the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force pilots fighting the Battle of Britain. This pivotal air battle was with the German Luftwaffe with Britain expecting a German invasion.
But the same can be said of the many young Americans who have fought this same war in continuous back-to-back tours. Along the way losing loved ones both “over there” and “back home.” The excess of the “The Lost Generation” can be seen in today’s veterans.