The Lost Generation is a term used to describe a group of American writers who were rebelling against what America
had become by the 1900’s. At this point in time, America had become a great place to, “go into some area of business”. However, the Lost Generation writers felt that America was not such a success story because the country was devoid of a cosmopolitan culture. It was the narrow mercantilism and consumption delineated in Thostein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” , experiencing its first hunger pangs of Imperial conquest.
Their solution to this issue was to pack up their bags and travel to Europe’s cosmopolitan cultures, such as Paris and London. Here they expected to find literary freedom and a cosmopolitan way of life. In the 1920’s the White Anglo Saxon Protestant work ethic was the only culture that was considered valued by the majority of Americans. It was because of ethics such as this which made the cosmopolitan culture of Paris so alluring.
American Literature went through a profound change in the post WWI era. Up until this point, American writers were
still expected to use the rigid Victorian styles of the nineteenth Century. The lost generation writers were above, or apart from,
American society, not only in geographic terms, but also in their style of writing and subjects they chose to write about.
Although they were unhappy with American culture, the writers were instrumental in changing their country’s style of
writing, from Victorian to modern: to put the acid test to existing institutions, to strip them of their veils; the new Edward Bernays style of propaganda and manipulation and the institutional shaping of “the American way of life”.
” Before his discharge, he spent the spring of 1919 in Paris observing the Peace Conference with Hillyer, Lawson, and other friends, and sniffing happily the radical winds of doctrine blowing in from the east. “We knew that the world was a lousy pesthouse of idiocy and corruption,” he wrote later, “but it was spring. We knew that in all the ornate buildings, under the crystal chandeliers, under the brocaded hangings the politicians and diplomats were brewing poison, fuddled old men festering like tent caterpillars in a tangle of red tape and gold braid,” but the caterpillars could be burned. Discovering the drawings of George Grosz at this time seemed to Dos Passos like “finding a brilliant new weapon” or “hearing a well-imagined and properly balanced string of cusswords.” They mirrored the corruption that Dos Passos was setting down in words, and he may very well have patterned his corrosive satire after Grosz’s visual images. ( Daniel Aaron )
During the postwar years a word that people often applied, to the new American writers as “disillusioned” The word had benn imported from England, where it was being used more accurately: after their years in the trenches, after losing most of their comrades, and after a treaty of peace that promised to breed more wars, the English had a right to be tired and cynical. The Americans still had that unexpended energy, and their disillusionment was chiefly an attitude to be proclaimed in a style full of bounce and vigor. In truth they were not so much disillusioned as disaffiliated, and not so much by the war itself , in which they had served briefly, as by the disheartening events that followed it. Their capacity for illusion had not been destroyed but merely displaced.
One dream they had been forced to surrender was that of governing the world, to use Dos Passos’s words, “instead of the swagebellied old fogies that do.” With the old swagbellies still in power, young men turned away from social aims and from any form of public service. It was not only of the writers, but of the whole wartime generation; there would never be many gifted politicians among its members. The new illusion into which it retreated was that young men could make a success of their individual lives without any thought of society , or merely by seizing upon the opportunities for making money that society then offered in abundance. For the next ten years, until the crash in Wall Street, the aims that young men would cherish were the self-directed ones of making money, becoming famous, having a grand time, and for a larger number of Americans than before, creating works of art.
—The “Lost Generation” tag (invented by Gertrude Stein and used by Ernest Hemingway) became popular during the age wars that escalated after the First World War and during Prohibition. The newfound Missionary emphasis on values and decency found its natural target in the “bad” Lost youths — their lust, drunkenness, violence, and “Black Sox” corruptibility. General “Black Jack” Pershing took brutal action against doughboy deserters. Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis sentenced hundreds of younger (and no longer inspirational) Wobblies to hard time, and then turned his attention to cleaning up baseball. The taint followed young adults through what Frederick Lewis Allen later called “the Decade of Bad Manners,” an era of gangsters,pers, expatriates, and real-estate swindlers. ( Neil Howe & William Strauss )—
In the literary art there would be a new collection of heroes and ancestors. The admire figures of the years before 1914 had been novelists and dramatists of social vision, notably Shaw, Wells, Anatole France and Romaine Rolland. Not the ideals of such men, but rather the hope of attaining them through any sort of collective enterprise had fallen into discredit as a result of the war. The new heroes were men who had not been identified with social movements but who had maintained their personal integrity by sacrificing life to art; some of them were Flaubert, Mallarmé, Proust and Eliot.
The paramount hero of the age was Joyce, and his “Ulysses” was revered by the new writers almost as the bible was by Primitive Methodists. However, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” likely exerted a deeper influence at the time, since many writers identified themselves with young Stephen Dedalus in his proud revolt from church and family, in his resort to “silence, exile, and cunning,” and in his dream of forging “in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” …
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rat’s feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar ( T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men )
… This last was a social purpose, reappearing at the end of the novel as if by stealth, and Joyce himself was an Irish patriot in the fashion that many younger exiles of the time were American patriots; they had fled in despair from their own country, but still they wanted to redeem it. The younger exiles also had another purpose that was social more than personal. They wanted to redeem the language by getting rid of the flowery rhetoric, the sugar coating, the lofty words that disguised the disaster of wartime that appealed to the most base patriotic emotions: the establishment was churning out prose that concealed the fact men were being herded into an abattoir no matter how poetic the oratory. They were selling bonds and the coupon value was Woodrow Wilson making the world safe for democracy; the old peace dividend. Wilson became an archvillain of several writers, most notable Dos Passos , Michael Gold and John Reed.
A classic statement of their revolt is the one that Hemingway was to make in “A Farewell to Arms”. : I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.
But the revolt against big words and noble sentiments was much more than a subject for paragraphs and poems. It also helped shape the prose style of a generation and distrusted any phrase that begged for an emotional response. Outraged by the fake sentiments expressed in wartime, as by their sequels after the Armistice, the generation was trying to learn what it really felt, no matter how simple or shameful. That search for concrete words to express “what really happened” was to become a distinguishing feature of the new literary age.
You’ve said that when you began observing you were a “half-baked young man” out of Harvard. Have you had any recent thoughts about that education?
I got quite a little out of being at Harvard, although I was kicking all of the time I was there, complaining about the “ethercone” atmosphere I described in camera eye. I probably wouldn’t have stayed if it hadn’t been for my father, who was anxious for me to go through. At that time, the last of the old New Englanders were still at Harvard. They were really liberal-minded people, pretty thoroughly independent in their ideas, and they all had a sort of basic Protestant ethic behind them. They really knew what was what. I didn’t agree with them then, but looking back on them now, I think more highly of them than I once did. But that essentially valid cast of mind was very much damaged by the strange pro-Allied and anti-German delusion that swept through them. You couldn’t talk to people about it. When the war started in the summer of my sophomore year, I was curious to see it, even though theoretically I disapproved of war as a human activity. I was anxious to see what it was like. Like Charley Anderson in 42nd Parallel, I wanted to go over before everything “went belly-up.” When I got out of college in the summer of 1916, I was anxious to get started in architecture, but at the same time I was so restless that I had already managed to sign myself up in the volunteer ambulance service. My father was determined to put that off, so we kind of compromised on a Spanish expedition, and I went to Madrid to study architecture. Then my father died in January of 1917, and I went ahead into the ambulance service. I suppose that World War I then became my university.
Especially because you were in the ambulance service?
. . . You saw the war. I don’t know if it was on the more or less seamier side of combat, but in the ambulance service you did have a more objective point of view toward war. After all, the infantryman must be carried away by the spirit of combat, which is quite different from sitting around and dragging off the wreckage.