Fear in Writing: Literary Movement Series: The Lost Generation

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Literary Movement Series: The Lost Generation

Ernest Hemingway in
uniform, Milan, 1918
If images of Peter Pan are dancing in your head, you aren't far off.  There is no Hemingway in green tights in this post, Fitzgerald with an eye patch and a sneer, or Gertrude Stein in a filmy blue nightgown.  But there is a group of boys grasping on to the effervescent life that is the 1920s, the post-war confusion they soaked in alcohol, and the needs of a world they struggled to understand.  They are the Lost Generation.

Stein coined the phrase to refer to the aimless feeling that followed World War I, and the loss of the idea that if you lived virtuously, good things would happen.  Hemingway, by far the leading literary figure of the 1920s, defined the generation in an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises.
"You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes." ~Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
la Rotonde, Montparnasse
In the work of the Lost Generation, the alienation and forced exuberance of the decade is expressed.  Think F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  Think of all the lounging, tense party scenes, and the happiness the characters are incapable of finding.  Think T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock with its lament over life's lost opportunities and carnal exploits.  Or, more famously, Eliot's The Waste Land and its visions of disillusionment..."I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

Aside fom the themes in the writing--which we will explore more in tomorrow's 'Modernism' post--the Lost Generation is largely associated with bohemian Paris, the Left Bank, and Montparnasse.  The draw to this area came right before WWI, with artists, poets, and even Russian political refugees Lenin and Trotsky flocking to the social life that centered around the cafes along boulevard Montparnesse--la Coupole, le Select, la Rotonde, and le Dôme.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein,
Pablo Picasso, 1906
The saddest fact I learned in researching the Lost Generation is the story of how the name came to be associated with them.  It goes like this...Gertrude Stein was in France when her car broke down (all stories say it was a Ford, the biggest auto manufacturer of the time).  In talking with the proprietor, Stein commented on the efficiency of the service.  M. Pernollet replied that boys of the mechanic's age made good workers, but not those who had gone to war.  He said "young men become civilized between 18 and 25, while the soldiers had missed that civilizing experience. They were, he said, une génération perdue."

A whole generation of men lost because of a war that maimed, killed, and destroyed.

Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises talks about the lives of these very people.  He attributes the phrase to Stein, but it was Hemingway's book that popularized the title and led to the loose interpretation that included all Americans living abroad and attempting art.

Unlike the Paris of today, in the 1920s it was a place artists could live on very little money.  It was, as Stein so aptly put it, "where the twentieth century was."  Ezra Pound said that, in Paris, he was look for "a poetic serum to save English letters from postmature and American letters from premature suicide and decomposition."

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
So the Lost Generation was looking to be Saved.  Did they find it?  Hemingway lived a hard life and killed himself in 1961.  Fitzgerald was an alcoholic with a corrosive marriage, a wife who was schizophrenic, and died of a massive heart attack (his second) in 1940.  Zelda Fitzgerald suffered from the aforementioned schizophrenia and died in 1948, in a fire at a mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.  T.S. Eliot separated from one wife, who then went into a mental hospital, married his secretary and died of emphysema caused by years of heavy smoking.  Ezra Pound so disapproved of his contemporaries' lifestyles in the Quarter, that he moved to Italy.

Are these ends proof of the description "Lost?"  I don't know.  But I know the works that came from these writers were often tragic and searching, and the counter-Prohibition attitudes were often self-destructive.  I think of Gary Cooper's hardened but beautiful face, the dust and death that surrounds him in the movie version of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.  And these lines from that same story, the book by Ernest Hemingway, summing up the Lost Generation:
"You learned the dry-mouthed, fear-purged purging ecstasy of battle and you fought that summer and that fall for all the poor in the world against all tyranny, for all the things you believed in and for the new world you had been educated into." (Chapt. 18)

*Fittingly, today's 'Today in Literary History' speaks of Virginia Woolf, who married her husband on this day in 1912.  Woolf was a part of the Lost Generation, though not in the expat definition.  She and her husband, Leonard Woolf, published T.S. Eliot and her own novels through their dining room press, Hogarth Press.  Woolf killed herself in 1941, fearing the loss of her own sanity and the coming world war.


  1. Michele - What a wonderful post! The Lost Generation truly is one of the sadder groups of writers. In my opinion, that eloquent sadness comes because of their lost hope. The assumptions they'd been raised with had pitched them into a cataclysmic war, and all of the old-fashioned work-hard-and-live-right values must have seemed darkly ironic. No wonder they felt so alienated. I'm going to think about this post quite a lot; I see traces of this in some of the noir crime fiction out there, and I'm going to really reflect on it. Thank you.

  2. Great post, Michele! I've always been fascinated by the creative energy around the Lost Generation writers. Hard living claimed many of them...and it was really spurred, in part, to the frightening times they lived in.

  3. I enjoyed this post a lot. I don't know about today's students, but when I was in school, we read the work of these authors and talked about the fact that most of them never found themselves.


  4. Outstanding post, Michele. It's been years since I've read the works of theses Greats. Time to dust them off.
    Thanks and I can't wait for the next post.


  5. How very sad. I can see where we get the lost generation and such a wonderful collection of books. I really appreciate all the hard work you're doing in this series.

  6. You've reminded me how absorbed I was in these books when I first read them. I agree with Mary -- it's time to dust them off and experience them again.


  7. I think this is my favorite movement from literature history; the group around Gertrude Stein in Paris, and first and foremost the insane genius Jean Genet. Check out his brilliant masterpiece The Miracle of the Rose >:)

    Cold As Heaven