Literature13 Mar 2010 10:35 am
“This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer…See that little stream–we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it–a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1933).
Craving a bohemian lifestyle and disillusioned with American materialism, a number of prominent intellectuals, poets, artists and writers flocked to Paris in the years following World War I. Prominent members of this elite clique included such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Peirce, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Erich Maria Remarque and Cole Porter. Author and poet Gertrude Stein coined this group of angsty artists “The Lost Generation,” after she supposedly heard her French garage owner speak of his young auto mechanics, and their poor repair skills, as “une génération perdue.”
Ernest Hemingway subsequently popularized in the epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises and his memoir A Moveable Feast. In the latter he explained “I tried to balance Miss Stein’s quotation from the garage owner with one from Ecclesiastes.” (A few lines later, recalling the risks and losses of the war, he adds: “I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought ‘who is calling who a lost generation?’”). In France, these expatriates came to be called the “Génération au Feu” or “The Generation in Flames”.
Full of youthful idealism and their fair share of angst, these individuals sought “the meaning of life”, drank excessively, had torrid love affairs and created a body of some of the finest works in American letters. Despite the fact that these writers and artists had abandoned their homeland in favor of chic Paris, their works profoundly changed the face of American Literature. Up until this point, most American writers still wrote in the creaky Victorian styles of the 19th Century. “The Lost Generation” explicitly renounced this outmoded style and introduced Modernist art and literature to the World, which was radically individualistic and expressed a general mistrust of institutions (government, religion) and the disbelief in ‘absolute’ truths.
Most impressively, they managed to accomplish this feat while perpetually under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol and engaging in all forms of debauchery and operatic interpersonal drama. Did these people ever sleep? I am exhausted just writing about them……
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