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In this lesson, we will explore the effects of WWI on the American literary community. We will take a look at the Lost Generation of writers, the characteristics of their work and the ways in which they represented post-war attitudes both in the U.S. and abroad.
World War I, or the Great War, changed American attitudes in ways that weren't anticipated. After having witnessed death and destruction on an unparalleled scale, many young Americans felt a sense of shock at what was perceived as pointless deaths in a war of automatic weaponry and barbaric practices - a war that took place across an ocean. This country that they once knew, a safe childhood playground solidly constructed of patriotism, faith, and morality pre-war, had fallen. What was left was a population of young who felt aimless and scattered, without the kind of direction that led to a purposeful life, and with a whole lot of excessive behavior.
These sentiments pervaded many cultural aspects of change in the 1920s, including literature. Writers felt that the old norms were no longer relevant, the old ways of writing no longer relatable. They criticized what the country had become after losing a sense of hope in the war, and how its people, among other things, felt lost. Making sense of things, for them, was a frustrating exercise.
The term the Lost Generation was introduced by Gertrude Stein, a modernist American writer who made Paris her permanent home. As the story goes, Stein's auto mechanic was upset when his young employee did unsatisfactory work on her car. The mechanic reasoned that the young were all a lost generation, difficult to prepare for work or focus.
Ernest Hemingway, a friend of Gertrude Stein, made it a popular concept when he included it as an epigraph in his novel The Sun Also Rises. The Lost Generation, therefore, really referred to that group of men and women who came of age during World War I and who felt disillusioned in this unfamiliar post-war world.
As it relates to literature, the Lost Generation was a group of American writers, most of whom emigrated to Europe and worked there from the end of World War I until the Great Depression. So, America was filled with cynical people who were facing less than certain future, but why move across the ocean just to write? Well, many of these writers felt that their home and life could never be repaired, and that the United States that they knew was gone completely.
A bohemian lifestyle of travel among intellectuals felt far more appealing than remaining in a place where virtuous behavior no longer existed, faith in religion was broken, and a connection to morality was questionable at best. So, the expatriate writers living in Europe wrote about the trials and tribulations of this Lost Generation, while, interestingly enough, being a part of it themselves.
The most famous writers of the Lost Generation were Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot. There are writers who, like Sherwood Anderson, are considered a part of the Lost Generation of writers, but who are either less recognizable writers or weren't as closely tied into the expatriate community in Europe as the others. In order to get a glimpse into what categorized each as a member of this Lost Generation, we will take a closer look at a few of them now.
Gertrude Stein was born and raised in the United States, but moved permanently to Paris in 1903. She was a lover of art and literature and was considered by herself and others as somewhat of an expert on literary innovation and talent. She began to host gatherings at her Paris home, mentoring young writers and critiquing their work. While her reputation as a mainstream writer wasn't solidified until later in her life, her leadership in modernism was respected. Many writers sought to be a part of her club.
Ernest Hemingway served in World War I as an ambulance driver on the Italian front and was, in fact, injured. He married and moved to Paris with his first wife, quickly becoming a part of the expatriate community. He is most well known for his style of writing. While his stories are gripping, it is his break from traditional narrative that makes him unique. Sparse in language, and skilled in his use of silence, dialogue and action, Hemingway made deliberate choices to break from the flowery language of the past, the very language that defined a very different time. He was mentored by none other than Gertrude Stein.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a second lieutenant in the war; however, he never served abroad. Instead, he married a wealthy woman from Alabama whom he met during his time assigned there. What fascinated Fitzgerald, as his writing life developed, was this post-war culture in America and what had become of this moral structure that once held up a nation and a generation of young folks. As Fitzgerald gained fame, he traveled back and forth to Europe and became a part of the inner literary circle led by Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. He also embodied much of what he described in his own work; life had become about excess, partying, money, and aimlessness. Interestingly enough, as the story goes, Fitzgerald and Hemingway had a love-hate kind of relationship, but Hemingway nonetheless admired his work.
The literary work of the Lost Generation writers initially feels as individual as the writers themselves; however, the common characteristic - a break from the past - was used in both form and content. What does this mean? Well, gone were the hopeful love stories or the pieces so grounded in Victorian ideals. The tone and mood of writing had clearly changed.
Now the reader could sense a cynicism about life, a feeling that the writer created a world that lacked the structure that a solid family life, religious faith, or self-determination might give. The past, to many, was a perfect and happy place, really quite idealized. The present was a space devoid of tradition and religion, each character somehow questioning their own identity in this new world.
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What many of these writers did, like F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, was reveal the superficial aspects of life, along with the dark undercurrents of what had become of this young generation. His characters, for the most part, are wealthy, materialistic, and without a sense of limits or self-discipline. Underneath, the reader is able to see the way that Fitzgerald critiques the nature of this kind of life and how excess and irresponsibility can lead to destruction.
In addition, it's clear that a sense of dissatisfaction with traditional writing models pervaded the literary community. Hemingway, for instance, rejected the use of descriptive prose to communicate emotion and meaning. Rather, he chose to write in what appears to the reader to be less than complicated prose, all the while taking great care to use dialogue and silences in meaningful ways. Other writers, like John Dos Passos, experimented with varying degrees of stream-of-consciousness passages in their stories. Remember, all of this was new and very reflective of the massive shift caused by World War I to this young generation.
Speaking of World War I, there is almost always some connection to the war experience that can be made in the stories of those Lost Generation writers. Whether the work is a literal reflection of a character's involvement in World War I - like Three Soldiers by Dos Passos or A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway - or more of an abstract portrait of what America and the attitudes of its citizens had become as a result of the war - like T.S. Eliot's very famous poem, The Waste Land, or Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio - there is always clearly a reflective quality about the work. Often pieces involved despair and self-doubt with glimpses of hope from time to time.
In the literary community, the Lost Generation referred to those young writers who came of age during World War I and whose writing reflects, either directly or abstractly, what is perceived as the effects of that very modern war. Feeling as though the United States was no longer the home they remembered, many relocated (either permanently or several times throughout their lives) to Europe, becoming a part of the flourishing expatriate literary community there, whose figurehead, many argue, was Gertrude Stein. Clearly a break from the past, this work often explored feelings of loss and aimlessness, while critiquing the materialism and immorality that emerged in America post-war.
The literary community also saw breaks in traditional form, with many writers experimenting with sentence structure, dialogue, action and narrative in general. What made The Lost Generation of writers so markedly different was that they were experiencing the shift themselves, they were a part of the change, they were trying to make sense of a new life in a new world, and they wrote about that struggle. Historically, we can look at this work and recognize the way this literature really reflects this young generation and the need to define oneself in a truly changed cultural, social, and political world.
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