Jazz Age 101: Lost Generation

Foreword

One of the most important eras of American history, the Jazz Age started after World War I and ended with the outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929. Nevertheless, this era offered new images and terms both literary and culturally in a wide spectrum. In this period, the United States went through a huge transition and began to prosper in music, literature, economy, policy, and technology. In 'The Roaring Twenties', known also as 'the Golden Age', divergent cultures gathered into one pot and shaped this period by their own essential qualifications. Effects of this age have been shaped the American culture dramatically and, still have been maintaining its importance. Hence, it is crucial to gain knowledge from the Jazz Age in order to understand American culture and literature. During each article, this series will cover the Jazz Age in terms of different backgrounds to enlarge readers' perspectives.


Jazz Age 101 is mainly divided into five chapters including:

  1. Jazz Age 101: A New Beginning

  2. Jazz Age 101: 1920s In America

  3. Jazz Age 101: Lost Generation

  4. Jazz Age 101: Harlem Renaissance

  5. Jazz Age 101: New Women

Jazz Age 101: Lost Generation


The term Lost Generation was titled on a bunch of group young American writers who lost their belief towards government, values, system, religion, and their own personalities after World War I. This term was shaped by Gertrude Stein during the conversation with Ernest Hemingway. As Hemingway credits in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises: ‘’You are all a lost generation.’’ (Hemingway,1). The main reason was based on the image of generation shattered by the effects of the war. Soldiers came back from war and found out a society that failed to understand or associate with the horrors of the war. Artists were also wounded by war not only physically, but also mentally. They were seeking a place far away from America and aiming to enjoy the rest of their lives idling around Europe.

[Ernest Hemingway in front of a bookshop in Paris]


The writers who lived in Paris fled from puritanical, dishonest America. In Europe, they recognized a sphere that was open to literary experiments. Craig Monk states: ''the American writers who spent time there between the World Wars embraced the city with an enthusiasm that only reaffirmed its mystique while bolstering their individual reputations'' (Monk, 182). Paris turned out to be a place that promoted their exploration for their own individuality by doing art. It was reckless towards the eccentricities of their art. Most significantly, it was cheap for them. Spending their money was not a huge burden to have an extravagant life in Paris.


Writers like Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, or John Dos Passos had been involved in the war as a member of European volunteer transport units or the Red Cross ambulance segment. Hence, they witnessed a sense of loss and disillusionment effect, and reflected these feelings about war in their writings. Thus, this feeling of loss paved the way for many writers to work and live in Paris to catch the lights of the era in Europe. As Susanne Kastberger mentions: ''Very quickly, Paris turned into the new literary and artistic center of the 1920s'' (Kastberger, 15). Artists turned their attention to Paris where their art could flourish independently. In a short time, Paris centred not only as the capital literary movement but also became a gathering place for any form of art as well. With the impact of gatherings, artists found an opportunity to brainstorm and influence each other's artistic action. Even if they had diverse tastes in their style, such gatherings brought a unique form of art as well. By reading and critiquing their works, they directed each other as a mentor for their art and helped them to compose more suitable modern techniques. As Susanne Kastberger underlines:

‘’American writers of the Jazz Age generally experimented much more in form, style and topic, than writers had done in any previous decade and, thus, literature of the 1920s, whether it was written in the United States or not, was soon to be known as the first modern literature of America’’ ( Kastberger, 16).

This new era also led to the constitution of modernism in American Literature. It is explicit that the self-conscious and innovative technique of the Lost Generation writers established the base of modernism as a literary endeavour. So, Lost Generation not only corresponds to well-known American writers of its time but also contributes to the Modernist movement that impacted so many authors through the century. That is why these writers could be pointed to as pioneers of modernism. Thus, the writers who labelled their situation as expatriation became a prime source that shaped modernism itself.


[Gertrude Stein in her apartment in rue Fleurus]


The novel Three Lives (1909) written by Gertrude Stein was counted as a prominent landmark of American modernism. Also, Stein's migration to Paris was the initiator for the formation of this movement. She created an environment that was open to all artists, and she brought the topics concerned with their situations.


Another important novel of this period is The Sun Also Rises written by Ernest Hemingway. It depicts the character who is a mentally miserable soldier, Jake Barnes, and his group who wanders through Europe with a sense of loss. As mentioned in the novel: ''You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another'' (Hemingway, 8). The novel focuses on a discrepancy between identity and individuality. As Charles M. Oliver mentions: ''Jake Barnes represents those American soldiers after World War I who were traumatized not so much by the war itself as by the attitude of other Americans toward the war and its consequences'' (Oliver, 34). After the war, soldiers do not have any aim towards life, and they become alienated from society. They cannot endure the pressure of this and they try to find a solution to get rid of that. Finally, all they want to do is drink, party, and explore Europe after all their search.


In A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, the protagonist Frederic Henry was a paramedic wounded in the war and suffered from psychological and emotional apathy that spoiled his life. As mentioned by Ronald Berman: ''A Farewell to Arms is also a farewell to previous beliefs, social and political. Its language of existential and moral insentience will often make points argued by philosophy'' (Berman, 99). Frederic Henry shuts down his emotions to feel nothing about life. His joy of life is destructed by the effects of the war. It is obvious that in both novels Hemingway depicts characters that undergo the results of war differently. However, the point is the characters cannot manage to surpass the consequences. As mentioned in the novel: ''But life isn't hard to manage when you've nothing to lose'' (Hemingway, 72). Both novels have a common point, they had already given up the things that they wanted to obtain in life like money, status, a good house, luxury life. Hence, they are courageous to take action towards everything that disturbs them. It could be said that the effects of war on his mental state are associated with the theme of loss, in other words, lost generation.


T.S Eliot was known as one of the symbolist writers of the Lost Generation. Rather than most Lost Generation writers, Elliot chose to live in England. He separated himself from the core of America because he thought that it was an inhospitable place for art. His well-known poem The Waste Land is one example of a chaotic description postwar world.

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

(Eliot and North, 18)

[Cafe du Dome. Paris, 1926. by André Kertész]


They never reach a state of relief, always chasing a sensation that embraces their uneasiness. They search for a room to provide them far away from their bad nerves. It is impossible to find peace in themselves, so a companion becomes an essential key in their lives. With alienation from this world, he filled the poem with the feeling of illusion. That is one of the themes of the Lost Generation, they cannot find a place that soothes their concern. As Seyedeh Zahra Nozen and Shahriar Choubdar mention:

‘’By introducing his themes of disillusionment, the emptiness of life and human’s inability to love and act in the world, Eliot prepared the grounds for The Waste Land. The Wasteland could be considered as a poetic manifest for young modernist writers and one of the most influential modernist texts'' (Nozen and Choubdar, 1455).

He describes the corrupted modern world with a pessimistic attitude. With alienation from this world, he filled the poem with the feeling of illusion. Alienation is one of the themes of the Lost Generation, they cannot find a place that soothes their concern. His usage of past and present is a juxtaposition and reflects how the ruins of war affected the Lost Generation. Gilbert Seldes underlines:

''The theme is not a distaste for life, nor is it a disillusion, a romantic pessimism of any kind. It is specifically concerned with the idea of the Waste Land-that the land was fruitful and now is not, that life had been rich, beautiful, assured, organized, lofty, and now is dragging itself out in a poverty-stricken, and disrupted and ugly tedium, without health, and with no consolation in morality’’ (Eliot and North, 139).

The Waste Land reaches tragic emotions, hence in some parts voices could be associated with the ruins of unhappy men and women who frighted the terror of the war. This association with the terror could be interpreted as a corruption of America after the war. The feeling of despair prevails in the tone of the poem and this generation tries to overcome it.


[Members of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway]



To sum up, the essence of Lost Generation characters is constructed by wartime experience. The 1920s became a means for the Lost Generation to pursue original ideas as Americans in Paris. They initiated artistic movement, and led to guide next generations. American writers embraced Paris as a new hope to originate their ideas. With all of the developments, Lost Generation brought a new dynamic to the era and shaped American literary history as well. Lost Generation also brought the awareness that made people turn back to a more simple heritage. Throughout their writing samples, the authors of generation lead up issues like spending extreme money on unnecessary things. Their works of literary issues validate most people in the U.S that are affected by the war and destruction. This destruction is in their souls too. Later they experience Great Depression which leads to more devastating results in their lives and influence their works as well.


References

Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. University Alabama Press; 1st edition, Nov. 6, 2002.


Eliot, T. S., and Michael North. The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions). 1st ed., W. W. Norton and Company, 2000.


Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner Book Company, Oct. 17, 2006.


Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. Scribner; Illustrated edition, July 10, 2012.


Kastberger, Susanne. The American Flapper Male Fiction or Real Emancipated Women of the 1920s?. Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, 2013.


Mong, Crain. Writing the Lost Generation: Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism, University Of Iowa Press; 1st edition, Sept. 1, 2008.


Nozen, Choubdar, Zahra, Shahriar. A Critical Study of the Loss and Gain of the Lost Generation. Malayer University, 2018.


Oliver, Charles M. Critical Companion to Ernest Hemingway: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Facts on File; Illustrated edition, March 1, 2007.


Image References

Ernest Hemingway in front of a bookshop in Paris. [Photography]. https://ohiovalleyrestorationresearch.com/blog/75-the-lost-generation


Gertrude Stein in her apartment in rue Fleurus. [Photography]. https://travelbyart.com/home-of-gertrude-stein/


Kertész, André. Cafe du Dome. Paris, 1926. [Photography]. https://collections.artsmia.org/art/100234/cafe-du-dome-andre-kertesz


Members of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway. [Photography]. https://www.discoverwalks.com/blog/the-parisian-artists-of-the-lost-generation/



Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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