The Jazz Age or The Roaring Twenties

“The Lost Generation”

"you are all a lost generation"

Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway
epigragh to The Sun Also Rises

Gertrude Stein coined the phrase “lost generation” to describe the intellectuals, poets, artists, and novelists that rejected the values of post World War I America and relocated to Paris to live a bohemian lifestyle. The Lost Generation was said to be disillusioned by the senseless slaughter of the First World War (1914-17), cynical and disdainful of the Victorian notions of morality and propriety of their elders. Writers and artists expatriated for many reasons, but while there they commonly searched for meaning, drank excessively, had love affairs, and created some of the finest American literature to date.

Lost generation writers (1920-30s) have gained prominent places in the landscape of 20th century American civilization for three main reasons. First, they led the way in expression of the themes of spiritual alienation, self-exile, and cultural criticism. Thus, their mark on intellectual history is distinct. Secondly, these writers attempted to express their critical response in new ways. Their literary innovations challenged traditional assumptions about writing and expression, and thereby paved the way for subsequent generations of avant garde writers. And lastly, myth surrounds the lost generation and perpetuates its popularity as a countercultural entity. Every later generation—from the Beats to the Xers—aspire in some way to the reputation for hedonism and headiness of the lost generation of the 1920s.


The Formation of Modern American

 Mass Culture

Many of the defining features of modern American culture emerged during the 1920s. This time period saw many social and environmental changes: the rise of cities, changes in class structure, advancing technology, etc. The record chart, the book club, the radio, the talking picture, and spectator sports—all became popular forms of mass entertainment. But the primary reason the 1920s stand out as one of the most important periods in American cultural history is because the decade produced a generation of artists, musicians, writers who were among the most innovative and creative in the country’s history.

Modernism and the Modern Novel

The term modernism refers to the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature of the post-World War One period. The ordered, stable and inherently meaningful world view of the 19th century could not, wrote T.S. Eliot, accord with “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Modernism thus marks a distinctive break with 18th and 19th-century optimism wherein artists presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray (German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the “Death of God”) and sought ways to locate and restore meaning and significance through art.

Literary Modernism, 1915-1945

*      Impetus: Can be seen as a response to an increasing sense of social and moral breakdown after WWI: a breakdown of the Age of Enlightenment values that saw science, reason and logic as means of progress to a state of freedom, happiness, and moral progress

*      Historic Causes: WWI, the Depression, American / Europe feeling lost

*      People were left with a sense that the world is increasingly fragmented, a “wasteland” to refer to T.S. Eliot’s poem (many modernist works show a radical disruption of linear flow of narrative—a more fragmented style reflects the world they saw and lived in)

*      Philosophical Influences: a new view of human beings emerged in the thinking of four major thinkers: Karl Marx (economic determinism, human behavior controlled by forces OUTSIDE self, class struggle, workers unite for utopian change); Darwin; Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis, psychological determinism, man behavior from forces INSIDE the self, interior forces, man's taboos and rules govern self and world, self-analysis); and C. F. Nietzsche (God is Dead, economic and psychological determinism, no divine patterns, search for meaning, spiritual ruins after the war, what is the meaning of life???)

Some characteristics found in Modernistic works:
1. Alienation from Society and Loneliness
2. Procrastination/An inability to act
3. Agonized recollection of the Past and a Desire to return to a State of Innocence and Virtue (constant flashbacks into the past)
4. Fear of Death and the Appearance of Death
5. Inability to feel or express Love (the subject is detached; ironic but not unfeeling)
6. World as a Wasteland: poor Environmental portrayal
7. Sees Man creating his own Myths within his mind to fall back upon, to “shore” the fragments of his life together

Major themes emerging in Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and others of period:
1. violence and alienation
2. historical discontinuity
3. decadence and decay
4. loss and despair
5. rejection of history
6. race relations
7. unavoidable change and a longing for a return to innocence
8. sense of place, local color