The early 20th century saw the young men and women of a whole generation decimated by the Great War. Bright futures lit by new scientific discoveries and advancements in technology dimmed as 15 million soldiers were sent to an early grave fighting for nationalism and valor. For Americans participating in the war, they saw members of their own generation shatter, both physically and mentally, against the "mechanized mass slaughter" occurring on the European battlefields (Paras 355). A few Americans, such as Ernest Hemingway and E.E. Cummings sought their glory through the American Red Cross and a French ambulance corps respectively. After being rejected from the U.S. Army, Hemingway enlisted with the American Red Cross and drove ambulances on the Italian front. The first day of his service in Europe was an immediate and potent initiation into the horrors of war; "a munitions factory exploded and he had to carry mutilated bodies and parts to a makeshift morgue" ("Ernest Hemingway Biography"). His startling war experiences led him and many others from his "lost" generation to view America society and lifestyles in a harsh, critical light. The Lost Generations' "great illusion[s] of [nationalism, honor, success, and love]"... died along with its other 15 million members sent to their graves (Putnam). "Even the most basic [ideals] rooted in the American mentality, such as the American Dream, seemed to be devalued and no longer served as a path to be followed" ("Lost Generation and the Jazz"). In the post war world, the group of American writers that embodied the spiritual aloofness of the Lost Generation through their literary works and prowess had fled an American milieu that was marred by vapid materialism, conformity, and provincialism. The works of these Lost Generation writers provides a varied perspective and evaluation of American society in the early 20th century as it relates to their disillusionment with the war and American ideals as well as providing insight into their self-imposed exile to Europe's cosmopolitan cultures.
The Great War was a catalyst for some of the most penetrating fiction of the early 20th century. It had also been a setup for disillusionment, due in large part to the excesses of the Creel Commission created by the Wilson administration in 1917 to garner support for US entry into the war. The committee demonized the enemy, proscribed dissent, idealized America's war aims, exaggerated the glories of war, and censored negative information from the battlefield. In addition, the committee brainwashed the young Americans going of to war with unrealistic expectations and a largely ignorant perspective of the horrors of war. It was not long before many of them were awakened to the realities of combat. The early novels of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald conveyed a sense of the immediate and lasting effects of war on their generation. Dos Passos' One Man's Initiation: 1917 (1919) and Three Soldiers (1921) were among the first major American novels recounting the tales of the Great War. His novels attacked the "hypocrisy and stupidity" that incited the war with vivid accounts of battlefields "strewn with corpses and maimed soldiers" (Hughes 223). Likewise, Hemingway, through his works, depicted the "panic and confusion of [soldiers] in battle, the pervasiveness of [battle]," as well as the "randomness and ugliness of death" (Hughes 223). The battle-scarred protagonists of In Our Time (1925) and A Farwell to Arms (1929) epitomized Hemingway's and America's lost faith in ideals such as "valor" and "honor." To the members of the Lost Generation, the war symbolized the death of American ideals and its romanticized views of war.
Noted author Gertrude Stein once said in a mid-1920s conversation with Hemingway, "All of you young people who served in the war... You are all a lost generation" (Miller 203). F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the more renowned and successful writers of the period, incorporates Stein's famous quote through his literary masterpiece The Great Gatsby (1925). His novel serves as a critique to the carefree and self-absorbed attitude that symbolized American society in the 1920s. Through Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald profiled the upper strata of American society as corrupted by wealth, power and egotism. He depicts Tom and Daisy as " careless people, [who] smash up things and creatures and then retreat back to their money... and let other people clean up the mess they made" (Fitzgerald 187). Keeping the Lost Generation's uncertainty in mind, Fitzgerald fabricated two characters, Jay Gatsby and Nick Caraway, to symbolize the generation in its entirety. Gatsby represents those of the Lost Generation consumed by their own disillusionment, traveling down a path shrouded in a fog that ultimately leads to their doom. Nick Caraway embodies the rest of the generation because of his ability to discern the problems with the material nature of his friends, and attempts to set himself apart from them; although he identifies with the greed in other people, he clearly believes that he cannot be a part of it (Jacobs and Latour). Stein's expression has also come to symbolize much of what Hemingway captured in his classic novel The Sun Also Rises (1926). Hemingway, in order to "reinforce the Lost Generation's belief that love had died in WWI" along with all of the other pre-war values, fabricated Robert Cohn, a man willing to suffer public humiliation for his unrequited love, depicting him as the "last American war hero and defender of an outworn faith," who unflinchingly stood for those values ("The Sun Also"). Those who could not understand his "obstinately idealistic perspective" tragically persecuted Cohn ("The Sun Also"). To the expatriates, his very existence was like a pulsating scar, serving as permanent and painful reminder America's betrayal and was driving factor that justified their racist and spiteful actions ("The Sun Also"). Throughout the novel, Hemingway was able to create characters that could relate to every type of individual in the Lost Generation. He covered all of he character types, from the "defeated exiles", like Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, to the "expatriates who had acknowledged the moral and spiritual decline of society but were unwilling to surrender themselves to the hollow existence that it offered," much like Fitzgerald's Nick Caraway ("The Sun Also"). Hemingway's the Sun Also Rises and Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby are both some the first pieces fictional literature that had fully captured the feelings of moral decay and social alienation shared by the Lost Generation.
The members of the Lost Generation, dissatisfied with direction America was heading, saw the cities of Europe as centers of progress, and a place where individuals could enjoy greater personal freedom and thriving culture. The color, creativity, and culture of these progressive cities were drastically different from the "austere materialism" that typified American culture (The British Library Board). Unlike the cosmopolitan cultures of Paris or London, American towns had become "havens of conformity," where small-mindedness "dominated by religious fundamentalism, petty businessmen, and prohibition" could thrive (Hughes 224). Sinclair Lewis's satirical attacks on provincial America, in Main Street (1920), exposed "the shallow cultural pretensions, crass commercialism, and sheer unpleasantness" of the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota (Hughes 224). The metropolitan cities of America were no better. In Manhattan Transfer (1925), John Dos Passos is scathingly critical of life in the big city. Although he admits that the city life provides opportunities for a few to climb up the social ladder, most of its inhabitants are forced to lead squalid lives, never to reach new heights. Even those lucky enough to achieve material success were unable to attain happiness and satisfaction, ultimately left to be consumed by their greed and loneliness. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby also questions the "supposed superiority of the metropolis" (Hughes 224). His story of the "rise and collapse of a brilliant Long Island socialite" ended in the same manner as Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer (Paras 356). In exiling themselves from America, the Lost Generation writers were able to view the roots of their problems; the cultural divide between modernity and nostalgia. Americans living in these conformist havens perceived themselves as the "guardians of traditional American values" and ideals that the nation was founded upon, such as the American Dream, chivalry, and prejudice, which were endangered by the "social, cultural, and moral innovations associated with modernity and the decadent cities" (Hughes 224). Despite all of the creativity and culture the cosmopolitan cities of Europe had to offer, it was unable to provide a solution to the cultural divide between modernity and nostalgia. Americans on both the home front and the expatriates in Europe hopelessly turned to drinking and partying to forget life's problems, while still desperately pursuing meaning in life.
The Great War changed everyone's perception of life, robbing a whole generation of its innocence. The unexpected horrors of the war shattered the Lost Generation both mentally and physical. The unforgettable experiences left the literary figures of the Lost Generation with a sense of moral loss and aimlessness, which embodied the feelings of the entire period. Several works of the period such as Hemingway's the Sun Also Rises along with Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby became the bibles which captured the shared feelings of the Lost Generation. In addition, the juxtaposition of the Lost Generation's disillusionment with the Great War as well as their agitation with American ideals gives insight to their decision to breakaway from America and escape to the European cities.
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