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How the Lost Generation Works

A tribute to the Roaring '20s and Prohibition at the Bloomsbury Ballroom in London, England. Wearing authentic costumes from America's prohibition period, guests dance the Charleston and play roulette much like those of the lost generation did.
A tribute to the Roaring '20s and Prohibition at the Bloomsbury Ballroom in London, England. Wearing authentic costumes from America's prohibition period, guests dance the Charleston and play roulette much like those of the lost generation did.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

After the dust of World War I settled and the troops came home -- or didn't come home --it became evident that the world was changed forever. World War I ushered in a modern era of warfare with new fighting methods that affected an entire generation of young people.

New technology introduced during World War I shaped the way wars would be fought from then on. For the first time, tanks, airplanes and machine guns made their way onto the battlefield. These new technologies magnified the effects of war, both in terms of how war was fought, but also how war affected people. World War I had a devastating effect on the world in terms of lives lost, with over 37 million casualties [source: Infoplease].

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Countries that were hit hardest by the war lost entire villages of men. Those who came home were profoundly affected by their war experience. Feeling cynical about humanity's prospects, they rebelled against the values of their elders, seeking debauchery instead of decency, and hedonism instead of ideology.

The generation born between 1883 and 1900 that came of age during this time became known as the Lost Generation. This moniker is credited to writer Gertrude Stein, who passed on her garage mechanic's words -- "You are all a lost generation" -- during a conversation with writer Ernest Hemingway [source: Coale]. Hemingway used this phrase in the epigraph of his book "The Sun Also Rises," and the name soon stuck.

The phrase "Lost Generation" is also used to describe the literary landscape of this era. After the war, American writers felt lost and aimless. Many flocked to Paris during the 1920s to escape their traditions at home. These expatriates managed to capture the zeitgeist of the time.

What were the attitudes of this Lost Generation? Let's take a look at how disillusionment manifested itself in a generation of youth.

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The members of the Lost Generation were born at the turn of the 20th century, when the world was changing at a rapid pace. The automobile was making its mark on society, becoming a popular mode of transportation. The Wright Brothers took the first airplane flight. Sigmund Freud released his groundbreaking work, "The Interpretation of Dreams."

As this generation was coming of age, millions of immigrants poured into the United States, searching for a better life. With the competition for jobs and ever-increasing class distinction, the members of the Lost Generation became independent and self-sufficient, not looking to their elders for guidance.

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World War I had a tremendous influence on this generation. It lasted many years, and by the time it had ended, millions of men had been affected by the horrors of battle, losing a sense of the values their parents had instilled in them. War had forced this generation to grow up quickly, and for those who'd spent years in the trenches, war was all that they really knew. After the soldiers returned home, governments started ignoring their heroes, which caused the veterans to become quickly disillusioned with government.

In fact, this generation became skeptical of all authority, especially now that their parents were pushing for Prohibition. After the war, the Lost Generation started exploring its own set of values, ones that clearly went against what their elders had already established. Through its rebellion, the Lost Generation came up with its own social mores that gave rise to the Roaring '20s, with its gangsters, speakeasies and hedonism. This self-indulgent spree came crashing to a halt when the stock market crashed in 1929, leaving this generation to navigate the Great Depression during what would be the high point of their careers.

Members of the Lost Generation were also nomadic. Many who had been to war no longer felt the need to return home, instead flocking to cities and even to Europe. Paris became one of the biggest outposts for expatriates, and it became a center for literary achievement of the day.

Let's take a look at some of these writers and how they captured the spirit of a generation.

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American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) during his convalescence in Milan, Italy, at an American Red Cross Hospital in 1918. After returning to America from the war, Hemingway and his contemporaries often felt lost, as if they didn't fit at home.
American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) during his convalescence in Milan, Italy, at an American Red Cross Hospital in 1918. After returning to America from the war, Hemingway and his contemporaries often felt lost, as if they didn't fit at home.
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While the phrase "Lost Generation" classifies a generation of youth, it has a special connotation in the literary world. Many Americans who'd experienced Europe during the Great War returned overseas as a way to escape mainstream America. A community of expatriates formed in Paris, and in looking at America from a distance, these writers created a new literary culture that captured the futile spirit of the times.

Ernest Hemingway, who helped popularize the term "Lost Generation" in his novel "The Sun Also Rises," was one of the leaders of this group of expatriates who fled to Paris. Much like he and his contemporaries, Hemingway's protagonists tended to be honest men who lost hope and faith in modern society.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald's work also delves into this feeling of futility. His 1920 debut novel "This Side of Paradise" captures a mood of a generation that has fought wars and no longer believes in God or man. Fitzgerald's later works also capture the hedonistic spirit of the Jazz Age with "The Great Gatsby," an exploration of the moralities of the wealthy, being a seminal work of this time.

Poet e. e. cummings served as an ambulance driver in France during the war but was captured and imprisoned by the French, who thought he was a spy. After the war, he embodied the persona of the Lost Generation writer, living in both Greenwich Village and rural Connecticut, with frequent trips to Paris. His poetry pushes the boundaries of form, and by playing with spelling and syntax, he created new techniques and structures for his work.

Among the Lost Generation writers, John Dos Passos stands out as a novelist who really attempted to assimilate European culture. American by birth, Dos Passos spent his formative years in Europe, returning to America for college before spending time in Spain. He eventually volunteered for the war effort, which influenced his work "Three Soldiers," the first major anti-war novel of this period. However, as time passed, Dos Passos became more conservative in his political views and was estranged from his contemporaries, who were very much disillusioned with the current ideology.

These writers all helped give a voice to the Lost Generation. Read on for more information about this age.

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Sources

  • Academy of American Poets. "E.E. Cummings." (May 2, 2011)http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/156
  • BBC News. "Millions mark lost WWI generation." Nov. 11, 2009. (May 2, 2011)http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8353405.stm
  • Coale, Samuel Chase, Ph.D. "F. Scott Fitzgerald." The American Novel, PBS. (May 2, 2011)http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/fitzgerald.html
  • Daily Mail Online. "A very bitter victory: Returning WWI soldiers' hatred for the leaders who sent them to die." Nov. 11, 2008. (May 2, 2011)http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1084616/A-bitter-victory-Returning-WWI-soldiers-hatred-leaders-sent-die.html
  • Frenz, Horst, Ed. "Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Elsevier Publishing Company. 1969. (May 2, 2011)http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1954/hemingway-bio.html
  • Howe, Neil and William Strauss. "The New Generation Gap: Part Four - The Lost Generation." The Atlantic Monthly. December 1992. (May 2, 2011)http://www.theatlantic.com/past/issues/92dec/9212genx4.htm
  • HowStuffWorks. "World War I." Feb. 27, 2008. (May 2, 2011)https://history.howstuffworks.com/world-war-i/historical-introduction-to-world-war-i.htm
  • Infoplease. "Casualties in World War I." (May 2, 2011)http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004617.html
  • Life Course Associates. "Generations in history." (May 2, 2011)http://www.lifecourse.com/assets/files/gens_in_history.pdf
  • Ludington, Townsend. "John Dos Passos, 1896-1970: Modernist Recorder of the American Scene." The Virginia Quarterly Review. Autumn 1996. (May 2, 2011)http://www.vqronline.org/articles/1996/autumn/ludington-john-dos-passos/

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