Seeking the bohemian lifestyle and rejecting the values of American materialism, a number of intellectuals, poets, artists and writers fled to France in the post World War I years. Paris was the center of it all.
American poet Gertrude Stein actually coined the expression "lost generation." Speaking to Ernest Hemingway, she said, "you are all a lost generation." The term stuck and the mystique surrounding these individuals continues to fascinate us.
Full of youthful idealism, these individuals sought the meaning of life, drank excessively, had love affairs and created some of the finest American literature to date.
There were many literary artists involved in the groups known as the Lost Generation. The three best known are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Others usually included among the list are: Sherwood Anderson, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Ford Maddox Ford and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Ernest Hemingway was the Lost Generation's leader in the adaptation of the naturalistic technique in the novel. Hemingway volunteered to fight with the Italians in World War I and his Midwestern American ignorance was shattered during the resounding defeat of the Italians by the Central Powers at Caporetto. Newspapers of the time reported Hemingway, with dozens of pieces of shrapnel in his legs, had heroically carried another man out. That episode even made the newsreels in America. These war time experiences laid the groundwork of his novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929). Another of his books, The Sun Also Rises (1926) was a naturalistic and shocking expression of post-war disillusionment.
John Dos Passos had also seen the brutality of the war and questioned the meaning of contemporary life. His novel Manhatten Transfer reveals the extent of his pessimism as he indicated the hopeless futility of life in an American city.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is remembered as the portrayer of the spirit of the Jazz age. Though not strictly speaking an expatriate, he roamed Europe and visited North Africa, but returned to the US occasionally. Fitzgerald had at least two addresses in Paris between 1928 and 1930. He fulfilled the role of chronicler of the prohibition era.
His first novel, This Side of Paradise became a best-seller. But when first published, The Great Gatsby on the other hand, sold only 25,000 copies. The free spirited Fitzgerald, certain it would be a big hit, blew the publisher's advance money leasing a villa in Cannes. In the end, he owed his publishers, Scribners, money. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is the story of a somewhat refined and wealthy bootlegger whose morality is contrasted with the hypocritical attitude of most of his acquaintances. Many literary critics consider Gatsby his best work.
The impact of the war on the group of writers in the Lost Generation is aptly demonstrated by a passage from Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (1933):
"This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer……See that little stream——we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it——a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation."
The Lost Generation writers all gained prominence in 20th century literature. Their innovations challenged assumptions about writing and expression, and paved the way for subsequent generations of writers.