|Lost Generation Intellectuals: A Glimpse into the Modern Temper
1. Topic: How did some leading intellectuals respond to the crisis of World War I and the resulting banality of the new era of the 1920s? Banality: commonplace: life in which there is no originality, freshness, or novelty. A life lived without stimulation, appeal. A sorry life. Why are intellectual responses important? Because the experiences they had offer lessons to us about the dilemmas of modern life. Their experiences offer, first, the example of the continuation of the separation of intellectuals from the popular mind. In modern American intellectual history, leading social thinkers became increasing alienated from society.
What is alienation? The separation of a person or his or her affections from an object or position of former attachment. Synonyms: isolation, exile. Examples: people who find nothing worthwhile in ordinary social practice, institutions, conventional beliefs. People who feel deeply at odds with what everyone talks as normal. In the 1920s a number of leading American intellectuals confess their alienation from America. This proved to be an enduring legacy. The stereotype of the alienated intellectual is now a commonplace in our culture. A contemporary statement of alienation was offered some years ago by Loren Baritz, "Any intellectual who accepts and approves of his society prostitutes his skills and is a traitor to his heritage." Modern intellectual alienation begins with Mark Twain, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this "boys" adventure story we are offered a sustained description of a world peopled by dysfunctional families (Huck's dad is the town drunk, he has no mother), the most respectable people engaged in murderous feuds the reasons for which know one can recall, a variety of bandits and con-artists victimize gullible majorities, and the people react with mob violence. Meanwhile, the society practices slavery without the slightest consideration to the slaves humanity and defined morality as the upholding of the slave system. To Twain, life along the Mississippi represented the opposite of reason, idealism, and progress. In Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a late 19th century American journeys back to the time of King Arthur and uses the latest technology to perform mass slaughter on the people of that age. Modern man is no better than man in the past: only more destructive.
Twain was a prophet. World War One offered new evidence of modern man's capacity for destruction. The war was brutal because man uses his reason to create the forces of self-destruction. The machine gun, the tank, the grenade, the bomb carrying aeroplane were the latest examples of man's inventiveness, his mastery of the forces of nature in the service of death. That the war could last four years in Europe. That the bodies of a generation of young men could be so foolishly piled up as a ghoulish monument to the nation-states demand for sacrifice was shocking to thoughtful people.
The war destroyed all those protective beliefs, comforting myths and traditions about modern society. Faith in Christian ideals, belief in reason. The idea of progress. Belief in morality. Belief in God. Belief in the progressive ideal of progress through scientific reform. Instead the war demonstrated just how mechanically modern man really acts. Mechanically? Without reason. Without thinking. Without logic. People act irrationally. They responded to the siren call of patriotic. They were like lambs going to the slaughter to meet mere political goals. It is a world without morality. Ernest Hemingway's character of Nick in A Farewell to Arms is an ambulance driver. He experiences war's brutality, stupidity, and absurdity. This is human nature. Men are lined up and shot as naturally as water flowing down a river.
Who were the Lost Generation Intellectuals? They became a generation of very famous men and women. You probably have heard their names, you may even have read some of their books, or seen movies made from their writings. They include: Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms. John Dos Passos: USA Trilogy: 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money, WW One novel: Three Soldiers Malcolm Cowley: Their historian: Exiles Return Mathew Josephson: The Robber Barons. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, Tales From the Jazz Age. E.E. Cummings: The Enormous Room, Autobiography. T. S. Elliot: "The Wasteland." William March: Company K
The term Lost Generation comes from an observation Gertrude Stein made to Ernest Hemingway in the mid-1920s. "All of you young people who served in the war, you are the lost generation." Stein referred to the novelists, essayists, poets, philosophers, and writers who felt disillusioned by the war. They felt betrayed and uprooted by the war and had no place at home in America. They became cultural refugees in the 1920s. They were alienated in a double sense. They hate America, and they hated living in America. They became expatriates. To be an expatriate means to be driven from one's native land, exiled, banished. They flee the emotional and aesthetic sterility of America. The poet Ezra Pound captured the mood in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, America had gone to war, he wrote, to save "a botched civilization; . . . an old bitch gone in the teeth." Where Did They Go? To Paris. Large American emigre community lived their after the war. Writers, artists, musicians, bohemians. They center around Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, the owner of the Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore in Paris. Their community lasted until the Great Depression. When the depression caught up with France, it destroyed the economic basis of the expatriot community. Their circle includes French, British, and continental authors. Andre Gide, The Immoralist; James Joyce, Ulysses.
In Europe they seemed to absorb the critical attitudes of some European intellectuals toward America. Max Eastman's conversation with Sigmund Freud in 1927. Freud told Eastman “Consciousness exists quite obviously and everywhere--except perhaps in America. I don't hate America, I regret it. America is a bad experiment conducted by providence. Oh, the prudery, the hypocrisy, the national lack of independence. There is no independent thinking in America, is there?” He suggested that Eastman return to America and write a book called "Der Misgeburt der American Civilization" The Miscarriage of American Civilization.”
But it would be a mistake to think Lost Generation attitudes arose from too much cognac and conversation with cynical European intellectuals while sitting on the Reve Gosh, left bank. As a group these writers produced an extraordinary quality and quantity of literature reflecting on their experiences, America, life and value. They represented a counter-culture of sorts, but one whose message arose from a deep disillusionment. A disillusionment born of their experiences with World War One.
Disillusionment with the War. Why? They revolted against the official meaning of the War as represented by Wilsonian Liberalism. Wilson's vision of the war held that the war as a fulfillment of progressivism. American involvement in the war represented America's big chance to reform the world along liberal lines. America would end autocracy, end German militarism, end traditional balance of power diplomacy, end imperialism and war. Wilson: it will be a "War to Make the World Safe for Democracy." This idealistic and positive rhetoric is what justified American deaths. It would be what made it all worthwhile. The sacrifices would count--a new world would arise. Hearing this rhetoric, Americans could be proud of their actions. Their pride, courage, honor, and sacrifice were necessary and good. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker assured the women of America in 1918 that he had never seen a doughboy who was not "Living a life which he would not be willing to have mother see him live." ¤ b.
Lost Generation Writers reaction to this rhetoric of patriotism, romance, and nobility of war was negative. They felt betrayed by it. It represented propaganda and lies. Sacrifice is noble? In William March’s novel, Company K he has a commander write to parents of their son's death.
Dear Madam: Your son, Frances, died needlessly in Belleau Wood. You will be interested to hear that at the time of his death he was crawling with vermin and weak from diarrhea. His feet were swollen and rotten and they stank. A piece of shrapnel hit him and he died in agony, slowly. You'd never believe he could live three hours, but he did. He lived three full hours screaming and cursing by turns. He had nothing to hold on to, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the meaningless names of honor, courage, patriotism, were all lies.
March's imaginary letter contained an important subtheme of the Lost Generation: it was a revolt of the sons against the parents. Young people felt betrayed by their mothers and fathers. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the spirit of the generational revolt in his novel, This Side of Paradise, 1919.
The old generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They gave us this thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up, and then they are surprised that we don't accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it way back in the eighties.
This theme also was expressed by E. E. Cummings in a poem of his entitled, "My Sweet Old Etcetera."
My Sweet Old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent
war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting for,
my sisterisabel created hundreds
and hundreds of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers
etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that
I would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my
self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud etcetera (dreaming) etcetera, of your smile
eyes, knees, and of your etcetera
Here again we see the elements of generational betrayal. Parents told them what was right, just, and good. Note how etcetera functions as a contemptuous shorthand for the language of war's nobility until the end. Then its meaning is radically shifted to what Cummings sees as really important.
Lost Generation writers were not cowards or pacifists. They volunteered and enlisted in the war.
Their writings weren't antiwar at first. Hemingway celebrated man's willingness to face death courageously. He used the symbol of the bullfighter as the model for manhood. But they objected to the official hypocrisy, the manipulation of symbols to induce service. They object to the official meaning given their individual acts of courage. E. E. Cummings, The Enormous Room (1922). A war autobiography of his experience in a French spy prison for three months. He had been a volunteer ambulance driver for the Canadian Army before U.S. official involvement. He was sent to prison for letters he wrote. He summarized his view of the war in an exchange he reports with one of the characters he meets in prison. What do you think of the war? "I think its a lot of bullshit."
The war shattered their belief in a possible fraternity of man. After the war experience, they are convinced the world is brutal. Brutality continued into civilian life. Everywhere one found violence. We can be victimized everywhere we go. Life was something you suffer through. Life was heavy, graceless, sullen, and ugly. Life does awful things to you.
Often for Hemingway this idea took the form of a woman humiliating a man. In his short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," his main character confesses, "We all take a beating every day, you know, one way or the other." Life breaks one down. It breaks down integrity, identity. It annihilates us. It reveals weaknesses, cowardess, and finally it makes us callous.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby offers a similar kind of advice to all those striving young men in America. A life of effort and striving leads to success, status, but not necessarily happiness. At the end of the novel Fitzgerald has Gatsby killed off and in doing so he underlines his judgment that this kind of life is a waste. In America you spend your life chasing a dream, and in the end you lose your youth and your hope. "Life is not growth and optimism . . . It is a qualified unhappiness." It's a somber, tragic vision. Life is sad. That is why Hemingway's stories are full of drunks. Fitzgerald aptly labeled his generation, "All the Sad Young Men.”
The Loss of Faith and the possibility for its recovery.
What do you do in such a world? What advice did these writers have for the problem they identified? First, you disengage from social commitments. Hemingway expressed this them in A Farewell to Arms
Nick sat against the wall of the church where they had dragged him to be clear of the machine-gun fire in the street. Both legs stuck out awkwardly. He had been hit in the spine. His face was sweaty and dirty. The sun shone on his face. The day was very hot . . . Two Austrian dead lay in the rubble in the shade of the house. Up the street were other dead . . . Nick turned his head carefully and looked at Rinaldi. "Senta (Listen) Rinaldi. Senta. You and me we've made a separate peace."
A separate peace is the metaphor for disengagement. Hemingway expressed the desire to escape the impact of war, but he didn't always think it was possible. Jake has lost his sex organ in The Sun Also Rises. Gatsby has lost Daisy Miller in Great Gatsby.
Second, they turned inward. In some cases they lost themselves in booze, pleasures or other forms of personal search for salvation. To the extent they turned to hedonism, their message fit well with the spirit of the Jazz age. They attempted to create new values that were suited to the individuals need for personal authenticity. What were these new values? It isn't about living a moral life. Morality is a physiological state. It has nothing to do with what is ethically good or true. In The Sun Also Rises Hemingway has the main character, Jake Barnes, reflect on morality. “So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. In "Death in the Afternoon," Hemingway has an older lady inquire, "Have you no remedy then?" To which the reply is, "Madam, there is no remedy for anything in life." Hemingway's views on morality give us a glimpse into the modern universe.
It is a world in which the human spirit, as Joseph Wood Krutch put it, "cannot find a comfortable home." Before the 20th century, with its routinized destructiveness--like water flowing down the river--"humans needed to believe that right and wrong were real, that Love is more than a biological function, that the human mind is capable of reason rather than merely of rationalization, and that it has the power to will and to choose instead of being compelled merely to react in the fashion" of brutes. Since the war had proven that none of these beliefs is more than a delusion, mankind is forced to "live some kind of tragic existence in a universe alien to the deepest needs of its nature.
Their advice to writers in particular was more positive. This shows they never lost complete faith in humanity. They encouraged writers to cultivate their literary talents, craft. Art was everything. You can exist only if you purify yourself. You must be truthful. Your significance--the meaning of your miserable life lay in honesty, courage, will, and excellence of skill. Only with these can you be superior to your circumstance.
The true hero as exemplified by Hemingway is the Bullfighter. But not just any bullfighter. You must combine honesty, courage, will, and talent. You must be willing to put your life on the line, go close to the bulls horns, risk everything with a real passion for what your doing (like Romero).
Not all bullfighters do this. You can lose this grace. Bullfighters can become pitiful like the aging matador (Belmonte) who wants to make a comeback, but wants everything arranged so he will look good. Or you may become corrupt by using false tricks and illusions in order to appear to be in danger (Marcial). Decadence is everywhere possible.
To be real, authentic, you must be good at what you do, you must be willing to be alone, be willing to die. Be stoical, meaning to be willing to bear pain and suffering without complaint. (Take your tests without moaning!). Whatever you do with your life, do it for yourself. Do it because in doing it you achieve greatness.
The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear, and learn and understand. And write when there is something you know about and not before and not too damn much after. The thing to do is work and learn and make it.
Few can live in this state of grace. The attempt to create new values is a very weak link in Lost Generation thought.
Why was the effort at value creation a failure? Because of the element of disengagement from society. The call to lose yourself in booze, pleasure, and personal salvation generally resulted in hedonism and the destruction of values. Lets look at F. Scott Fitzgerald's reflections on the inadequacy of the Lost Generation's cultural response to the war. He offered these reflections in a short story entitled, "Babylon Revisited," 1931. The main character of this story is Charlie Wales. Wales returns to Paris after being away for three years in a mental hospital. While he had lived in Paris before the breakdown, he had sniffed cocaine, boozed wildly, whored around. Spent money like crazy (he had been successful in the stock market boom). His wife Helen had died of heart trouble caused by his whoring around before the breakdown. He had to abandon his daughter, Honoria (Honor) to his hostile sister in law. It is a guilty look back at a hedonistic, wasted life. He meets an old lover who now seems "trite, blurred, worn away." His attitude toward the period is captured in this exchange, "I heard that you lost a lot in the crash." "I did . . . But I lost everything I wanted in the boom." This exchange suggests how Fitzgerald was emerging from the privatized intellectual life of the 1920s with a shameful sense of his egotistical and ineffectual response to the disillusionment of the war.
Fitzgerald himself had a nervous breakdown. He cracked up. He lost his identity. In the mid-1930s when he recovered he came to believe he cracked up because he failed to develop a political consciousness. He felt shallow and selfish.
I think that my happiness, or my talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception. It was not the natural thing but the unnatural-unnatural as the boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the boom was over.
The war set many on a joyless quest for joy. The boom of the 1920s fueled it. The depression soon called for social commitments.