"The Lost Generation." Gale Student Resources in Context. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Student Resources In Context. Web. 24 May 2013. The Lost Generation is a term used to describe those who came of age during World War I. This term more specifically refers to a group of American writers whose works were published after that period. The term Lost Generation comes from a comment that Modernist writer Gertrude Stein made to author Ernest Hemingway—that Hemingway and his cohorts were "all a lost generation." Hemingway would later repeat this comment in the preface of his novel The Sun Also Rises.
The Lost Generation rebelled against post-World War I American ideals. During that time American culture valued a work ethic of capitalism and entrepreneurship. Members of the Lost Generation, however, felt the United States lacked culture and sophistication. They preferred a more cosmopolitan culture like that of Europe. As a result, many Lost Generation writers left the United States for Europe. This generation of writers includes Hemingway, Hart Crane, E.E. Cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Archibald MacLeish.
History and the Lost Generation
Prior to the First World War, many Americans believed that those who led a good, decent life of virtue would be rewarded. This belief was tested as the United States become involved in World War I and many young soldiers died in battle. After the war many Americans who came of age during that period were disenchanted with the American dream. These Americans, particularly the writers of that time, felt spiritually alienated from their country.
The Lost Generation also was influenced by the introduction of Prohibition, when the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages. Many young Americans felt that this amendment pointed to the increasing small-mindedness of older generations. They believed that Prohibition was another sign that American culture lacked the class and style that could be found in European society. The writers of this generation left middle-class America in favor of more sophisticated countries.
Literary Themes of Lost Generation Writers
Lost Generation writers typically shared some specific themes in their works. Many of these themes reflected the experiences of the writers themselves and their discontent with American society. One prominent theme is the self-exile of members of the Lost Generation or the decision many of these writers made to leave their country. Another recurring theme of Lost Generation literature is that of indulgence. Characters are depicted as enjoying excesses and luxuries that would have been considered improper among the American middle class. Lost Generation literature also often depicted characters as feeling a loss of spirituality. These writers had trouble believing in the existence of God after the casualties and deaths suffered during World War I, and this spiritual alienation often shows in their literature. This theme is most notable in Fitzgerald's novel This Side of Paradise, in which the author writes about a generation that "grows up to find all gods dead."
The Jazz Age
Gale Student Resources in Context, 2011
The Jazz Age, also known as the Roaring Twenties, was an era of American history that began after World War I and ended with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. However, the era's social and cultural legacy lives on and still influences American life today. Many aspects of American life that had beginnings in the 1920s are immediately recognizable as part of modern-day society.
Popular Culture and Teenagers
The era sprang into being with the introduction of commercial radio and the birth of jazz music, a creation of African Americans that quickly became popular among middle-class white Americans. Although white performers took over the music and facilitated its spread among society at large, the music was an early vehicle for the integration of some aspects of African American culture into white society. In the past, people who wanted to hear music had to go to a live performance, which limited access. With the advent of the radio, a wide swath of the population could experience vastly different styles of music without leaving home. The radio also leapt over regional differences, creating a more standardized culture of similar tastes and references as well as more standard accents and speech patterns. Radio created celebrities by bringing national events into people's homes; when Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean without stopping, millions of Americans followed his feat on the radio, transforming him instantly into a hero. Along with the radio, the advent of the movie and the opening of theaters across the country increased this spread of culture, as 90 million Americans went to the movies every week by 1929.
Young people in the 1920s, entranced by jazz, were the first generation of teenagers to rebel against their parents and their parents' traditional culture. Along with the new music came new fads and fashions, such as long, slinky flapper dresses for women and wide, pleated, deeply cuffed pants for men, as well as a host of slang terms that were mystifying to the older generation. The popular culture idolized young people and their taste for the new and startling, a slant that is familiar to Americans today. Similarly to today, African American trends in the Jazz Age were adopted first by white young people and eventually by society at large. For example, dances such as the Charleston, the fox-trot, and the jitterbug, originally invented by African Americans, became wildly popular among white youth in the 1920s. At the same time, however, mass culture, such as the radio show Amos 'n Andy, featuring African American characters, spread racist stereotypes across the country. African Americans were not the only groups who were the subject of vicious stereotypes; other radio shows and movies mocked Italians, Jews, and other ethnic groups with impunity.
The 1920s transformed American life with the introduction of many inventions and lifestyle choices that are a familiar part of U.S. culture today. The era saw the rise of ready-made clothing in standard sizes, the automobile, commercial radio, electric appliances, and the telephone, as well as the spread of music through home phonograph records. Cigarette smoking and cosmetic use became widespread, synthetic fabrics were common, and advertising became far more visual and psychologically based than in the past. Americans also began shopping at chain stores and eating more canned and frozen food and less food made from scratch. In short, the consumer culture that is still deeply embedded in American society had its beginnings in the Jazz Age.
An enduring symbol of the transformation of the American economy and culture was the automobile. Henry Ford had introduced the assembly line to automobile production, allowing cars to be produced ever more quickly and cheaply. Ford cut automobile prices six times in the early 1920s, down to $290 by 1925. This made cars affordable for middle-class families. Ford also instituted a minimum wage for his workers, shortened their workday to eight hours, and reduced the work week from six days to five days.
In contrast to Ford's emphasis on efficiency in manufacturing, Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors, introduced new concepts in advertising and marketing. According to the University of Houston's Digital History Project, Sloan is famous for saying, "The primary object of a corporation was to make money, not just to make cars," and he applied himself wholeheartedly to this goal. Unlike Ford, who saw automobiles as functional, useful products, Sloan advertised his cars as symbols of luxury and wealth; General Motors introduced yearly model changes so people would feel compelled to buy new cars more often to keep up with the latest automotive fashion. Sloan also diversified his cars, presenting some as higher status, luxury automobiles that were thus more desirable, and he opened the first consumer credit agency to allow people to buy them. All of these innovations are firmly entrenched in American culture today.
Women in the Jazz Age
The women's suffrage movement gained steam in the 1920s as women entered the work force after World War I and gained the vote in 1920. Many men had died in the war, leaving opportunities open to women. The image of the flapper, with its associated notions of equality and sexual freedom, allowed some women to live more liberated lives. Women musicians in particular, such as African American singer Bessie Smith and pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, were widely popular. Paradoxically, however, the image of the free-spirited flapper began to lessen social support for traditional suffragettes and feminists, who now seemed frumpy and old-fashioned in comparison.
In addition, the early momentum in favor of women's freedom ran into a snag when an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was proposed that outlawed discrimination based on gender. Some women supported it, while others feared that it would involve legislation that would set minimum wages and maximum hours for female workers, and that this legislation would either curtail their ability to make money, or prevent companies from hiring women in the first place. Most women who worked had jobs in domestic service, in offices, and as clerks—all low-paying professions. Women consistently made far less money, and worked in lower-status jobs, than men did.
The Great Migration
During the 1920s, vast numbers of African Americans moved from the South to the North, mainly to cities, to escape from poverty and the hopeless life of tenant farming or sharecropping. They were forced by local laws and customs to settle in all-black neighborhoods, where they swelled the labor force in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, as well as New York City. In the 1920s, Harlem in New York City became the unofficial capital of black American culture, a hotbed of intellectuals, artists, and musicians. The influence of Harlem's vibrant culture gradually spread, through radio and movies, to the culture at large, even while African Americans remained segregated and restricted in opportunity.
The profound social changes brought about during the Jazz Age led to divisions between rural, more traditional people and those who belonged to the more worldly urban culture. They also fostered divisions between younger and older generations. Young people thought older people were hopelessly out of date; older people were convinced that the young people were victims of decayed morals, and they believed the United States was headed in the wrong direction. This divide between the metaphorical, more socially conservative "heartland" of the country and the progressive cities, and between older and younger individuals, is still present in the United States today, even though several generations have passed since the Jazz Age ended.
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"The Jazz Age." Gale Student Resources in Context. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Student Resources In Context. Web. 10 June 2013.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2000
Hatton, Jackie. "Flappers." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 2. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 112-113. Student Resources In Context. Web. 12 June 2013.
In the 1920s a new and popular model of modern womanhood dominated the American cultural scene. Although not all American women of the early twentieth century would emulate the flapper model, that model quickly came to represent the youthful exuberance of the post-World War I period. According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author whose novels set a tone for the 1920s, the ideal flapper, representing the ideal modern woman, was "lovely, expensive, and about nineteen." Originally merely a symbol of young and daring female chic, the flapper came to embody the radically modern spirit of the 1920s. Not merely a fashion trend, "flapperhood" came to represent an entire new set of American values.
The term "flapper" originated in England, where it was used simply to describe girls of an awkward age. American authors like Fitzgerald transformed the term into an iconic phrase that glorified the fun-loving youthful spirit of the post-war decade. The flapper ideal, along with the look, became popular, first with chic young moderns, then with a larger body of American women. The flapper was remarkably identifiable. With her bobbed hair, short skirts, and penchant for lipstick, the starlet who had "it," Clara Bow, embodied the look. Other celebrity women, from the film star Louise Brook to the author Dorothy Parker, cultivated and popularized the devil-may-care attitude and fashion of the flapper. America's young women rushed to emulate the flapper aesthetic. They flattened their chests with tight bands of cloth in order to look as young and boyish as possible. They shortened the skirts on their increasingly plain frocks, and they bought more cosmetics than American women ever had before.
But flapperhood was more than mere fashion. To an older generation of Americans the flapper symbolized a "revolution in manners and morals." Flappers did not just look daring, they were daring. In the 1920s growing numbers of young American women began to smoke, drink, and talk slang. And they danced. Not in the old style, but in the new mode inspired by jazz music. The popularity of jazz and dancing hinted at new attitudes toward sexuality. The image of the "giddy flapper, rouged and clipped, careening in a drunken stupor to the lewd strains of a jazz quartet," gave license to new ideas about female sexuality. As F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed, "none of the Victorian mothers … had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to being kissed." Flappers presented themselves as sexual creatures, radically different to the stable maternal women who epitomized the ideal of the previous generation.
And yet the popularity of the flapper did not, as one might suppose, signal the triumph of feminism in the early twentieth century. For the flapper, for all her sexual sophistication and her rejection of her mother's Victorian values, did not pose any real threat to the gender status quo. Although the flapper presented a positive image for modern women, with her athleticism and her adventurous spirit, the flapper remained a soft creature who demurred to men. Indeed, it was precisely the flapper's "combination of daring spirit and youthful innocence that made her attractive to men." The flapper was a highly sexualized creature, but that sexuality retained an innocent, youthful, romantic quality. Ultimately, flappers married and became the mothers of the 1930s.
Although flappers presented a new model of single womanhood that would have positive ramifications because it gave license to women to work and play alongside men, that model had its limits. The transformative cultural promise of the flapper moment would recede just like the fashion for short skirts and short hair. In the long years of the Depression the desire to emulate reckless rich girls faded along with the working girl's ability to afford even the cheapest imitation of flapper chic. Remnants of the flapper lifestyle, however, remained popular—a youthful taste for music and dancing, smoking and swearing, sex and sexiness. And the market for goods that had emerged to meet the consuming passions of flapper women gained in strength and power. Even after the flapper disappeared from the American scene the feminine ideal that she had popularized lingered—along with a culture of consumption designed to help women pursue that impossibly impermanent idea. For the ideal modern woman of America's imagination, although no longer officially a "flapper," was to remain infuriatingly "lovely … and about nineteen."