The Lost Generation

The term “lost generation” was coined by American poet Gertrude Stein to describe American literary artists that sought meaning in life, drank excessively, and had love affairs during the 1920s. These artists include Sherwood Anderson, Kay Boyle,

Hart Crane, Ford Maddox Ford, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Among the most famous are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos. F. Scott Fitzgerald shared many characteristics synonymous with “The Lost Generation”. He was a heavy drinker and partier, rebellious and questioned traditional values and beliefs, and sought Paris to gain a perspective on himself and his country. (“What is the Lost Generation?”)

On January 16, 1920 the 18th Amendment became law, enforced by the National Prohibition Act. Liquor, beer, and wine were illegal throughout America. However, although alcohol was banned, Americans continued to manufacture and drink it; men and women actually drank more of it. They created new ways of transporting it without getting arrested. One method was using a hip flask; another was hiding it in books and coconut shells, or by filling hot-water bottles and hiding it under their clothing. (“The Jazz Age – The 20s,” 20-132)

Bootlegging became big business. In 1921 federal agents seized 96,000 stills and pieces of distilling equipment; in 1925 they seized 173,000; in 1930 it had reached 282,000. Some bootleggers stole alcohol from manufacturing plants, smuggled it from abroad, or made it themselves. One famous bootlegger, Al Capone, was said to have controlled the entire business from Canada to Florida. (“The Jazz Age – The 20s,” 20-132)

Since saloons became the target of Prohibition enforcers, Americans frequented underground drinking facilities known as speakeasies. In 1925 there is believed to have been 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Speakeasies were “protected” by bribing federal agents. One of the most famous owners of a speakeasy was Texas Guinan, named “Queen of the Speakeasies”. Her earnings during a 10-month period totaled $700,000. (“The Jazz Age – The 20s,” 20-132)

Like many Americans during the twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a heavy drinker and partier. Fitzgerald was labeled as a pathetic drunk. He was an alcoholic since college and had problems controlling money and alcohol; most of his money being spent on booze and parties. When drunk, he was insulting to servants and friends. In the summer of 1925, Fitzgerald wrote “1,000 parties and no work”, which depicted a portrayal of his own life. (Epstein)

After World War I, American values began to go sour. The entire nation became self-conscious and unsure of itself. No one wanted to deal with world problems. Americans became frivolous and rebellious, questioning traditional values and beliefs. The saying of the twenties was “eat, drink, and be merry”, but it had its outcome: “for tomorrow we die.” Morals underwent a revolution. The youth of the 20’s began to question the authority of elders, girls in particular. It was an era of daring clothes and scandalous dances. F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the first writers to draw attention to the new postwar era with their youthful love affairs and “petting parties” in his novel This Side of Paradise. He was labeled as “a kind of king of our American youth”. Along with Americans, he professed “to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken.” (“The Jazz Age – The 20s,” 20-132)
“…it was not a generation of expatriates who found themselves in Paris in those years but a generation whose patria, wherever it may once have been, was now no longer waiting for them anywhere” –Archibald MacLeish

In the 1920’s Europe offered an opportunity for freedom. World War I brought many Americans to Europe to encounter history and the failure of their religious and political beliefs. Paris especially seemed to call to the American heart. Americans in Paris ranged from tourists, to artists, to permanent residents. Many also came for humanitarian reasons. In Paris, Americans “found” America. (Fitch 162-204)

Paris had an impact on the second great period of American literature just as it had an impact on the first great period, the “Renaissance”, which included famous artists as Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and Hawthorne. Paris is where Americans seem to write best, and it had a particular influence on Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night. In Paris, Fitzgerald was among a large literary community that was challenged, stimulated, reviewed, read, and greatly appreciated. (Fitch 162-204)

When I now think of the “The Lost Generation”, I cannot help but think of a godless society that hopelessly turned to drinking and partying to forget life’s problems; a society that desperately pursued meaning in life after a period of such tragedy and despair. These characteristics so prevalent in the lives of many Americans were clearly present in the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Epstein)

Fitzgerald was a master at expressing feelings into his writing. He could write the things that Americans felt but were not able to express: social unease in their own country, yearning for an elegant and orderly life, and inner sense. “He knew how to do purple in many different, splendid shades. He can put one on the French Riviera in a single sentence.” He will always be held as a great influence on American culture. (Epstein)