English Literature » Notes » Hemingway and “The Generation Lost”

Hemingway and “The Generation Lost”

Hemingway made the term “The Generation Lost” popular in his novel “The Sun Also Rises” which he took from American poet Gertrude Stein.

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.

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.

The Lost Generation is a term used to describe a group of American writers who were rebelling against what America had become by the 1900’s. At this point in time, America had become a great place to, “go into some area of business” (Crunden, 185). However, the Lost Generation writers felt that America was not such a success story because the country was devoid of a cosmopolitan culture. Their solution to this issue was to pack up their bags and travel to Europe’s cosmopolitan cultures, such as Paris and London. Here they expected to find literary freedom and a cosmopolitan way of life.

A cosmopolitan culture is one which includes and values a variety of backgrounds and cultures. In the 1920’s the White Anglo Saxon Protestant work ethic was the only culture that was considered valued by the majority of Americans. It was because of ethics such as this which made the cosmopolitan culture of Paris so alluring. American Literature went through a profound change in the post WWI era. Up until this point, American writers were still expected to use the rigid Victorian styles of the 19th Century. The lost generation writers were above, or apart from, American society, not only in geographic terms, but also in their style of writing and subjects they chose to write about. Although they were unhappy with American culture, the writers were instrumental in changing their country’s style of writing, from Victorian to modern.

Hemingway is probably one of the most celebrated authors of his time. Hemingway is well known for his fiction. His take on fiction is something invented or imagined. Main topics were centralized around his love of embellishment of the facts. Hemingway did not have the education as many other writers of his time, rebelling against his parents attempts to send him to colleges. His idea of education did not consist of lectures, and research papers, but of life experiences, and his love of reading. Hemingway’s readings centered around Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Turgrnev, Tolstoy was a primary influence in Hemingway’s writings. WWI also had a profound impact on him as well, as he was an ambulance driver during the war. He hated the abstract, especially abstract words such as honor, glory, and courage. Hemingway held strong to old beliefs, and symbolism, as he used symbolism to depict the Protestant religion he could not accept. He used observation and description in his works, rather than rhetoric views. The concept of war fascinated Hemingway, as well as the experiences one could endure in a lifetime. One of the most famous works, “Farewell to Arms” depicted the uselessness for words such as honor and glory, because they were not the first things in a soldier’s mind as he walked onto the battlefield. Hemingway’s works were raw, and dilled with the notion that one could be inside the characters mind, the concrete, and not around in the abstract view of his works.


World War I undercut traditional notions of morality, faith, and justice. No longer able to rely on the traditional beliefs that gave life meaning, the men and women who experienced the war became psychologically and morally lost, and they wandered aimlessly in a world that appeared meaningless. Jake, Brett, and their acquaintances give dramatic life to this situation. Because they no longer believe in anything, their lives are empty. They fill their time with inconsequential and escapist activities, such as drinking, dancing, and debauchery.

In “The Sun Also Rises” it is important to note that Hemingway never explicitly states that Jake and his friends’ lives are aimless, or that this aimlessness is a result of the war. Instead, he implies these ideas through his portrayal of the characters’ emotional and mental lives. These stand in stark contrast to the characters’ surface actions. Jake and his friends’ constant carousing does not make them happy. Very often, their merrymaking is joyless and driven by alcohol. At best, it allows them not to think about their inner lives or about the war. Although they spend nearly all of their time partying in one way or another, they remain sorrowful or unfulfilled. Hence, their drinking and dancing is just a futile distraction, a purposeless activity characteristic of a wandering, aimless life.

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