The Lost Generation

The generation that came of age during World War I became known as “The Lost Generation.”

They were seen as “lost” because they seemed to be somewhat disoriented. The perception was that many of them were wandering in a directionless manner.

The name always seemed to me to be rather chauvinistic since it was primarily referencing the young men who survived the war and came home confused and aimless in those early post-war years. The generation is described as the cohort born between 1883 and 1900.

Hemingway 1918
Hemingway, 1918, Milan

One of those lost men was Ernest Hemingway who came to be considered a major voice for this generation. Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899, and in the First World War, he volunteered to serve in Italy as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross.

At 18, he tried to enlist in the army but was deferred because of poor vision. The Red Cross was taking volunteers, so he signed up. He was working at a newspaper (Kansas City Star), so he quit in April 1918, and sailed for Europe in May.

He was 19 years old in June 1918 and running a mobile canteen. I’m not sure that dispensing chocolate and cigarettes to soldiers is the macho image that many people have of Ernest Hemingway. That month he was wounded by Austrian mortar fire.

The Sun Also RisesA novel didn’t come out of his experiences right away. On his 26th birthday, he began his first novel. That first novel would be The Sun Also Rises. It was about his generation but it was not about the war.

He was in Spain in 1925 and the novel is set in Paris café life in Paris and at the Festival of San Fermín in Spain (which includes bullfighting and the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona) and a fishing trip in the Pyrenees.

Hemingway used a lot of his life for the plot and characters based on real people.

I don’t think the “Lost Generation” in the novel seem so damaged by World War I that they are totally lost. Of course, years had passed since the WWI and his characters seem pretty strong and starting to find their way in the world. The themes are familiar ones for Hemingway’s writing – love, death, masculinity, and being in nature. His journalism experiences certainly influenced his use of short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, and compression. On the fiction side, he used less description than other writers of the time and favored dialogue as a way to build characters.

Originally, he titled the novel Fiesta and also considered calling it The Lost Generation, but finally used The Sun Also Rises. (It was published in London under the title Fiesta.) Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins picked up the manuscript and it was published in 1926. Perkins became Hemingway’s lifelong editor.

The novel got a good review in The New York Times and other New York newspapers, but didn’t get great reviews across the country. It seems tame today but was considered somewhat shocking at that time. Hemingway’s mother said it was “one of the filthiest books of the year.”

Beyond the (male) writers of the Lost Generation, the label was also attached to other artists, including women. Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the term, but Hemingway popularized it. he used it as one of the epigraphs for The Sun Also RisesStein had said in a conversation that “You are all a lost generation.”

In his memoir A Moveable Feast (which was published in 1964 after Hemingway’s and Stein’s deaths), he wrote that Stein heard the phrase from a French garage owner. Stein said that her garage owner told her that when a young mechanic had failed to repair the car quickly enough, he scolded the young man, “You are all a “génération perdue.” Stein also said in that conversation that “That is what you are. That’s what you all are… all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

Something else that he wrote in A Moveable Feast, explains his theory on writing which he called in Death in the Afternoon the “Iceberg Theory.” He meant that, like an iceberg, he wanted much more to be below the surface than you saw on the page. He wrote that he had learned that “… you could omit anything … and the omitted part would strengthen the story,”

Farewell to Arms original coverHis second novel is the 1929 A Farewell to Arms in which he did write about the Italian campaign of World War I. This first-person story of the American, Frederic Henry, has him as a lieutenant in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. Frederic is injured and then falls in love with an English nurse, Catherine Barkley.

A Farewell to Arms became a best-seller and Hemingway was able to make a living writing fiction.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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