John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Editor: PeaceCorpsWriters.org; PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org
The Lost Generation
In the 1920s Gertrude Stein coined the phrase “the lost generation.” It was repeated by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, his novel of Paris, and is often used to describe the intellectuals, poets, artists, and novelists who rejected the values of post World War I America. They relocated to Paris and quickly adopted a bohemian lifestyle of excessive drink, messy love affairs, and the creation of some of the finest American literature ever written.
We give this lost generation of American writers in Europe a prominent place in the landscape of 20th century American life and culture. They led the way in exploring themes of spiritual alienation, self-exile, and cultural criticism, leaving a distinct mark on our intellectual history. They expressed their critical response in innovative literary forms, challenged traditional assumptions about writing and self-expression, and paved the way for subsequent generations of avant-garde writers. Myth surrounds that lost generation now and perpetuates its popularity as a counterculture entity.
Every subsequent generation–including the Beats of the 1950s and the Generation Xers of the 1990s—has produced aspirants in some way to the same reputation for hedonism and headiness of those expatriates in Paris in the 1920s.
Today Peace Corps Writers have built an equally important literary movement. And they certainly measure up both as expatriates with pure grit and as artists with true creative talent.
A Literary Bridge
We envision places and events in the world through the eyes of the artists and writers who depict them–a striking sunset on canvas; a moving musical overture; or colorful prose. So it is with Ernest Hemingway’s often bittersweet perspectives on Paris in The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, two books published decades apart, that caught a special moment in time and captured it forever in prose.
For nearly eighty years, countless travelers, students, and aspiring young writers, yearning to experience their own version of a bohemian and creative existence in the City of Light, have relied on his descriptions to gain a sense of what life was like in Paris at that time.
Other literary artists who were part of the Lost Generation include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, John Peale Bishop, Kay Boyle, Paul Bowles, and e.e. cummings.
These writers were encouraged by a fabled American establishment in Paris that served an important role, an English-language bookstore—Shakespeare & Co.–founded and run by Sylvia Beach. The store’s international fame ballooned largely on its one and only publishing venture, James Joyce’s Ulysses, but it was more, much more than just a place to buy books.
Shakespeare & Company became an information bureau, a forwarding address for American writers, and a lending library where the young Hemingway was an almost daily visitor. In A Moveable Feast, he wrote, “On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”
So, how does one make a connection—a literary bridge–between the Lost Generation of Paris in the 1920s and over a thousand Peace Corps Writers who have written vividly about life in more than 145 countries during the past sixty years?
Peace Corps Writers Emulate Writers from the Lost Generation
Peace Corps writers are like their predecessors in four ways.
1) Both groups wrote about, and explained to an American audience, the world of an expatriate. Hemingway wrote of Paris and Spain while Mark Brazaitis writes of Guatemala; Hemingway wrote of big game hunting in East Africa and Norm Rush writes of white racists in Southern Africa; Fitzgerald wrote of wealthy, bored Americans on the French Riviera and Simone Zelitch writes of survivors of the Holocaust leaving Hungary for Haifa. Other Peace Corps writers regularly find equally rewarding subject matter.
Paul Theroux writes of Indians in Kenya in his first novel set in Africa; Richard Wiley about Korea and Koreans; P. F. Kluge about islands in the sun in the Pacific; and Mark Jacobs, who was a Volunteer in Paraguay and a foreign service officer in his Peace Corps country as well as Turkey and Spain, has written about these places, and more. Jim LaBate writes about PCVs in Costa Rica, Michael Meyer’s about China.
2) Both groups include award-winning writers. A partial list of Peace Corps awardees includes Bob Schacochis, winner of the American Book Award in 1985; Richard Wiley, winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1986; Kathleen Coskran, winner of the Minnesota Voices Prize in 1987; Shay Youngblood, winner of both the Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award; Melanie Sumner, winner of the Whiting Award in 1995; Marnie Mueller, winner of the 1995 American Book Award; Norm Rush, winner of the National Book Award in 1991; Ann Neelon, winner of the Anhinga Prize for Poetry in 1995; Mark Brazaitis, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection of stories; Peter Chilson, winner of the 1999 Associated Writing Program Award for Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa; Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong (1999), a New York Times bestseller, and winner of, among others, the Regional Book Award in fiction from the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association, a Salon. Com Book Awards, and an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Mildred Taylor won the 1977 Newbery Medal, as well as four Coretta Scott King Awards, and in 2021 she received the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, honoring an author whose books have made a significant and lasting contribution to literature for children. And Evelyn Kohl LaTorre last year won the 2021 Moritz Thomsen Award for her memoir Between Inca Walls: A Peace Corps Memoir.
3) Like the Lost Generation, the Beat Generation, and the Generation X-ers, Peace Corps Writers have been widely anthologized. In 1991 Geraldine Kennedy’s Clover Park Press published fiction and non-fiction written by RPCVs in From the Center of the Earth: Stories Out of the Peace Corps, the first collection of Peace Corps Writings. Scribner’s published Going Up Country: Travel Essays by Peace Corps Writers in 1994, and Curbstone Press published Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers in 2000.
4) While we don’t have a bookstore as famous as Shakespeare & Co., with its stove and tables and shelves of books where we might all gather for conversation and café au lait, we do have a website: peacecorpswriters.org, designed by RPCV Marian Haley Beil.
Books That Bred Peace Corps Volunteers
More significant than similarities with the Lost Generation is an examination of why writers went overseas in the first place, and how they wrote about their expatriate world.
It is generally accepted that many members of the Lost Generation rebelled against what America had become by the 1900’s: a business-oriented society where money and a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic dominated the culture. To these writers, America was not a “success story.” It was a country devoid of a cosmopolitan culture.
Following World War I, a segment of American writers sought to escape that rigid style of life and literature. Europe promised them a way out. Lost Generation writers wanted to be apart from America in terms of what they wrote, how they wrote, and where they wrote. These disenfranchised artists, looking for a cheap place to live, packed their bags and traveled to London and Paris in search of literary freedom and a more diverse way of life rich in new viewpoints and experiences.
The impulse of Peace Corps writers to join the agency is not so much to escape as to expand their world beyond the limits of what they find in America, and to develop new material from the experience of living in another culture. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, writers have joined for a number of reasons, many of which they were not able even to articulate when they took the Peace Corps oath. Nevertheless, many of these “Kennedy Kids” carried with them portable typewriters (now computers) and went to write the “Great Peace Corps Novel” while serving in the developing world.
The Kennedy Kids in the Age of The Organization Man
During the 1950s, two impulses swept across the United States. One impulse that characterized the decade was detailed in two best-selling books of the times, the 1955 novel by Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the non-fiction The Organization Man, written by William H. Whyte and published in 1956. These books looked at the “American way of life” and how men got ahead on the job and in society. Both are bleak looks at the corporate world. Women, of course, are overlooked.
These books were underscored by Ayn Rand’s philosophy as expressed in such novels as Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Her philosophy of Objectivism proposed reason as man’s only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. Every man, according to Rand, was an end in himself. He must work for rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. Objectivism rejected any form of altruism.
The Ugly Peace Corps Volunteer
Then in 1958 came The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene J. Burdick. This book went through fifty-five printings in two years and was a direct motivation, as Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman points out in her history of the Peace Corps, All You Need Is Love, in creating the Peace Corps.
In a “Factual Epilogue” to the novel, Lederer and Burdick lay out the basic philosophy and modus operandi of what would later be the Peace Corps. Writing about how America should “help” developing countries, the authors declare:
We do not need the horde of 1,500,000 Americans—mostly amateurs—who are now working for the United States overseas. What we need is a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working, and dedicated professionals. They must be willing to risk their comforts and—in some cases—their health. They must go equipped to apply a positive policy promulgated by a clear-thinking government. They must speak the language of the land of their assignment, and they must be more expert in its problems than are the natives.
The book’s hero is Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, and building bridges. He is called the “ugly” American only because of his physical appearance. He lives and works with the local people in Southeast Asia and, by the end of the novel, is beloved and admired by them.
John F. Kennedy and others in his presidential campaign, including such Peace Corps founders as Sargent Shriver, Harris Wofford, Warren Wiggins, and Bill Moyers had read the book and responded to what Lederer and Burdick wrote about the ineptitude of American foreign policy.
By January 1959, Kennedy had sent this book to every member of the Senate, and the ideas expressed in it, i.e., our inadequate efforts in foreign aid, would be used by Ted Sorensen when he crafted the speech Kennedy gave on November 2, 1960, at the Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco six days before the election. It was in this final presidential campaign speech that Kennedy called for the establishment of a Peace Corps: “I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area [foreign aid] be supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country….”
One inspiration for the idea of a Peace Corps that Kennedy mentioned were the 10,000 students who had gathered at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, at the University of Michigan. These students heard his extemporaneous remarks about volunteering for overseas service and immediately began a grass-roots petition across Midwest campuses that generated thousands of signatures of support from college students. America, Kennedy said in San Francisco, was “full of young people eager to serve the cause of peace in the most useful way.”
Like the writers and artists of the 1920s who fled America, the young people coming of age in the 1960s, the so-called Silent Generation, were seeking to give voice to their own discontent here at home. It was a discontent that Kennedy, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into when he ran for the presidency in the last year of the decade.
A New Frontier
Kennedy’s call to serve and his campaign theme of a “new frontier” appealed to the romantic impulse of many Volunteers. While social historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that our frontier was closed by the 1890s, America still responded to a hero, a lone hero against a corrupt world. This lone hero was dramatized during the 1950s in two classic western movies, Shane and High Noon. And like Alan Ladd in Shane, Peace Corps Volunteers still ride off into the sunset, saddlebags packed with idealism and a yearning for adventure, and the writers among them seek new experiences to write home about.
An Edge and An Itch
In my years of watching people join the Peace Corps, I have found that the most obvious PCV candidates are those who have an edge about them. They want more—whatever the more is—and are not satisfied with what America has to offer them here at home.
And the writers (and would-be writers) among these Volunteers go abroad because they want something to write about. The Peace Corps experience gives them that “something.”
We were all overwhelmed by the experience of the cultures that awaited us when we stepped off the plane. No one could have prepared a typical American for the ways of life in developing countries. But after the initial culture shock there was a richness of experience that talented writers could turn into vivid prose. It was raw material waiting to be shaped into books.
Paul Theroux recounts one of the more telling examples of how this happened to him. In this passage he describes the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material as a PCV.
I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber. He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber. . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, ‘Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.’ And that was how we held a conversation — the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying — and the African kept translating — things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks — they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.’ It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa in the early 1960s it was the nineteenth century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.
Writing From Experience
Anyone who has read Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, or John Dos Passos can see how they used the experience of living in France, England, and Spain as subject matter.
While writing about the developing world and emerging democracies, RPCV writers have broadened the landscape of American readers by introducing new countries and new ideas about other cultures and societies, much the same way that the writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s broadened the view of the world for Americans back home.
Our Writer in Paris
Closer to the Peace Corps, and closer to our decade, there is Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood, who lived in Paris before becoming a Volunteer in Dominica. Of Paris, Shay writes, “it seemed to be the kind of place that, if you were a writer or artist, there was something in the air that could transform you.”
Shay Youngblood, however, was not following Ernest Hemingway. She was following another literary lion, James Baldwin, who left Greenwich Village in 1948 because of American racism. Baldwin would spend more than a decade in Paris where he wrote his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain.
In Black Girl in Paris, Youngblood informs us that upon arriving in the Paris of 1924 in his early twenties, Langston Hughes had only $7 in his pocket; that an equally youthful James Baldwin followed two decades later with $40. Youngblood’s protagonist came with $140 hidden between her sock and the sole of her shoe. “They dared to make a way when there was none and I want to be just like them,” she writes. “This is the place where it happened. Where it will happen again.”
With these writers as her touchstone, Shay doesn’t look back in anger, but expands on the expatriate theme to write about a young black woman who has fled the deep South in search of a childhood dream of a color-blind, liberal atmosphere in which a woman can become a writer. And in doing so, she pays her homage, not to Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but to her black expatriates: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.
Poetry in the Peace Corps
The intense cross cultural experience of the Peace Corps has produced in many PCVs a deep well of sentiment that has found its way, perhaps too easily, into poetry. Fortunately, this intense experience has also been a rich source of material for many fine published poets including Charlie Smith, Mark Brazaitis, Philip Dacey, Sandra Meek, Ann Neelon, Paul Violi, Keith Carthwright, Susan Rich, John Flynn, Margaret Szumowski, Virginia Gilbert, Tony Zurlo, and many others.
Poets, I believe, have been best able to explain the values of the Peace Corps experience as it relates to writing. Margaret Szumowski, who served in Uganda and Ethiopia, puts it this way:
I think the poet gains a great deal. She absorbs the sounds of other languages, takes in imagery never seen before, observes the way families operate compared to her own experience, sees the struggle other peoples have to survive at all.
“The visual shock and splendor of Africa is enough to keep the poet writing for the rest of her life—take as an example, the baobab. I’d never seen such a strange and magnificent tree, one that blooms at night, harbors night creatures such as lemurs, and provides food for humans from its fuzzy pods. I’d never seen donkeys in the streets of Addis Ababa, laden with their loads, or a woman dancing around our house, rags tied to her feet as she cleaned the floor. I’d never seen soldiers with their guns pointed at us, as I did in Uganda. All of these experiences gave me enough to think about and absorb for the rest of my life.
The ability to “see” that poets have is combined with what all of us gained from the experience, as Chris Conlon puts it, “perspective, maturity, a larger and, one hopes, better ‘self.’”
But it is the “gift” of language that these poets find more useful and which benefits them the most. Poet Ann Neelon sums up her experience in Senegal, with one word, foreignness.
Foreignness is important to a poet because it teaches humility. Humility is important because without it there is no mystical experience.
In Senegal, I gained many things useful to a poet. These included hours of direct exposure to the oral tradition via West African griots, caches of exquisite bush and desert images, and French and Wolof syllables, but none of these can compare with the opportunity to have Africa erase who I was. Only after losing myself could I find myself as a writer.
And in the Peace Corps the overwhelming opportunity to “lose oneself” makes writers of us all.
As Others See Us
On September 9, 2001, on the 40th anniversary of the agency, The Washington Post reported that the Peace Corps community is “churning out enough works — thousands of memoirs, novels, and books of poetry — to warrant a whole new genre: Peace Corps Literature.” Also in 2001, Book Magazine wrote in the March/April issue about the literary movement of Peace Corps writers, quoting Paul Theroux, Bob Shacochis and Kent Haruf.
Then there is the review that appeared in the November 2001 issue of Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy about the collection of Peace Corps stories that were published in Living On The Edge. The reviewer was Patrick Shannon of Penn State University and he wrote.
None of the contributors are protagonists in their chapters, but each chapter is based on some event that the writer witnessed, experienced, or heard about. By telling the stories, the contributors seem to reconsider their experiences overseas and enable readers to consider (or perhaps reconsider) U.S. actions in the developing world. Those actions can serve as a metaphor for readers’ experiences with human and cultural differences. In this way, the book offers a triple treat. Readers learn a little about parts of the world they may never see for themselves, they are entertained by a good yarn, and they can learn about themselves as well.
What more could a Peace Corps writer want?
The Peace Corps Volunteer as Character
From the first days of the agency, Peace Corps Volunteers have been rich characters for novels not written by PCVs. The first books about the Peace Corps were young adult novels. In 1963 Breaking the Bonds: A Novel about the Peace Corps, written by Sharen Spence, had a short introduction by Sargent Shriver and was dedicated to “All Peace Corps Volunteers serving the world with discipline, determination, endurance, and a rare idealism.” This novel is set in Nigeria. Then in 1965 came a series of young adult novels entitled Kathy Martin: Peace Corps Nurse, about a volunteer in Africa. Another “nursing novel” for a YA audience was written by Rachel G. Payes and published by Avalon Books in 1967.
In 1968 came the most popular of all “Peace Corps novels,” The Zinzin Road, by the very successful commercial novelist and political writer, Fletcher Knebel, who had worked briefly as a Peace Corps evaluator. He set his novel in Liberia, which he had visited in 1963. Several “real” Volunteers appear as characters.
In 1975 came the very funny Native Intelligence by Raymond Sokolov, who based his novel on stories told to him by his sister and brother-in-law, two PCVs who had served in Chad.
A steady stream of novels has followed. The most important of them, in terms of focusing on volunteers as characters, are: Tama Janowitz’s A Cannibal in Manhattan (1987) about a Volunteer who brings a cannibal home to New York as her husband; Richard Dooling’s White Man’s Grave (1994), another black comedy that involves a missing Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa; and Carter Coleman’s The Volunteer (1998), that focuses on a volunteer building fish ponds in Tanzania who becomes involved with a beautiful, young school girl. In 2001, Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met is partially set in Kenya and has as a character a young married woman Volunteer having an affair with her high school boyfriend. Also in 2001 was the first novel by noted Malaysian poet, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, entitled Joss & Gold that has a Peace Corps Volunteer subduing and abandoning a married university professor in Malaysia. She loses her husband, has the PCV’s child, and her daughter searches for her true identity.
The Great Peace Corps Novel
Several former Volunteers have written novels that come directly from their own experiences. The first of these “Peace Corps novel” by a PCV is Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. A third of that 1988 novel is set in Cameroon, where Smith served. In 1991 Richard Wiley published Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, a novel about a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea, Wiley’s country of assignment. Leaving Losapas by Roland Merullo, also published in 1991, is about the life of a Volunteer in Micronesia where Merullo served. Marnie Mueller’s first novel, Green Fires: Assault on Eden, A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rain-Forest, published in 1994, is about a PCV who returns to Ecuador with her new husband.
Other Peace Corps-centered novels are Craig Carrozzi’s The Road to El Dorado (1997), Susana Herrera’s Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin (1999), Tom Hazuka’s In the City of the Disappeared (2000), William Amos’s The Seeds of Joy (2000) and dozens of other novels written about the Peace Corps experience.
In his fiction, Paul Theroux has used the character of a “volunteer” in several books, including his third novel, Girls At Play (1969), set in upcountry East Africa, and has written more extensively about himself as a “Peace Corps character” in My Secret History (1984) and My Other Life (1996).
Maria Thomas used Peace Corps Volunteers as characters in several of her stories in the collection, Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage and Other Stories, published in 1987; Kathleen Coskran did the same in The High Price of Everything, also published in 1987.
Travel Now, Write Later
Anyone who has read The Sun Also Rises knows that this novel is also a wonderful travel book. Hemingway’s description of a bus trip to Spain is classic travel prose: “The road went along the summit of the Col and then dropped down, and the driver had to honk, and slow up, and turn out to avoid running into two donkeys that were sleeping in the road.” A trip like that in Spain in the 1920s is something most Volunteers can identify with today from their own overseas experiences.
Paul Theroux, it is generally agreed, reinvented the art of travel writing with The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, published in 1975. He returned the genre to the place it held when Mary Kingsley and Evelyn Waugh were crossing Africa and globe-trotting the world. Many Peace Corps writers have followed, most notably Mike Tidwell, Thurston Clarke, Jeffrey Tayler, Karen Muller, Bill Barich, Karl Luntta, Stephan Foehr, Joe Cummings, Tom Brosnahan, and Peter Hessler, among many, many others.
Expatriates and Exiles
Peace Corps writers are, at least for a while, expatriates and exiles from their culture, and from that experience they gain a new perspective, even a new vocabulary, as Richard Wiley recalls from living in Korea. “As I started to learn Korean I began to see that language skewed actual reality around, and as I got better at it I began to understand that it was possible to see everything differently. Reality is a product of language and culture, that’s what I learned”
The experience is also intensely educational. The late novelist Maria Thomas said of her time in Ethiopia, “it was a great period of discovery. There was the discovery of an ancient world, an ancient culture, in which culture is so deep in people that it becomes a richness.”
For all these writers, their Peace Corps years were a time to learn the rules of another culture, as well as a time to learn about themselves in relation to the world, as well as in relation to the United States.
John Givens, a Volunteer in Korea and author of three novels published in the 1980s, says that the Peace Corps “suggested that experience was not limited to the mores and expectations of central California where I grew up. The ‘wideness’ of the world came home to me vividly in Korea, and I’ve been exploring the world ever since.” And novelist and short story writer Eileen Drew makes the point that writers with Peace Corps experience “bring the outsider’s perspective, which we’ve learned overseas, to bear on the U.S. We are not the only writers to have done this, but because of the nature of our material, it’s something we can’t not do.”
Bob Shacochis characterizes the modern generation of writers as followers. “We are torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature with the spices of Cathay, who have tried to communicate the ‘exotic’ as a relative, rather than an absolute, quality of humanity.”
Myth and Mythology
Finally we come back to Gertrude Stein’s famous comment to Hemingway. “You are all a lost generation,” she told him. The truth is that Stein had heard her French garage owner speak of his young auto mechanics and their poor repair skills as “une génération perdue.”
All Gertrude Stein wanted was competent mechanics to repair her car but Hemingway, seizing the expression, as any good writer would, identified a literary movement and a new way of looking at the world.
Peace Corps Writers do the same by bringing the world back home through their own writing. They have an understanding of parts of the world few Americans will ever know. And as PCVs they have a “way of looking at this world” that is new and fresh and insightful. Fulfilling the Third Goal of the Peace Corps means telling your tales at home.
So, see how far you can go with a good line or two.
This article was first published in 1916 in PeaceCorpsWriters.org. It has been edited and cut, and new writers have been added.