In the 1920s Gertrude Stein coined the phrase “the lost generation.” It was repeated by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, his famous 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 five hundred Peace Corps writers who have written vividly about life in more than 130 countries during the past forty years?