Final Literature Paper

Literature 261

4 December 2007


The Lost Generation and the City of Light

The introduction of political, social, and technological changes during the turn of the century ushered in a new era called Modernism. Modernism was expressed in art, music, and especially literature. Few had as much impact on Modern literature as the expatriate writers of the 1920s, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Beach, and Gertrude Stein. Their self imposed alienation from their home country and their common destination of Paris, France altered the confines of literature and helped to shape Modern literature as we know it today.

“The Lost Generation” of writers, as they would later be known, were born and raised during the first two decades of the 20th century with the rigid discipline of Victorian morals (Curnutt 12). These morals and values included a deep seeded belief in the Protestant work ethic that hard work and deferred gratification would lead to security and peace (Thompson 435). By 1918 the future expatriates’ sense of society and self had been shattered by trench warfare and World War I. Many of the expatriates either lived through or witnessed first hand the devastation of World War I and its many casualties (Badertscher). One such writer was F. Scott Fitzgerald who in his first novel, This Side of Paradise, summed up his despondency stating “a new generation…grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken” (Fitzgerald 213). This devastation led to a tremendous feeling of loss, disruption, and disillusionment. American society was in constant transition and upheaval and the expatriates no longer believed that the Protestant work ethic was valid. Furthermore, the expatriates had lost faith in their elders, believing the older generation had transformed society without having given the younger generation any viable substitute (Curnutt 20). John F. Carter stated:

The older generation pretty well ruined this world before passing it onto us. My generation is disillusioned and, I think, brutalized, by the cataclysm which their complacent folly engendered…And now they are surprised that a great many of us, because they have taken away our apple-cheeked ideals, are seriously considering whether or not their game be worth our candle (Curnutt 20).

In addition to the feelings of loss and disruption, expatriate writers had an overall dissatisfaction with American literature. Before Modernism, literature was controlled by structure and organization. As the world around them changed, the expatriates desperately sought to create literature that reflected the turmoil they saw around them. Some of the literary styles that spawned from this were fragmentation, juxtaposition, and stream of consciousness (Curnutt 11). The increase in foreign travel from the United States to Europe during the 1920s also had a momentous affect on American literature. As more travelers began visiting abroad, a common consensus that American literature was not as traditional or diverse as other countries became commonplace (Curnutt 68). This belief was strongly endorsed by many expatriate writers. Additionally, expatriate writers also viewed the landscape of the United States as stagnant and lacking character therefore making it more difficult for them to create appealing works of literature (Curnutt 69). Finally, they believed with all sincerity that their written work was underappreciated and that the American public and literary scholars were “indifferent to their contributions to American culture” (Curnutt 71). The expatriates saw all of these factors as signs that they no longer belonged within the confines of the United States. These disillusionments quickly led to the voluntary migration and alienation of expatriate writers from the United States to Paris, France.

Paris, France, also known as the City of Light, was well known by travelers and writers alike as a welcoming and accepting city. Paris was known for its embracement of developing new ideas, producing new values, investigating unconventional behaviors and the undertaking of radical experimentation. Writers from all over the world converged on the Left Bank of the Seine which quickly became the central hub of creativity (“Geniuses”). One very influential author named Gertrude Stein hosted gatherings, also known as salons, in which artists and writers would congregate to discuss art and inspiration (Lovelady). The neighborhood, Montparnasse, was lined with cafes and bookstores, allowing expatriate writers to communicate and exchange ideas freely and easily (“Geniuses”). Some of these bookstores became paramount in the development of Modern literature. One of the most famous bookstores, “Shakespeare and Company”, was owned and run by expatriate writer Sylvia Beach. “Shakespeare and Company” was not simply a place of commerce, but in addition served as a lending library to other expatriate writers and was often used as a forwarding address for those leaving the United States (“Geniuses”). “Shakespeare and Company” would later gain more fame when Beach agreed to publish works of literature that were unable to be published any other way (“Geniuses”). With the increased presence of expatriate writers came an increase in alternative presses. This was one of Paris’ defining contributions to Modern literature. Small and alternative presses enabled expatriates to distribute their sometimes controversial and progressive novels, stories, and poetry to the general public. Paris had yet another endearing quality during this period of time, the money exchange rate. The cost of living was far more affordable in Paris than in the United States, allowing writers to live Bohemian, yet comfortable lifestyles without much sacrifice (Mills). This, too, afforded the alienated writers to focus on their writing and creativity and not worry about the day to day restrictions of the American work ethic.

The expatriates did not begin the Modern literature era however they were the most influential part of it. The changes they experienced and witnessed in the United States and their vocalization of their disenchantment changed literature forever. Writers such as Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald never gave up their nationalism, but rather changed locations to better serve themselves and their art. In Paris they were able to find a camaraderie, acceptance, and diversity that were not possible in America. The establishment of alternative presses allowed for creative and expressive works that have withstood the test of time. Upon reflection the expatriate writers of the United States altered the boundaries of literature and shaped Modern literature to what it is today, while simultaneously giving readers a meaningful and accurate view of the Modern era.

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