American Literature Lost Generation
by
Craig Monk
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0183

Introduction

Though first intended to denote Americans brought to Europe by the First World War, the “Lost Generation” refers to writers and other artists from the United States who took up residence in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. The words themselves were first attributed to Gertrude Stein by Ernest Hemingway. In surveying the waste of the conflict, Stein observed the lack of surviving male role models and supposedly defined, in fact, a generation of lost young men that might transcend national origin. American expatriation is as old as the United States, of course, but Stein’s comments brought attention to Americans who came to Europe, or returned to the continent, in the post–World War I period. Writers from the United States discussed, at length, what they believed to be the provincial and restrictive attitudes of their homeland, so that the perception grew quickly that Americans abroad were in Europe to tempt debauchery. Harold Stearns, a prominent social critic, led a call for young people to venture beyond the United States, but his own experience in France was punctuated by drinking and gambling. Indeed, by the time that the idea of a Lost Generation started to gain currency, the “lost” in the moniker had truly moved from “abandoned” to a sense of moral dissipation, and reports of expatriate mischief had been reinforced by the publication in 1926 of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a fictionalized retelling of expatriate life. While a wave of Americans had spread out over the continent, a colony of artists from the United States really had established themselves in Paris, using the mechanisms of a burgeoning print culture to reject perceptions about them and to forge new collaborations with their European hosts. Successive waves of expatriates were finally blunted by the stock market crash in New York in 1929, and those Americans who had returned home began to provide serious analysis of a decade spent abroad, most commonly defending their cohort or disavowing, outright, a Lost Generation. Some expatriates who stayed abroad through the 1930s were caught up in the Second World War, and their repatriation was connected, inextricably, with those European artists who fled that conflict. By the late 1940s, a vibrant cohort of writers and other artists from the United States were again flocking to Paris. Once more, Americans abroad were rejecting the Lost Generation moniker, but this time it was to differentiate their experiences from those of their predecessors.

General Overviews

Earlier, fragmented considerations of American expatriation between the world wars were surpassed, beginning in the 1990s, by fuller readings, in works like Kennedy 1993 and Pizer 1996. Studies like Dolan 1996 and Monk 2008 question whether a cohort of Americans abroad can be identified as a Lost Generation. Though it focuses on women writers, Benstock 1986 remains an essential starting point for understanding expatriate Paris in the 1920s. Hansen 1996 fills an important gap by focusing on the early experience of Ambulance Corp volunteers, and the contribution of African Americans is captured well in Sharpley-Whiting 2015 and Stovall 1996. Blower 2011 and Katz 2007 reposition the experience of Americans in Paris in the 1920s to examine the broader cultural context.

  • Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study extends the discussion of expatriates by examining the first four decades of the 20th century and including British writers, but by doing so Benstock outlines the achievement of more than twenty era-defining women. There is emphasis placed on the legacy of Edith Wharton, as well as readings of the significance of H. D. and Jane Heap, and Benstock highlights women’s contribution to print culture as editors and publishers.

  • Blower, Brooke. Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study troubles simplistic readings of expatriation. Blower argues that Americans did not simply flee to Montmartre or Montparnasse only to turn around and unquestioningly reembrace life in the United States. Paris served as an important gathering place, but expatriates throughout Europe in the 1920s and 1930s sought global connections that helped redefine what it meant to be American in a world whose people were drawn closer through conflict.

  • Dolan, Marc. Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of “The Lost Generation.” West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Dolan provides an analysis of the ways that the Lost Generation has been read, from a description of art produced at a specific time and in a specific place to a protest of the perceived moral shortcomings of expatriates. His study is rooted in readings of Malcolm Cowley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, but he contextualizes their rhetorical strategies and contrasts their achievements with other constructions of Americanness.

  • Hansen, Arlen J. Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War, August 1914–September 1918. New York: Arcade, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Some Americans simply stayed in Europe after the war or traveled back after returning to the United States. E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and other figures synonymous with Paris first went abroad as Ambulance Corps volunteers, and Hansen’s telling of their experience in the conflict reveals the lasting impact of conflict on writers who chose expatriation in the 1920s and shaped the development of modern American literature.

  • Katz, Daniel. American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene: The Labour of Translation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748625260.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Acknowledging the long tradition of American expatriation, Katz extends the frame of his study from Henry James to John Ashbery. He identifies cultural motifs like dislocation from place and the egocentricity of international tourism and reads them back against the 1920s, as illustrated by figures like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. For Katz, the challenge for emerging conceptions of Americanness becomes the translation, broadly conceived, of expatriate experience.

  • Kennedy, J. Gerald. Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Kennedy puts the greatest emphasis on place in the writings of American expatriates, using focused readings of the prose of Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Gertrude Stein to argue that the actual experience of negotiating life abroad had a tangible impact on the creative achievement of Americans who ventured to Europe. Kennedy’s final chapter, on Djuna Barnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald, focuses on the technical innovation achieved through their works.

  • Monk, Craig. Writing the Lost Generation: Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Through a reading of the works of more than a dozen Americans who wrote of their time abroad in the 1920s and 1930s, Monk demonstrates how autobiography was used for eighty years to shape perceptions of expatriation. Primary texts are read against different theories of life writing, but the accumulated impression left by these works is that a uniform Lost Generation of Americans in Paris is impossible to frame.

  • Pizer, Donald. American Expatriate Writing and the Paris Moment: Modernism and Place. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Pizer’s study of Lost Generation writing seeks in the fiction and nonfiction of figures as diverse as John Dos Passos, Anaïs Nin, and Gertrude Stein distinctive responses to the Paris they experienced in the 1920s and 1930s. Pizer argues that, in addition to framing these impressions of Europe in works that have helped define 20th-century American literature, their authors employed experimental techniques that pushed the boundaries of literary form.

  • Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris between the Two World Wars. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    By discovering a vibrant community that was only bolstered by its new arrivals, African American women came to experience Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Sharpley-Whiting examines how figures from Jessie Fauset to Nella Larsen found cultural and personal inspiration in French surroundings that successfully transcended racial tensions, while she emphasizes the story of Ada “Bricktop” Smith, the nightclub owner, by reprinting the text of her autobiography.

  • Stovall, Tyler. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Though the second half of this book, covering the period from the 1940s, focuses on the achievement of writers like James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and Richard Wright, the earlier experience of African Americans in Paris is also discussed thoroughly. Stovall examines the wartime experience that brought Americans abroad and the importance of the Montmartre neighborhood in building community. French acceptance of African Americans is the common thread running throughout.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down