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Literature (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

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Beside the many poems and stories composed by soldiers in the trenches, a particular kind of literature became canonical after the war. The Lost Generation is the protagonist of the interwar years, and the Lost Generation literature is their more prominent expression.

The Great War gave birth to a form of literature that was highly influential, both at the time and afterwards and that flourished, although with different characteristics, in America and Europe. 
We often refer to this literature when we talk about the Lost Generation.

The common characteristics of the literature of the Lost Generation

Pinterest Pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation—Literature." The black-and-white picture shows a group of writers (including Ernest Hemingway) standing in front of the bookshop Shakespeare&Co in Paris in the 1920s.

Even if inspired by the same experience, the literature – and, in general, the art – of the Lost Generation in Europe had different characteristics from the art of the Lost Generation in the United States. 
Yet, some core elements were the same. 

The Victorian world was essentially an optimistic one. 
Victorians had lived in a world at peace (at least on their soils) for almost a century. The idea that war didn’t belong to Western culture anymore was very strong. 

The younger generation grew up in that cultural environment, having faith in a future that promised to be more advanced in every field and where the Victorian values of gentlemanliness, self-resilience and affirmation, personal worth, and skills were highly considered. 

Victorians had a right to think that their world had evolved and advanced. Mindblowing evolution had occurred in all fields, including war equipment, which happened but was never tasted since there hadn’t been a real war in Europe for basically thirty years. 
At the Great War’s breakout, nobody expected the destruction the new war machines could produce. The mechanised war didn’t resemble anything anyone knew how to handle – and it became a senseless massacre. 

The discrepancy between their expectations, the education they received, and the actual situations they had to endure is the origin of the Lost Generation’s disillusionment with the old values and the deep sense of betrayal they felt. 
It was in everyone’s writing, even in the personal, secret diaries many soldiers kept. But it became the badge of the generation of authors that became popular in the interwar years. 

Whether European or American, the Lost Generation shared disillusionment and a sense of betrayal. They felt they had been taught a lie, had been equipped with values and beliefs that then proved useless, that they had been living in a dream, but the reality was a completely different, cruel, brutal thing. 
After they went through that terrible rite of passage that was the mechanised trench warfare that damaged most of them emotionally and mentally, and a lot of them physically, they had a very hard time believing in anything. 

The modern world had been born. 

Literature (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) – The Lost Generation is the protagonist of this interwar literature with its very own characteristics #TheLostGeneration #1920s Share on X

Some of the most important expressions of the Lost Generation

Horrible as it was, the Great War fostered many artistic and literary movements united by a certain pessimistic view of life and strong disillusionment.

Many of these were artistic movements and will be discussed in later entries, but on a literary level, the most influential were the following:

The American Lost Generation.

This is what typically comes to mind when talking about this generation because, small as it was, this very influential group of writers had an impact not just on their nation’s literary history but on the entire world’s literature. 
Many of its members were involved in the conflict (which the United States joined quite late, in 1917), but bizarrely, none of them were employed in combatant roles: Hemingway and Dos Passos were Red Cross ambulance drivers, and Faulkner and Fitzgerald, although indeed trained for the army, never made it to France. 
Yet, the destruction and senseless life loss shaped their soul and, subsequently, their art. 
Many left America after the war and created a ‘literary colony’ (if you will) in Paris, where they gathered writers and artists from everywhere. 

The American Lost Generation didn’t believe in their nation and its society anymore. They thought the American Dream was a lie. They didn’t share the same values American society preached and held important. They despised the rising consumerism. 
Most of their literature is, in fact, a harsh criticism of that culture and the world American society was creating. Their language was dry and essential, designed to suggest the lie under the surface. To inspire strong emotions in few poignant words. 

The Harlem Renaissance
The black-and-white photo shows a group of Harlem Hellfighters on the deck of a ship.

Though the Great War was not the core of the Harlem Renaissance experience, many of its more prominent artists went to war in Europe. That changed their perception of life, although in a very different way than for the Lost Generation. 

Many African Americans had fought on the fields of WWI, and while they were indeed part of segregated battalions, nonetheless, on European soil, they experienced a totally different, far freer life. 
When they came home, they became increasingly impatient with segregation. Life, they had realised, didn’t need to be like that and many didn’t accept it anymore. 

For them, too, art and literature expressed this new realisation and feeling, but where the Lost Generation seemed to fix their gaze on what was wrong in their society, the Harlem Renaissance – this new African American artistic movement – rather saw the opportunities. 

The European Lost Generation

In Europe, the Lost Generation was the entire generation involved in the war. However, this term also indicates literature and artistic movements with similar characteristics that became particularly prominent in Great Britain and Germany. 

While the American Lost Generation started creating art and literature after the war and was focused on criticising their society, the European Lost Generation started producing art and literature during the war. In fact, some of these writers and poets – like Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, and Rupert Brooke – lost their lives on the battlefields. Others, like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney, and Ford Madox Hueffer, survived and used their art to criticise not society in general but rather war and the use of war. 

These artists, who all spoke from personal experience, recounted a war where individual acts of heroism and patriotism were utterly gone. They spoke of the dismembered bodies, of the damages to the minds, they spoke of carnage and mud. 
All romanticism and even pity are gone from their writing. 

Characterised by the harshness and sharpness of the new artistic vanguards, the language these artists used is often extreme, designed to shock the reader/viewer out of the comfort of ‘the old lies’. 

In some nations (principally in Germany), this art was ill-received by the establishment, which considered it unpatriotic and degenerate, and finally banned it, even trying to obliterate it. 


Read&Co. – The Lost Generation: Literature of the American Jazz Age
By Arcadia – Jazz Age 101: Lost Generation
The Irish Times – Young, fit and doomed: the lost generation of the first World War
Medium – Lost Generation and the Literary Modernism
University Libraries Exhibits – The Lost Generation: World War I Poetry: Women and War

Elizabeth J. West, WWI Sparked the Artistic Movement that Transformed Black America (PDF)

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  • Andrew Wilson
    Posted April 13, 2024 at 09:28

    Your opening paragraph makes me think of the current generation of young people, the Baby Boomers never had it so good but have not ensured a continuity of growth for those coming up and worse still, the feeling that war doesn’t belong (in Europe) anymore is teetering on the edge of a precipice – they might be called the disillusioned or disenfranchised generation…

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 19:37

      So many similarities between now and then, don’t you find?

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 13, 2024 at 18:47

    Andrew has a point… I was thinking about how the British were fighting in South Africa until 1902, disrupting an entire country while not being affected at home. This must have hit them hard.

    Ronel visiting for L: My Languishing TBR: L

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2024 at 19:52

      I think the Great War was shocking for the Western World in so many ways. A bit like the pandemic was for us. It feels like something that doesn’t belong to our world anymore… until it does.

  • Kristin Cleage
    Posted April 15, 2024 at 00:03

    Many people now do have a feeling of not being in control of anything. Of the world and their private lives spiraling downwards.
    The USA has been involved in various military actions and conflicts around the world since World war 2, at least.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2024 at 18:49

      You know? The more I learn about the Lost Generation, the more it sounds like us…

  • D.A.Cairns
    Posted April 15, 2024 at 09:39

    My 15 year old daughter was haring with me the other day about an English assessment she had on the anti war poetry of Wilfred Owen. 40 years ago, I studied Wilfred Owen. The lasting impact of literature birthed in the experience of war is undoubted and no less poignant for the passing of the years. As we say each April 25, ANZAC Day, ‘Lest We Forget’.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2024 at 18:52

      War is terrible. It brings out the worst of humanity… but also the best, I believe.
      The Great War in particular brought humanity down to it very core. In those trenches. people were (to use Tolkien’s words, who was there) “naked in the dark”.
      We do have a lot to learn from the people who walked in that darkness.

  • Linda Curry
    Posted April 30, 2024 at 20:24

    This is thought provoking writing about the effects of WW1 on literature. Interesting how different it was to all previous wars from a British perspective at least.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 3, 2024 at 18:53

      What fascinates me about WWI is that it was so new as an experience that basically made new the entire following century.
      It was a terrible time, but also a time of great innovations and discoveries that changed the lives of many nations. I almost want to say, everyone’s life.

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