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'Lost Generation' lives on thanks to literary greats

World War I signaled a shift from romanticized notions of war

POSTED: July 27, 2014 1:00 a.m.
/AP Photo/Imperial War Museum

British soldiers with guns and shovels pose in Fleurbaix, France, during World War I. The "Great War," as it was then known, began 100 years ago Monday.

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“You are all a lost generation.”

Serving as an epigraph to his novel “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway took this famous phrase from friend and writer Gertrude Stein while living in Paris after World War I.

It was meant to convey the disillusioned attitudes and beliefs of the post-war generation, the loss of faith in progress and human dignity.

In a more literal sense, the Lost Generation reflected the heavy toll of the war, which cost tens of millions of lives.

And, when coupled with a worldwide flu pandemic that killed tens of millions more between 1918 and 1920, the Lost Generation takes on a whole new meaning.

The literature that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the war captured this sense of loss in stark, real terms, dispensing with the grandiose language of the past and signaling a shift from the romanticized notions of war that previously existed among artists.

Monday marks the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I, known at the time as the Great War, and the literature of that era still resonates.

Indeed, its influence on Western culture is persistent, representing a turning point, or demarcation line, between the old and the new.

“That whole phenomena of the swelling of modern literature, art and music had a full head of steam before the first World War came along,” said Jed Rasula, head of the department of English at the University of Georgia.

While poetry found an audience during the conflict, once the war ended, modern literature and the arts truly began to flourish across the Western world and marked a change in subject matter, style and tone.

“It’s like after a blackout when the lights come back on,” Rasula said.

Names like Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald are still read in high school classrooms and on college campuses nearly a century later.

And their influence on generations of writers since is unmistakable.

Even those writers who askew the style of Hemingway — which, for example, was marked by short, direct sentences and lots of action — inevitably compare their differences.

“It’s still a shadow that everyone stands under to this day,” Rasula said. “There’s just never really been anything quite like it since then.”

But perhaps the biggest change ushered in by the literature of this era centered on its view of war.

The horror of trench warfare, which so defined WWI, irrevocably altered the Lost Generation’s perception of conflict.

For example, one of the most famous poems to emerge from the war is “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian John McCrae while fighting in Belgium in May 1915.

The image McCrae conveys of poppies quickly sprouting around the graves of the war dead is one the lasting images of the 20th century.

“It’s just so visceral, that image,” said Glen Kyle, director of the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University.

Red poppies have been used as a symbolic sign honoring those who fought and died in wars ever since.

But, perhaps because it was written in the early years of the war, the poem proceeds to encourage soldiers to continue the fight, to gain their due honor and glory.

By the end of the war, this feeling seemed lost on everyone, particularly the creative class. There was no honor left to bestow, no glory left to claim.

And the writers who had experienced the war in its grisly, tragic wrath, forwent much of their idealism in favor of realism.

“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain,” Hemingway wrote in “A Farewell To Arms.”

“We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other publications, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards in Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”

In retrospect, Kyle said, the war is viewed as anything but triumphant, rather more of a waste, “a failure of the nation state rather than its crowning achievement.”

As anti-war laments seeped into the literature of the era, especially in fiction, the war came to be seen as a great catastrophe. Patriotic fervor gave way.

“They didn’t believe in the utopian delusions now espoused by the left and the right in the United States,” said Gainesville resident Sidney O. Smith III. “Instead, they were realists, at least the ones I most admire. Let’s face it; it looks like war will be with us until the end. But they send a warning: Watch out. Don’t be fooled by politicians who want to send your children to war. This Lost Generation crowd, in my opinion, had empathy for those headed into war, your average Joes, and now Jills.”

But as modern literature began to address subjects and lifestyles and worldviews outside the norm, it became more and more difficult to get such works published.

“The real constraint was: Could you be realistic in your use of language and have your book published?” Rasula said. “Well, in the United States and Great Britain, the answer was no.”

Indeed, obscenity charges were lodged against books that have stood the test of time and now fall into the canon of great Western literature, such as James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

Of course, in some ways the obscenity charges made books and their authors more famous than they might otherwise have been.

But as time goes on, is the Lost Generation’s influence slowly waning? Is the appeal of Hemingway, for example, lost on today’s youth?

Perhaps it depends on who you ask.

“Unfortunately, most of the writers from the Lost Generation are for the most part literary reads,” said Hall County Library System Director Adrian Mixson.

“If Hemingway and Fitzgerald did not have the mystique of character, I am not sure if they would not be lost — or at least their books — to most of the world. Kids discover them in high school literature classes or college and a few see a movie retake and decide to read the book. But most readers interested in World War I prefer nonfiction or the movies. And it is a shame.”



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