The writers of the Lost Generation came of age during World War I, and penned profound works that leaned into the disillusionment and aimlessness hanging over the heads of the survivors post-war. Ironically, though the writers themselves may have felt lost, the literature that spawned from their feelings was far from it.
In fact, some of the most influential and enduring writers of all time hail from that period—the lost generation includes writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
But what is it about their works that make them so gripping to readers, even today?
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As Fitzgerald, Woolf, and the like cranked out their masterpieces during the roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression soon followed. The devastation of World War II came right after, with the Cold War hot on its trail. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic—so on and so forth until we reach today, with much of the world still at war or otherwise suffering. Once people realize the tumultuous state of the world, how can they ever go back to embracing an idealistic view?
One of the most notable works from the Lost Generation is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Published in 1925, this novel tackles the slow and painful death of the American Dream amidst the corruption running rampant through the frivolous nature of the wealthy. Through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, readers are guided through a cautionary tale about resistance to change, obsession, and excessive capitalism.
It’s easy enough to see how the social climate of today harkens back to a work nearly a century old. Between the race-driven police brutality, the countless lives derailed by a devastating pandemic, and the constant threat of detrimental climate change, any sense of security that Millennials and Generation Z scraped together in a post-9/11 world is crumbling—and a resistance to change is at the heart of it all.
As many yearned for a return to a mythologically simple way of life that may have never really existed, the media and commercially fueled idea of an unrealistic “better” future left all too many sidelined individuals and communities vulnerable. Much like the chaos fueled attempts to turn back the clock in The Great Gatsby led to unnecessary carnage, many lives have been senselessly lost as society seems determined to keep its blinders on.
However, unlike Fitzgerald's tragedy, Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises—published the following year in 1926—shrouds the loss of idealism with a glimmer of hope.
[Editor’s note: The term “lost generation” was popularized by Hemingway in the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises. In his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway gives credit to Gertrude Stein for the term. Years earlier, she had told him about a French garage owner who admonished one of his employees for not servicing her car quickly enough, yelling "You are all a génération perdue." Continuing, Stein noted, "That is what you are. That's what you all are...all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.]
On a surface level, this is a novel centered around a love story between Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, whose characters stand in as representatives of the people living in a post-war reality. Jake is wounded and irreparably damaged from battle, while Brett remains desperate for connection and reassurance—vulnerabilities which leave them open to the corruption of wealth and excess.
But this novel goes beyond the unlikely and doomed romance to touch on the resilience of the Lost Generation. Hemingway believed that though the survivors of World War I came away from the experience battered and jaded, they also emerged stronger.
The beliefs present in Hemingway’s novel—separate of the rampant antisemitism, which certainly detract from the inspiration of the work—bear interesting parallels to the actions of today’s generations.
Coming out on the other side of a pandemic, we have proven that we can support each other by sharing resources and making personal sacrifices. And after decades of society and its authority figures digging in their heels to avoid addressing systemic racism, the Black community has loudly and boldly asserted that they’re not going anywhere, and they and their allies have committed to tackling that enduring resistance to change.
“Perhaps every generation thinks of itself as a lost generation and perhaps every generation is right.”—Fear of Fifty, Erica Jong
There’s a certain irony in attributing the continuing relevance of novels centered around a resistance to change to the repeating nature of history. The mentioned works above, as well as many other novels, including Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and William Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay, focus on the deep psychological wounds left behind from the incomparable tragedies of World War I.
These works, often mythologized semi-autobiographical stories, speak to the ways in which pain does not end when war and other hardships find their conclusions. And the Great War was just the beginning of the back to back hardships the world would be faced with, allowing the traumas and psychological blows to stack.
The novels of the Lost Generation are so much more than required reading in high schools across America. They are some of the first honest looks into the tumultuous consequences that follow large-scale conflicts. These true and candid accounts allow for that greater connection that so many of the disillusioned yearn for in the wake of such tragedies.
Maybe in another one hundred years, the criticisms, pains, and desires woven into these works won’t be as apt—maybe that resistance to change will start to crumble. But even then, these poignant novels act as a snapshot of the beginning of the end. As eyes opened to the pointless destruction and immoralities of the world, they could never completely close again. And that’s a good thing.
In her book Fear of Fifty, Erica Jong aptly writes, “Perhaps every generation thinks of itself as a lost generation and perhaps every generation is right.” She may have a point.
But as beloved Lost Generation author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” Hopefully, he has a point, too.