The outline of the period (43047)

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The outline of the period


In many respects the period between the end of World War I and the end of World War II was one of sharp discontinuities. Few eras in American history present such vivid contrasts compressed into so short a time.

Politically, the nation experienced what many considered a fundamental change after the election of 1920. For a full decade, the government remained in the hands of the Republican party and—for eight of those years at least—in the hands of two conservative presidents who rejected most of the liberal assumptions of the progressive era. An age of reform seemed to have given way to an era of reaction.

Economically, the nation experienced equally profound shifts. Beginning in 1921 the American economy embarked on a period of growth without precedent in the history of the world. The nation's industrial capacity grew rapidly; the income of its citizens soared; America's position in world trade became one of unrivaled supremacy. And the American corporate world, after having been on the defensive for many years, basked in a widespread public popularity that turned once-despised captains of industry into national heroes. Then, starting with a dramatic stock market crash in 1929, the imposing economic edifice collapsed, and the country entered the worst economic crisis in its history. Industrial production declined; new investment virtually ceased; unemployment reached epic proportions.

Culturally, there seemed to be equally sharp contrasts. In the 1920s a bitter conflict emerged between the forces of modernism associated with the new urban-industrial society and the forces of traditionalism associated with more provincial, often rural communities. On issues such as prohibition, religion, and race, the tensions between the new society and the old were vividly displayed. In the 1930s, by contrast, the nation's outlook appeared to shift dramatically. Cultural divisions now seemed less important than economic ones, and the controversies of the 1930s centered less on questions of values than on questions of wealth and power.

Americans in the 1920s experienced a series of profound changes in the way they lived and thought. A new urban culture emerged that helped people in all regions to live their lives and perceive their world in increasingly similar ways; and it exposed them to a new set of values that reflected the prosperity and complexity of the modern economy.

To a generation of artists and intellectuals coming of age in the 1920s, the new society in which they lived was even more disturbing. Many were experiencing a disenchantment with modern America so fundamental that they were often able to view it only with contempt. As a result, they adopted a role sharply different from that of most intellectuals of earlier eras. Rather than involving themselves with their society's popular or political culture and attempting to influence and reform the mass of their countrymen, they isolated themselves and embarked on a restless search for personal fulfillment. Gertrude Stein once referred to the young Americans emerging from World War I as a "Lost Generation." For many writers and intellectuals, at least, it was an apt description.

At the heart of the Lost Generation's critique of modern society was a sense of personal alienation, a belief that contemporary America no longer provided the individual with avenues by which he or she could achieve personal fulfillment. Modern life, they argued, was cold, impersonal, materialistic, and thus meaningless. The sensitive individual could find no happiness in the mainstream of American society.

This disillusionment had its roots in many things, but in nothing so deeply as the experience of World War I. To those who had fought in France and experienced the horror and savagery of modern warfare—and even to those who had not fought but who nevertheless had been aware of the appalling costs of the struggle—the aftermath of the conflict was shattering. Nothing, it seemed, had been gained. The war had been a fraud; the suffering and the dying had been in vain. Ernest Hemingway, one of the most celebrated (and most commercially successful) of the new breed of writers, expressed the generation's contempt for the war in his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929). Its hero, an American officer fighting in Europe, decides that there is no justification for his participation in the conflict and deserts the army with a nurse with whom he has fallen in love. Hemingway made it clear that he was to be admired for doing so.

At least equally dispiriting was the character of the nation these young intellectuals found on their return home at war's end. It was, they believed, a society utterly lacking in vision or idealism, obsessed with materialism, steeped in outmoded, priggish morality. Worst of all, it was one in which the individual had lost the ability to control his or her own fate. It was a sleek, new, industrialized and professionalized world that was organized in a dehumanizing way.

Intellectuals of the 1920s turned their backs on the traditional goals of their parents. They claimed to reject the "success ethic" that they believed dominated American life (even though many of them hoped for—and a few achieved—commercial and critical success on their own terms). F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), established him as a spokesman for his generation, ridiculed the American obsession with material success in The Great Gatsby (1925), The novel's hero, Jay Gatsby, spends his life accumulating wealth and social prestige in order to win the woman he loves. The world to which he has aspired, however, turns out to be one of pretension, fraud, and cruelty, and Gatsby is ultimately destroyed by it. Fitzgerald and his intellectual contemporaries claimed to want nothing to do with conventional American society (although Fitzgerald himself seemed at the same time desperately to crave acceptance by it). They chose, instead, to search elsewhere for fulfillment.

Their quest took them in several different directions, often at the same time. Many Lost Generation intellectuals left America to live in France, making Paris for a time a center of American artistic life. Some adopted hedonistic life styles, indulging in conspicuous debauchery: drinking, drugs, casual sex, wild parties, and a generally flamboyant way of life. (The publicity they received helped set the tone for other less alienated members of their generation, who began to imitate this uninhibited pursuit of pleasure.) Many intellectuals resorted to an outspoken self-absorption, openly repudiating any responsibility for anyone but themselves. For most of these young men and women, however, the only real refuge from the travails of modern society was art—not art for any social purpose, but art for its own sake. Only art, they argued, could allow them full individual expression; only the act of creation could offer them fulfillment.

The result of this quest for fulfillment through art was not, for the most part, personal satisfaction for the writers and artists involved. They remained throughout the 1920s a restless, usually unhappy generation, searching in vain for contentment. They did, however, produce a body of work that made the decade one of the great eras of American art. Most notable were the writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lewis, as well as others such as Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Eugene O'Neill—the first great American playwright and the only one ever to win a Nobel Prize. T. S. Eliot, a native of Boston who spent most of his adult life in England, led a generation of poets in breaking with the romanticism of the nineteenth century. His epic work The Waste Land (1922) brought to poetry much of the harsh tone of despair that was invading other areas of literature.

The writers of the 1920s were notable not only for the effectiveness of their critiques but for their success in pioneering new literary styles and techniques. Some incorporated Freudian psychology into their work, using literature to explore the workings of the psyche as well as the external actions of characters. Others produced innovations in form, structure, and dialogue: Ernest Hemingway, with his spare, clean prose; Sinclair Lewis, with his biting satire; John Dos Passos, with his use of the techniques of journalism as well as of literature. The literature of the 1920s was escapist; but it was also intensely creative, even revolutionary.

The term “Lost Generation” was coined by Gertrude Stein to refer to a group of American literary notables who lived in Paris from the time period which saw the end of World War I to the beginning of the Great Depression. Significant members included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Peirce, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein herself. It would be Hemingway who would popularize the term, quoting Stein, “You are all a lost generation,” as an epigraph to his novel, The Sun Also Rises.

The “Lost Generation” were said to be disillusioned by the large number of casualties of the Great World War, cynical, disdainful of the Victorian notions of morality and propriety of their elders. It was somewhat common among members of this group to complain that American artistic culture lacked the extensiveness of European work, which lead to many members spending large amounts of time in Europe. They also complained that all topics worth treating in a literary work had already been covered. No matter, this period would see an explosion in American literature and art, which is now considered to include some of the greatest literary classics produced by American writers. This generation also produced the first flowering of jazz music, arguably the first distinct American art form. The enriching gifts from the Lost Generation included: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Waste Land (T. S. Eliot), The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway), Babbitt (Sinclair Lewis), The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner), among many others.


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