Although American prose between the wars experimented with viewpoint and form, Americans wrote more realistically, on the whole, than did Europeans. Novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote of war, hunting, and other masculine pursuits in a stripped, plain style; William Faulkner set his powerful southern novels spanning generations and cultures firmly in Mississippi heat and dust; and Sinclair Lewis delineated bourgeois lives with ironic clarity. The importance of facing reality became a dominant theme in the 1920s and 1930s: Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and the playwright Eugene O’Neill repeatedly portrayed the tragedy awaiting those who live in flimsy dreams.
The Lost Generation
American poet Gertrude Stein actually coined the expression “lost generation.” Speaking to Ernest Hemingway, she said, “you are all a lost generation.” The term stuck and the mystique surrounding these individuals continues to fascinate us. Seeking the bohemian lifestyle and rejecting the values of American materialism, a number of intellectuals, poets, artists and writers fled to France in the post World War I years. Paris was the center of it all. Significant members included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Peirce, and Gertrude Stein herself. More generally, the term is being used for the generation of young people coming of age in the United States during and shortly after World War I. For this reason, the generation is sometimes known as the World War I Generation or the Roaring 20s Generation.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Few writers have lived as colorfully as Ernest Hemingway, whose career could have come out of one his adventurous novels. Like Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and many other fine novelists of the 20th century, Hemingway came from the U.S. Midwest. Born in Illinois, Hemingway spent childhood vacations in Michigan on hunting and fishing trips. He volunteered for an ambulance unit in France during World War I, but was wounded and hospitalized for six months. After the war, as a war correspondent based in Paris, he met expatriate American writers Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Stein, in particular, influenced his spare style.
After his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) brought him fame, he covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the fighting in China in the 1940s. On a safari in Africa, he was badly injured when his small plane crashed; still, he continued to enjoy hunting and sport fishing, activities that inspired some of his best work. The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a short poetic novel about a poor, old fisherman who heroically catches a huge fish devoured by sharks, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1953; the next year he received the Nobel Prize. Discouraged by a troubled family background, illness, and the belief that he was losing his gift for writing, Hemingway shot himself to death in 1961.
Hemingway is arguably the most popular American novelist of this century. His sympathies are basically apolitical and humanistic, and in this sense he is universal. His simple style makes his novels easy to comprehend, and they are often set in exotic surroundings. A believer in the “cult of experience,” Hemingway often involved his characters in dangerous situations in order to reveal their inner natures; in his later works, the danger sometimes becomes an occasion for masculine assertion.
Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway became a spokesperson for his generation. But instead of painting its fatal glamour as did Fitzgerald, who never fought in World War I, Hemingway wrote of war, death, and the “lost generation” of cynical survivors. His characters are not dreamers but tough bullfighters, soldiers, and athletes. If intellectual, they are deeply scarred and disillusioned.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 for his “mastery of the art of modern narration,” Hemingway used a spare and tight journalistic type of prose. He used the objective, detached point of view and his vocabulary and sentence structure are deceptively simple. He has written about failure, moral bankruptcy, death, deception, and sterility in the post World War I society. His “code-heroes” are characters with inner moral discipline who are usually involved with rituals like bullfighting, big-game hunting, and fishing.
His hallmark is a clean style devoid of unnecessary words. Often he uses understatement: In A Farewell to Arms (1929) the heroine dies in childbirth saying “I’m not a bit afraid. It’s just a dirty trick.” He once compared his writing to icebergs: “There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows.”
Hemingway’s fine ear for dialogue and exact description shows in his excellent short stories, such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Critical opinion, in fact, generally holds his short stories equal or superior to his novels. His best novels include The Sun Also Rises, about the demoralized life of expatriates after World War I; A Farewell to Arms, about the tragic love affair of an American soldier and an English nurse during the war; For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Old Man and the Sea.
Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
– Death In the Afternoon, Scribner’s, 1932, Chap. 16, 192.
Grace Under Pressure
“DP: `Exactly what do you mean by `guts’?’
EH: `I mean, grace under pressure.'”
–Ernest Hemingway, an interview with Dorothy Parker, New Yorker, 30 November 1929
Fizgerald and the Roaring Twenties
To many, World War 1 was a tragic failure of old values, of old politics, of old ideas. The social mood was often one of confusion and despair. Yet, on the surface the mood in America during the 1920s did not seem desperate. Instead, Americans entered a decade of prosperity and exhibitionism that prohibition, the legal ban against alcoholic beverages,did more to encourage than to curb. Fashions were extravagant; more and more automobiles crowded the roads, advertising flourished; and nearly every American home had a radio . Fads swept the nation. People danced the Charleston, and they sat upon the flagpoles. This was the Jazz Age, when New Orleans musicians moved “up the river” to Chicago, and the theatre of New York’s Harlem pulsed with the music that had become a symbol of the times. These were the Roaring Twenties. The roaring of the decade served to ask a quiet pain, the sense of loss that Gertrude Stein had observed in Paris. F. Scott. Fitzgerald portrays the Jazz Age as a generation of “ the beautiful and the damned”, drowning in their pleasures.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s life resembles a fairy tale. During World War I, Fitzgerald enlisted in the U.S. Army and fell in love with a rich and beautiful girl, Zelda Sayre, who lived near Montgomery, Alabama, where he was stationed. Zelda broke off their engagement because he was relatively poor. After he was discharged at war’s end, he went to seek his literary fortune in New York City in order to marry her.
His first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), became a best- seller, and at 24 they married. Neither of them was able to withstand the stresses of success and fame, and they squandered their money. They moved to France to economize in 1924 and returned seven years later. Zelda became mentally unstable and had to be institutionalized; Fitzgerald himself became an alcoholic and died young as a movie screenwriter.
Fitzgerald’s secure place in American literature rests primarily on his novel The Great Gatsby (1925), a brilliantly written, economically structured story about the American dream of the self-made man. The protagonist, the mysterious Jay Gatsby, discovers the devastating cost of success in terms of personal fulfillment and love. Other fine works include Tender Is the Night (1934), about a young psychiatrist whose life is doomed by his marriage to an unstable woman, and some stories in the collections Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), and All the Sad Young Men (1926). More than any other writer, Fitzgerald captured the glittering, desperate life of the 1920s; This Side of Paradise was heralded as the voice of modern American youth. His second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), continued his exploration of the self-destructive extravagance of his times.
Fitzgerald’s special qualities include a dazzling style perfectly suited to his theme of seductive glamour. A famous section from The Great Gatsby masterfully summarizes a long passage of time: “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
The Great Gatsby
Fitzgerald was the most famous chronicler of 1920s America, an era that he dubbed “the Jazz Age.” Written in 1925, The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest literary documents of this period, in which the American economy soared, bringing unprecedented levels of prosperity to the nation. Prohibition, the ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1919), made millionaires out of bootleggers, and an underground culture of revelry sprang up. Sprawling private parties managed to elude police notice, and “speakeasies”—secret clubs that sold liquor—thrived. The chaos and violence of World War I left America in a state of shock, and the generation that fought the war turned to wild and extravagant living to compensate. The staid conservatism and timeworn values of the previous decade were turned on their ear, as money, opulence, and exuberance became the order of the day.
Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found this new lifestyle seductive and exciting, and, like Gatsby, he had always idolized the very rich. Now he found himself in an era in which unrestrained materialism set the tone of society, particularly in the large cities of the East. Even so, like Nick, Fitzgerald saw through the glitter of the Jazz Age to the moral emptiness and hypocrisy beneath, and part of him longed for this absent moral center. In many ways, The Great Gatsby represents Fitzgerald’s attempt to confront his conflicting feelings about the Jazz Age. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald was driven by his love for a woman who symbolized everything he wanted, even as she led him toward everything he despised.
The Decline of the American Dream in the 1920s
On the surface, The Great Gatsby is a story of the thwarted love between a man and a woman. The main theme of the novel, however, encompasses a much larger, less romantic scope. Though all of its action takes place over a mere few months during the summer of 1922 and is set in a circumscribed geographical area in the vicinity of Long Island, New York, The Great Gatsby is a highly symbolic meditation on 1920s America as a whole, in particular the disintegration of the American dream in an era of unprecedented prosperity and material excess.
Fitzgerald portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, evidenced in its overarching cynicism, greed, and empty pursuit of pleasure. The reckless jubilance that led to decadent parties and wild jazz music—epitomized in The Great Gatsby by the opulent parties that Gatsby throws every Saturday night—resulted ultimately in the corruption of the American dream, as the unrestrained desire for money and pleasure surpassed more noble goals. When World War I ended in 1918, the generation of young Americans who had fought the war became intensely disillusioned, as the brutal carnage that they had just faced made the Victorian social morality of early-twentieth-century America seem like stuffy, empty hypocrisy. The dizzying rise of the stock market in the aftermath of the war led to a sudden, sustained increase in the national wealth and a newfound materialism, as people began to spend and consume at unprecedented levels. A person from any social background could, potentially, make a fortune, but the American aristocracy—families with old wealth—scorned the newly rich industrialists and speculators. Additionally, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, which banned the sale of alcohol, created a thriving underworld designed to satisfy the massive demand for bootleg liquor among rich and poor alike.
Fitzgerald positions the characters of The Great Gatsby as emblems of these social trends. Nick and Gatsby, both of whom fought in World War I, exhibit the newfound cosmopolitanism and cynicism that resulted from the war. The various social climbers and ambitious speculators who attend Gatsby’s parties evidence the greedy scramble for wealth. The clash between “old money” and “new money” manifests itself in the novel’s symbolic geography: East Egg represents the established aristocracy, West Egg the self-made rich. Meyer Wolfshiem and Gatsby’s fortune symbolize the rise of organized crime and bootlegging.
As Fitzgerald saw it (and as Nick explains in Chapter IX), the American dream was originally about discovery, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. In the 1920s depicted in the novel, however, easy money and relaxed social values have corrupted this dream, especially on the East Coast. The main plotline of the novel reflects this assessment, as Gatsby’s dream of loving Daisy is ruined by the difference in their respective social statuses, his resorting to crime to make enough money to impress her, and the rampant materialism that characterizes her lifestyle. Additionally, places and objects in The Great Gatsby have meaning only because characters instill them with meaning: the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg best exemplify this idea. In Nick’s mind, the ability to create meaningful symbols constitutes a central component of the American dream, as early Americans invested their new nation with their own ideals and values.
Nick compares the green bulk of America rising from the ocean to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Just as Americans have given America meaning through their dreams for their own lives, Gatsby instills Daisy with a kind of idealized perfection that she neither deserves nor possesses. Gatsby’s dream is ruined by the unworthiness of its object, just as the American dream in the 1920s is ruined by the unworthiness of its object—money and pleasure. Like 1920s Americans in general, fruitlessly seeking a bygone era in which their dreams had value, Gatsby longs to re-create a vanished past—his time in Louisville with Daisy—but is incapable of doing so. When his dream crumbles, all that is left for Gatsby to do is die; all Nick can do is move back to Minnesota, where American values have not decayed.