A lost generation: the literary landscape of 1920s Paris

Everyone knows about the Roaring Twenties – a period of cultural celebration in the aftermath of World War I, ushering in modernity and breaking with tradition. But the Lost Generation, a group of American writers and poets living in Paris in the 1920s, were concerned with post-war disillusionment, often expressing their cynicism about individualism and materialism.

Gertrude Stein first coined the term ‘lost generation’ to describe Hemingway and his contemporaries, criticising the young people who served in the war for engaging in decadent, self-indulgent lifestyles. It has now become the term that refers to the post-war generation, who experienced a sense of aimlessness and disorientation in a changed world, disconnected from the conservative ideals of their parents. Hemingway disagreed with Gertrude Stein’s comment, but ironically used the phrase as one of two epigraphs to his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), and it caught on. Many of these expatriate writers had volunteered as ambulance drivers during World War I, including Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, who was seriously injured at the Italian front. Three years later, he was in Paris, the artistic and literary capital of the western world at the time; there, he forged a network of connections with modernists James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others, featured in his memoir A Moveable Feast (1964).

The bookshop Shakespeare and Company was an important meeting point for expat writers, run by the American Sylvia Beach, whose company published James Joyce’s Ulysses, after Joyce had been unable to publish elsewhere. In France, the obscenity laws applied only to books published in French, which made the publication of modernist texts easier. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, for instance, was published by the Parisian, English-language Obelisk Press, despite its explicit sexual content. The Lost Generation often sought to break the boundaries of convention through their writing; traditional gender roles, for example, were subverted as perceptions of masculinity changed, and the fight for women’s suffrage progressed. The promiscuous heroine of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Brett, adopts typically masculine characteristics, particularly through her sexual aggression, contrasting the traditionally feminine behaviour of some of the male characters. Similarly, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby presents a challenge to norms of femininity through Jordan, who is bold and direct, pursues a career in the male-dominated field of professional golf, and is often described in masculine terms. Daisy, however, conforms to patriarchal ideals of women, and Gatsby pursues this distorted idea of her, representing the fallacy of the ‘American Dream’.

Djuna Barnes was also in Paris for the 1920s, drawn to the progressive movements that were burgeoning. She was influenced by the Dada artist and poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who became a radical pioneer of performance art. Barnes turned away from the late nineteenth century Decadent movement, and towards modernist experimentation; she was interested in the controversial, out of place, and even the grotesque. Her roman a clef, Ladies Almanack, catalogues the intrigues of Barnes’ lesbian network, centered in Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon in Paris. Fellow modernist writer and poet Mina Loy was a friend of Barnes and appeared in the novel as Patience Scalpel; she also played an important role in the Parisian ‘surreal scene’, particularly as the Paris agent for a big New York gallery. She refused to identify as a Surrealist due to its patriarchal treatment of women, but adapted the movement to a more feminist design, which she explored in her 1923 collection, Lunar Baedecker.

Evidently, the 1920s was a golden age for literary modernism, and Paris became a galvanised hub for these ideas, drawing all the most important authors, artists and poets to its centre.

Featured image: Patricia Luquet on Pexels    

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