Lost Generation is the generation that refers specifically to a group of American writers who came of age during the World War I and gained popularity in American Literature. The term also refers to the artists who rose to prominence between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression. However, in Britain, surprisingly, the term referred to those upper-class people who lost their lives during the World War I or who returned home with permanent physical disabilities. Such a huge loss, Britain believed, paralyzed the country for many years to come.
The term “lost generation” is coined by Gertrude Stein. It is said that she heard this term in France with reference to her auto- mechanic, who was referred as a member belonging to “une generation perdue”. This refers to the young workers’ poor auto- mechanic repair skills. Gertrude Stein uses this phrase to describe the people of the 1920’s. The people reject American post World War I values. The generation was “lost” in the sense that its inherited values were no longer relevant in the postwar world and because of its spiritual alienation from America, the place that seemed to the people to be hopelessly provincial, materialistic, and emotionally barren.
The period that followed World War I is known for its protest against the traditional ethical and moral values, social and cultural conventions, and aesthetic rules and regulations of the past. Decadence, disinterest and purposelessness are the distinguishing features of the literature produced during this period. There was the dominance of conservatism, Puritanism, and Prohibition. Artists belonging to different arts attempted to establish new values through their works. However, it doesn’t mean that there was a complete shift from the old to the new. There were some writers like Conrad Aiken and Elinor Wylie who preferred to stick to the old and traditional in their works. Among the artists of this period, there came a vogue of shifting to the places like Greenwich Village, Chicago, and San Francisco. Some of them even moved to Europe and continued to create their works.
The three best known writers of ‘The Lost Generation’ are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Others among the list are: Sherwood Anderson, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, Ford Maddox Ford and Zelda Fitzgerald. Initially, Gertrude Stein used this term in one of her remarks to Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway used it as an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises (1926).
Thus the “Lost Generation” defines a sense of moral loss or aimlessness apparent in literary figures during the 1920s. World War I destroyed the earlier ideas of morality. People now did not believe that virtuous act brings good things to the life. Many good, young men went to war and died, or returned home either physically or mentally disabled. Naturally, they had lost their faith in the moral and ethical aspects of life. This loss of faith marked them as ‘lost’.
In general, ‘the Lost Generation is a group of the post- World War I U.S. writers who specifically wrote during the war and established their literary reputations in the 1920s. The generation is said to be “lost” as it was not relevant in the post-war world in the sense that it inherited earlier moral values. The generation also represents its spiritual alienation from the U.S. After the War the then American President Warren G. Harding declared the policy “back to normalcy”. This seems to its members hopelessly provincial, materialistic, and emotionally barren. The term ‘lost generation’ embraces Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane, and many other writers. These writers had made Paris the centre of their literary activities in the ’20s. Actually, theirs was not a specific literary school. In the 1930s, these writers turned in different directions. Their works lost the distinctive stamp of the post-war period. The last representative works of the era are Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934) and Dos Passos’ The Big Money (1936).
The study of the works of this period shows these literary figures criticizing American culture. The choice of the themes like self-exile, indulgence, spiritual alienation and moral degradation throws ample light on the tendency of these writers. For example, Fitzgerald has nicely exhibited how the young generation of the time tired to cover up the overall sense of the depression and frustration by feigning to have lost in Jazz in his work, This Side of Paradise. The similar theme of illusory presence of happiness in the lives of his characters is depicted by Fitzgerald in his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Another writer of this generation, Hemingway, is known for his introducing the technique of omission. He believed that omission of some information can sometimes strengthen the plot of the novel. This technique is imitated by many writers afterwards. Even Hemingway replaced the florid prose of the Victorian era with a lean, clear prose based on action.
Thus the literary works created by the members of the ‘Lost Generation’ focus upon the current lifestyles of the American people. Such kind of treatment of the men and their manners was quite a new phenomenon in the literature of the time. Naturally, it had a long-lasting influence on the future generations of the writers and their works.