Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s

By Malcolm Cowley; Donald W. Faulkner | Go to book overview
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Prologue: The Lost Generation

This book is the story to 1930 of what used to be called the lost generation of American writers. It was Gertrude Stein who first applied the phrase to them. "You are all a lost generation," she said to Ernest Hemingway, and Hemingway used the remark as an inscription for his first novel. It was a good novel and became a craze--young men tried to get as imperturbably drunk as the hero, young women of good families took a succession of lovers in the same heartbroken fashion as the heroine, they all talked like Hemingway characters and the name was fixed. I don't think there was any self-pity in it. Scott Fitzgerald sometimes pitied himself, and with reason. Hart Crane used to say that he was "caught like a rat in a trap"; but neither Crane nor Fitzgerald talked about being part of a lost generation. Most of those who used the phrase about themselves were a little younger and knew they were boasting. They were like Kipling's gentlemen rankers out on a spree and they wanted to have it understood that they truly belonged "To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned." Later they learned to speak the phrase apologetically, as if in quotation marks, and still later it was applied to other age groups, each of which was described in turn as being the real lost generation; none genuine without the trademark. In the beginning, however, when the phrase was applied to young writers born in the years around 1900, it was as useful as any half-accurate tag could be.

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