Gratitude Friday 02/17/23 – Lost Generation Writers
“After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, is is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.” ― Gertrude Stein,
Last week was the anniversary of the birth of Gertrude Stein, an American writer who held significant influence over artistic expression in the period between the first and second world wars. She coined the term Lost Generation, a group of American writers who came of age during World War I and established their literary reputations in the 1920s. The term is also used more generally to refer to the post-World War I generation. It is a fascinating era of history. The world that came before WWI was gone. There was loss of life on a magnitude we can barely comprehend. The war alone had 40 million casualties, including 20 million deaths. It was followed by the 1918 flu pandemic that resulted in an additional 50 million deaths or roughly 1% of the world population. It was a time of upheaval, uncertainty, loss and change.
Everyone alive in that era had seen the world move from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing orientation. There were fairly staid values and traditions to one in which values and culture were rapidly shifting in ways it had not done before. We were post war and there was an alienation to the values that had come before as they no longer spoke to the needs of the newly emerging society. This bleak period of world history was followed by the Roaring 20s, which for much of the developed world beyond Germany was a period of optimism and economic growth. Writers and artists went through their formative years in a world that was rapidly changing and grim and ended up being at the center of expression in the 1920s.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the poet W.H. Auden who came of age in this era. He said “we are all here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for, I don't know.” The disorientation of the times provides context for the quote, which still rings true in the world of rapid change we all live in now.
Who were the writers of the lost generation? Among others, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and C.S. Lewis. Their work has had a lot of influence on how we think of our world. This is perhaps as noted above a result of profound disorientation in the world they lived in. Artists and writers help us to create narrative and context to the world. Those artists and thinkers who live in times of profound change help the rest of us to move forward.
A number of the writers listed above were heavy substance users. Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway drank heavily and with consequences as did C.S. Lewis. Steinbeck wrote about it in the Grapes of Wrath. Again, context matters and they lived through a period of loss and change that is well beyond what we are experiencing now even as we are in an era where people are turning to substances to cope.
In many ways, we are in a lost generation era now. Those of my generation were raised in a world that seems barely recognizable now. I was born in a time of paper and pen, when the few computers that existed were larger than houses. The average cell phone we carry around today has more computational power than all the computers that NASA had in 1970. Such dramatic changes have occurred across out entire society. What remains true in our era, those who are among our deep thinkers, our most creative people help us get through transitional eras and help us find meaning and purpose during eras of turmoil. The Auden quote resonates with me because it speaks to the basic truth of being useful to each other even when we have no idea on what comes next or much else about what is true.
I find myself embracing art in all of its forms in times of uncertainty. Happy Birthday, Gertrude Stein. You and your generation were gone before I got to the party, but you left your mark. History helps us see more clearly how to navigate uncertain times through the eyes of those who lived through them. Your example provides significant context to our own challenges. If they found their way and made their mark, so can we! I am grateful for the lost generation writers and the treasures they gave us.
What are you grateful for today?