Though never a closed and coherent movement as such, the Lost Generation refers to a group of (mostly, though not exclusively) American writers and thinkers who found themselves disillusioned with and cast adrift from post-war American society during the 1920s, often settling in Paris where they pursued more artistically liberated lifestyles. When used in its literary context, the term “the lost generation” has been attributed to Gertrude Stein by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway himself, however, took exception to the term. This article lists six notable writers and thinkers often associated with the lost generation and asks whether – as Hemingway suspected – the lost generation should be considered something of a misnomer.
1. Gertrude Stein
Though she was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on 3 February 1874, Gertrude Stein spent time in Vienna and Paris as a child before moving to Paris as an adult in 1903, where she would remain until her death in 1947. Here, she hosted a literary and artistic salon, where she gathered around her the leading artists and writers in Paris at the time, including (at various points) Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henri Matisse, Francis Picabia, and Carl Van Vechten.
It was also in Paris where she met another American abroad who would go on to have a profound impact on the rest of her life. On 8 September 1907, Stein met Alice Toklas, with Toklas having just arrived in Paris that very day. They soon became lovers, with Toklas taking on the domestic duties, and would remain together until Stein’s death. Toklas developed a passion for French cuisine and would cook elaborate meals not just for Stein but for Stein’s esteemed artistic and literary guests. And while Stein entertained the members of her salon, Toklas entertained the wives and partners of the artists and writers in attendance.
Stein’s commitment to Parisian life was unparalleled by anyone else associated with the lost generation. Even during the Second World War, when France came under Nazi occupation in June 1940, Stein resisted the exhortations of friends and family members to leave Paris and return to the United States, claiming that to leave Paris “would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food.”
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Life in Nazi-occupied France would have been extremely dangerous for a Jewish woman such as Stein. The fact that she survived the war has led to speculation that she collaborated with Vichy France – a regime that saw over 75,000 Jews deported from France to Nazi concentration camps – to secure her own safety. Although she was never prosecuted for her collaboration, she continued to express her allegiance to Marshal Pétain, a Nazi collaborator and leader of Vichy France, even after the war was over.
2. Sylvia Beach
Born on 14 March 1887 in Baltimore, Maryland, Sylvia Beach, like Gertrude Stein, had spent time in Paris as a child when the Beach family moved there when her father, Sylvester, was made an assistant minister of the American Church in Paris in 1901. The family returned to the United States in 1906, and during the First World War, Sylvia worked for the Balkan Commission of the Red Cross. Following her time spent in Europe as part of her work with the war effort, she decided to return to Paris to study contemporary French literature.
It was in Paris at this time that she met Adrienne Monnier, owner of the bookshop and lending library La Maison des Amis des Livres. The two became lovers and stayed together until Monnier’s death by suicide in 1955. With Monnier’s help, she went on to found the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop.
Here, she was approached by James Joyce, who asked Beach to help publish his novel, Ulysses. At her own financial and personal risk, Beach published Ulysses in 1922. A year later, she was also instrumental in publishing and disseminating Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems.
However, Beach received little financial gain from the publication of Ulysses. Despite having published his novel, advocated on his behalf during copyright disputes, and contacted potential reviewers, Joyce sold the rights to his book to Random House.
3. T. S. Eliot
While most members of the lost generation are associated with Paris, T. S. Eliot’s stint in the French capital was relatively brief. From 1910 to 1911, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he was influenced by Henri Bergson and Henri Alban-Fournier. He continued to visit Paris after this stay.
London, rather than Paris, was to be the European city where Eliot settled. He first came to England in 1914 to take up a scholarship at Merton College, Oxford University, where he was to study for his doctorate. Merton College had a relatively large quota of American students at the time. Nonetheless, Eliot struggled to feel at home in Oxford and instead spent most of his time in London, where he met Ezra Pound and other important literary figures of the time.
His marriage to the English Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915 also further committed Eliot to live in London. It was to prove an unhappy union, however, and Eliot channeled this unhappiness – as well as a sense of wider cultural disenchantment – into his seminal 1922 poem, “The Waste Land.”
Even once Eliot and Vivienne had separated; however, Eliot remained in London, taking British citizenship and converting from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. While other members of the lost generation valued Paris for the freedom it allowed them in contrast with American society, Eliot seemed determined to ensconce himself in British establishment values during his time in London, declaring himself a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”
4. E. E. Cummings
Edward Estlin Cummings was born on 14 October 1894 to Unitarian parents (much like T. S. Eliot), who recognized and nurtured his literary talents from a young age. Also like Eliot, Cummings studied at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude in 1915.
In 1917, he enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in order to support the war effort. Before taking up his official duties, however, he spent five weeks exploring Paris and fell in love with the city. His relationship with France was not always smooth sailing, however. During his work in the Ambulance Corps, he was imprisoned in a French military detention camp in Normandy, as the French officials suspected his loyalties. He later drew on his experience in military detention in his 1922 novel, The Enormous Room.
Upon his return to the United States in 1918, he was drafted into the army. Following his release, he returned to Paris in 1921, where he lived for the next two years. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, he continued to visit Paris. Nonetheless, Cummings never settled there, preferring to visit regularly while maintaining close ties to America.
5. F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald is most famous for his novelistic depictions of the American jazz age in all its flamboyance and excess. However, his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, was finished during his travels in Europe.
Fitzgerald left America for Europe in 1924, along with his wife Zelda and young daughter Frances. Having already begun work on The Great Gatsby in 1923, he finished the novel during their stay on the French Riviera. Here, marital tensions with Zelda reached their peak, and the family moved around Europe, settling first in Rome before splitting their time between the French Riviera and Paris.
It was during their time in Paris that Fitzgerald met other figures now associated with the lost generation, including Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and Ernest Hemingway. While Fitzgerald and Hemingway struck up a friendship, Hemingway disliked Zelda, believing that she hampered Fitzgerald’s ambitions to be a serious writer. It was true that their marriage had never been a particularly happy one, but when the Fitzgerald family returned to the United States in 1926, their marriage was in tatters.
Things were soon to get even worse for Fitzgerald during the Great Depression. His tales of flappers and flamboyant parties seemed out of touch with Depression-era America. As the critic Matthew Josephson quipped in 1933, most Americans could not afford to vacation in Paris and drink champagne. While this, of course, was true of most Americans even before the Depression, it was even more evident in light of America’s economic downturn. Upon his death in 1940, Fitzgerald believed that his career as a writer had been a failure.
6. Ernest Hemingway
Born 21 July 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway is often seen as an all-American writer. However, some of his earliest formative experiences were owed to his service as a volunteer ambulance driver on the Italian frontline in the First World War. Having been rejected from the US army due to poor eyesight, Hemingway went on to be awarded the Italian War Merit Cross (the Croce al Merito di Guerra), aged just eighteen. His wartime experiences were later fictionalized in his novel, A Farewell to Arms.
After the war, he returned to America, though he was eager to pursue his dream of becoming a writer in Paris. The move to Paris had also been advised by Sherwood Anderson, and, as life in Paris was comparatively cheap at that time, there were also practical financial motivations, such as a favorable exchange rate – as well as the city’s literary and artistic cachet – for Hemingway to take into account.
In 1921, he married Hadley Richardson, and the couple moved to Paris. Working as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star Weekly, here in Paris, Hemingway met Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein and became part of a community of expat writers who would come to be known as the lost generation. As a matter of fact, Stein became godmother to Hemingway’s son, Jack, and he popularized the term “the lost generation” (which had been coined by Stein) in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. However, by the time Hemingway left Paris in 1927, he and Stein were estranged.
This article began by posing the question: is the lost generation something of a misnomer? Certainly, Hemingway came to think so. While the main characters in The Sun Also Rises can be described as disillusioned and adrift, the novel’s title is taken from Ecclesiastes, which is quoted as one of the novel’s epigraphs: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose…” (see Further Reading, Hemingway).
This passage is ironically juxtaposed with Stein’s statement: “You are all a lost generation.” By placing these two statements side by side, Hemingway seems to ironize Stein’s pronouncement, suggesting as he does that, for all the social upheaval and the horrors of the First World War, this generation had emerged from the war-scarred but stronger, and certainly not “lost.”
Cummings, E. E., selected poems: 1923-1958 (London: Faber and Faber, 1997).
Eliot, T. S., The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 2004).
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby (London: Penguin, 2000).
Hemingway, Ernest, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (London: Arrow Books, 2004).
Hemingway, Ernest, A Moveable Feast (London: Arrow Books, 2000).
Rhys, Jean, Good Morning, Midnight (London: Penguin, 2000).
Stein, Gertrude, Three Lives (London: Penguin, 1990).