The Lost Generation and the Writers Who Described Their World

Party scene from the movie “The Great Gatsby”
Actress Betty Field Dances in Party Scene From “The Great Gatsby”. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images 

The term “Lost Generation” refers to the generation of people who reached adulthood during or immediately following World War I. Demographers generally consider 1883 to 1900 as the birth year range of the generation.

Key Takeaways: The Lost Generation

  • The “Lost Generation” reached adulthood during or shortly after World War I.
  • Disillusioned by the horrors of war, they rejected the traditions of the older generation.
  • Their struggles were characterized in the works of a group of famous American authors and poets including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot.
  • Common traits of the “Lost Generation” included decadence, distorted visions of the “American Dream,” and gender confusion.​

Having witnessed what they considered pointless death on such a massive scale during the War, many members of the generation rejected more traditional ideas of proper behavior, morality, and gender roles. They were considered to be “lost” due to their tendency to act aimlessly, even recklessly, often focusing on the hedonistic accumulation of personal wealth.

In literature, the term also refers to a group of well-known American authors and poets including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and , whose works often detailed the internal struggles of the “Lost Generation.” 

The term is believed to have come from an actual verbal exchange witnessed by novelist Gertrude Stein during which a garage owner derisively told his young employee, “You are all a lost generation.” Stein’s colleague and pupil Ernest Hemingway popularized the term when he used it as an epigraph to his classic 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises.”

In an for The Hemmingway Project, Kirk Curnutt, author of several books about the Lost Generation writers suggested that they were expressing mythologized versions of their own lives. “They were convinced they were the products of a generational breach, and they wanted to capture the experience of newness in the world around them,” said Curnutt. “As such, they tended to write about alienation, unstable mores like drinking, divorce, sex, and different varieties of unconventional self-identities like gender-bending.

Decadent Excesses of The Lost Generation

Throughout their novels “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Great Gatsby,” Hemingway and Fitzgerald feature the decedent, self-indulgent lifestyles of their Lost Generation characters. In both “The Great Gatsby” and “Tales of the Jazz Age” Fitzgerald depicts an endless stream of lavish parties hosted by the main characters.

With their values so completely destroyed by the war, the expatriate American circles of friends in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Moveable Feast” live shallow, hedonistic lifestyles, aimlessly roaming the world while drinking and partying.

Fallacy of the Great American Dream

Members of the Lost Generation viewed the idea of the “American Dream” as a grand deception. This becomes a prominent theme in “The Great Gatsby” as the story’s narrator Nick Carraway comes to realize that Gatsby’s vast fortune had been paid for with great misery.

To Fitzgerald, the traditional vision of the American Dream — that hard work led to success — had become corrupted. To the Lost Generation, “living the dream” was no longer about simply building a self-sufficient life, but about getting stunningly rich by any means necessary.

Gender-Bending and Impotence

Many young men eagerly entered World War I still believing combat to be more of a chivalrous, even glamorous pastime than an inhumane struggle for survival. However, the reality they experienced — the brutal slaughter of more than 18 million people, including 6 million civilians — shattered their traditional images of masculinity and their perceptions around differing roles of men and women in society.

Left impotent by his war wounds, Jake, the narrator and central character in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” describes how his sexually aggressive and promiscuous female lover Brett acts as the man, trying to be “one of the boys” in an effort to control the lives of her sexual partners.

In T.S. Eliot’s ironically titled poem “,” Prufrock laments how his embarrassment from feelings of emasculation has left him sexually frustrated and unable to declare his love for the poem’s unnamed female recipients, referred to as “they.”

(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)

In the first chapter of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Gatsby’s trophy girlfriend Daisy delivers a telling vision of her newborn daughter’s future.

“I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”                       

In a theme that still resonates in today’s feminist movement, Daisy’s words express Fitzgerald’s opinion of his generation as spawning a society which largely devalued intelligence in women. While the older generation valued women who were docile and subservient, the Lost Generation held mindless pleasure-seeking as the key to a woman’s “success.” While she seemed to bemoan her generation’s view of gender roles, Daisy conformed to them, acting as a “fun girl” in order to avoid the tensions of her true love for the ruthless Gatsby.  

Belief in an Impossible Future

Unable or unwilling to come to grips with the horrors of warfare many of the Lost Generation created impossibly unrealistic hopes for the future. This is expressed best in the final lines of “The Great Gatsby” in which narrator Nick exposed Gatsby’s idealized vision of Daisy that had always prevented him from seeing her as she really was. 

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The “green light” in the passage is Fitzgerald’s metaphor for the perfect futures we continue to believe in even while watching it get ever farther away from us. In other words, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Lost Generation continued to believe that “one fine day,” our dreams will come true.

Are We Seeing a New Lost Generation?

By their very nature, all wars create “lost” survivors. While returning combat veterans have traditionally died of suicide and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at much higher rates than the general population, returning veterans of the Gulf War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are at an even higher risk. According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 20 of these veterans a day die from suicide.

Could these “modern” wars be creating a modern “Lost Generation?” With mental wounds often more serious and far more difficult to treat than physical trauma, many combat veterans struggle to reintegrate into civilian society. A recent report from the RAND Corporation estimates that some 20% of returning veterans either have or will develop PTSD.