In his 2010 book Ill Fares the Land, the late historian Tony Judt laments the fate of the “millennial” generation, burdened with debt, war, and vanishing opportunities beyond short-term desultory labor. Here, Judt makes a striking comparison- or striking enough that I jotted it down:
The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s. It is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”
In one sense, it is though. The “lost generation” moniker was possibly in some limited currency when Ernest Hemingway put it down as an epigraph in The Sun Also Rises and emblazoned the term on the 1920s. As every student knows, Hemingway was quoting Gertrude Stein, his then-mentor and the “mountain of the Left Bank,” when she said “all of you young people who served in the war. You’re a lost generation.” Stein, in turn, was likely quoting a French garage mechanic’s lament that it was impossible to find young French workers after the Great War. Stein and Hemingway, however, saw it as a perfect description of the young Americans they watched aimlessly floating around Paris after the end of the First World War, getting drunk and pissing away their abilities without anything solid and substantial in which they might invest them.
My great-grandfather, Guy Hickok, was there as well, writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and spending his lunches and afternoons in the Eagle office talking with “Hem,” the younger journalist, about the art of writing. Guy, too, was struck by these ex-servicemen, who seemed to be decommissioned from all of civilized life. He wrote numerous articles about how many of them wound up in Europe, without housing, enjoying the lack of Prohibition, and eventually landing in French prisons. His mother, Clara, in fact, was dubbed the “angel of the prisons” by readers, for her efforts to ease their plight while behind bars and get as many released as possible.
Guy could be funny, more often the humorist than Hemingway, and he also poked fun at the respectable Americans who would arrive from the states, have their first taste of unrestricted booze, lose all inhibitions, and make trouble for the “American colony” that already lived there. Guy estimated that “nine out of ten” of the destitute and abandoned had “no good excuse for their condition” aside from “taking chances that nobody but an imbecile has the right to take.” But the ex-soldiers and “men on the beach” bothered him.
Behind his wit, Guy had a noticeable discomfort for what was happening back home. America entered the war late and suffered less compared to Europe: about 53,000 Americans killed versus 1.3 million Frenchmen, for example, but the country went through a post-war wave of reaction that seemed a desperate attempt to shore up her society in spite of the fact. Strikes broke out in most major industries and were often suppressed violently, white-led race rioting burned down black neighborhoods across the country, the Volstead Act that prohibited the production and sale of alcohol was followed by Congressional measures stripping all of the progressive legislation passed during the war, and wartime jingoists still beat up anyone they suspected of not being “100 percent American,” something that troubled Guy deeply enough that he startlingly referenced it in Berlin, 1933, in comparison to the Brownshirts. As another expatriate, Malcolm Cowley, remembered of the post-war years: “Prohibitionism, Puritanism, philistinism, and salesmanship: these seemed to be the dominant causes in America.” It was no surprise how many came over like Caresse Crosby, as “escapists from the society in which we had been brought up…”
Well, certainly, we still know from philistinism and salesmanship today. It’s striking in their correspondence how little time Guy and Hem had for the business wizards of the newly dominant United States, who would be eating their words by the end of the decade. As Guy wrote his friend in 1930, after the Crash:
How is the dammerung of all the industrial and financial Gotts? Who listens now to Henry Ford on how to make the world rich in 24 hours? Where is the guy who invented the high wages = permanent prosperity theory? What of all the boys who used to say, “My boy, don’t be a bear on America; it’s only just begun.”… What say the drys who attributed the boom to prohibition? Do they also claim the glory of the collapse? What is the expression now of all the lads with the big cigars who used to look so pityingly at poor old Europe who just wouldn’t learn how to do big things in a big way? And how, by the way, much did Sloanes Linament make in 1930?1
Guy was equally scornful about the “traveling circus” of statesmen who simply could not make peace in Europe after disastrous years of war. Both men, and many of their compatriots, were simply fed up with the lies and cant of the era, which seemed to them to cover for stupidity and incompetence, a common enough feeling in what E.E. Cummings called “the age of dollars and no sense.”
Any of this sound familiar?
Characterizing a generation is a bit like reading the oracle bones: writers closely pick over a few specimens in their immediate vicinity and apply what they find to the unseen millions born in the same general time and place. Hemingway’s novel is about a group of dissipated young wastrels drinking itself to destruction in Paris and Spain, but it was taken, as intended, to be emblematic of the young American generation that returned from the war disillusioned with the values of their elders, those Big Words, that now seemed like yellowed poster bills for events that left town long ago. Born in almost the same year as Hemingway, Jean Renoir would put it in his movie La Regle du jeu, “Today, everyone lies. Pharmaceutical handbills, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So why shouldn’t simple people like us lie as well?” It reads like a passage from Hemingway. Actually, it reads like a passage from A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s second novel:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it… Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates….
Hemingway’s writing thus seems an attempt to strip words of the dross of cant and lies, and pin them pitilessly to the page. Even his morbidity and bloodlust formed a part of this project of rejecting the dishonesty of common language. This was a common project in the era. In his inimitable correspondence, Ezra Pound would write fellow poet Louis Zukofsky: “Gertie [Stein] and Jimmie [Joyce] both hunting for langwich, but hunting, I think, in wrong ash-pile.” The journal transition would declare in their pages “The Revolution in the English Language is an Accomplished Fact.” If Kundera was right that kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, Hemingway’s response is summed up in his childish limerick of the early ’20s that ends: “And in the end the age was handed/ The sort of shit that it demanded.” In this 24/7 Misinformation Age, the need for clean and honest writing is ever more pressing and its absence glaring.
Certainly, my age makes me aware of the mug’s game of generational divination: born in 1974, I was too young for “Generation X” when that was the obsession of pundits and too old to be a part of the “millennial” generation that is their current fixation. I feel a bit like Guy, who was a decade older than Hem, never called for service, and merely observed the younger generation. Nevertheless, I believe a few observations can be made about this generation, in comparison to their ’20s forebears:
- It is obvious that war is not a common experience for them in the same way it was for the “lost generation.” Even though America’s current military engagements have extended longer than any in her history with little support from Millennials, or anyone else, service has been more limited without a draft, and many of them do not know anyone who has served. They are not defined by their proximity to the war so much by their disconnection from it.
- Nevertheless, they almost radiate anxiety. Talking with them about their lives and the world in which they live, one hears exactly the sort of dissatisfaction and dispiritedness that Judt describes, along with a fair amount of strain and feelings of powerlessness.
- These anxieties are often economic in nature. And if there is anything that bears down on the current generation, it is the widespread fervor among their elders for a market economy that drives policy, misshapes culture, and treats their work as a disposable, short-term resource. At the least, their generation has made “inequality” a watchword and they share with their ’20s forebears a frustrated sense of having dissipated talents and wasted potential, and of the meaninglessness of the world they inherited. Given that I am a 40-year-old with a PhD, mounting debt, and a part-time job as a janitor to show for it, I feel keenly the sense that, perhaps, this generation will simply be passed over.
- Relationships are another source of anxiety. In many cases, their romantic relationships are as fleeting and short-term as their employment options. They often express frustration with the transience and impermanence in their lives, yet receive little advice or help from their parents. Like my own, I divorced. This state of transience and impermanence in their lives is what Zygmunt Bauman refers to as “liquid modernity.”
- And yet, they live under increased levels of administration at work and vanishing privacy in public. They are, paradoxically, both invisible and surveilled, micromanaged and transient. Like the image in Islam, they are both present and absent.
- Like their Lost Generation forebears, they often express the sense that the world in which they live is out of their control. Given the unending destruction of the planet, and the distance between the haves and the have-nots, voters and government, and the individual and corporations, these feelings are fully understandable.
- Their search for authenticity often leads backward. Generally alienated by consumer culture, they often revive dress, folkways, and even occupations of past times. I’ve met novice farmers, weavers, beekeepers, soap makers, etc. In urban environments, one notes plenty of what we could call politically progressive cultural reactionaries.
- If the Lost Generation dissipated itself in alcohol, their drug is screens. When they are not online, they’re binge-watching television programs and then logging on to recap what they watched. Certainly, I am not the first to notice how difficult it has become to meet a young person at a party and engage them in a discussion about books. But when one imagines an image of the emptiness of the age, it’s not a young person mouldering away over a gin glass, but over their iPhone.
- They have yet to make clear language and articulation a priority in the same way as Hemingway and his contemporaries, who seemed obsessed with it. It is hard to critique one’s youngers without sounding like the angry neighbor yelling to turn down the music, but actually, if I could offer a critique of this generation, it’s that they are entirely too nice. They opt out of the big political struggles in the physical world and ask for trigger warnings before hard discussions. I’m also not the first to find their culture too twee and whimsical in recent years. But, when your idea of cultural rebellion is playing a banjo and bringing back bow ties, there’s something wrong! Their greatest act of political solidarity was voting in a milquetoast devotee of neoliberalism with the persona of a black Jimmy Stewart. The right word for this generation’s acquiescence is not complacency, which carries with it a sense of satisfaction at the way things are; they are not happy with the world they see. But, they seem more often fearful and exhausted by the precarity of their lives; a better word for acquiescence under such conditions is conformity.
- They have not yet taken ownership of their disillusionment. Working through the last Lost Generation’s writings, what becomes most striking is that the main reason historians remember them as such is because they articulated their disillusion as a key to who they were. Certainly, every generation is alienated to some extent with the fallen world bequeathed to them by their elders. Yet certain generations—the ’60s youth explosion, the Lost Generation, the Romantics—seemingly excelled at expressing their dissatisfactions as a pressing concern: as something that must be addressed. We want the world and we want it now.
The response from those elders, and a good many of their peers, is surprisingly predictable: the kids are spoiled, selfish, weak, morally vacuous, vapid, and narcissistic. The popular press in the ’20s had a field day ridiculing flappers as bimbos, and the veterans of the Great War as wimps. Millennials are supposedly “entitled,” “the selfie generation.” When we discussed this, the scholar Henry Giroux, responded, “That’s such crap! It’s a kind of social tranquilization. It aims to tranquilize people. And it doesn’t work. Increasingly, the contradictions are just too obvious.”
So, it seems to me that what was critical for the Lost Generation was not just the act of articulation but first their claiming the right to articulate, and rearticulate in the face of ridicule and opprobrium. The writers of that era took ownership of that disillusion and kept repeating it. We can talk about identities and the fact that they did so from the safe haven of another country, but the truth has always and will always come from the margins—from those who have nothing to gain by investing in untruth. The Lost Generation’s great gamble was in this conviction that the truth will burn through the lies.
It’s time for this Lost Generation to stake the same gamble.
 Guy Hickok, Letter to Ernest Hemingway, 16 December, 1930. JFK Library
Rufus F. Hickok is a freelance writer, cook, janitor, doctor of history, part-time editor, and singer in a punk rock band. Born in Virginia, he currently resides in Canada.