Ernest Hemingway once said: "All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened" (Hemingway), which is proved by American fiction after the First World War. One can read and learn about the post-war American society through literature and fiction, which gives plentiful hints and impressions regarding the spiritual and moral states of the youth in this society.
At the end of World War I, the American economy recovered from wartime devastation and boomed in construction. The United States soon became the richest country in the world with increasing number of news products and technologies. The demand and supply for new products were increasing rapidly, leading to constructions of new infrastructures, such as highways and expressways. Cities prospered and urbanization was on its way.
As this nation was rebuilding itself, youth in the States began to act in a rebelling way to the rules in their parent’s generation. The brutality and horror of war caused them to question the traditional values and the Enlightenment belief that progress would continue and reason would prevail, and many writers started creating fictions to express the fear, uncertainty, and anxiety of themselves as well as young people living in the same age.
Young people felt confused in the overly material excess and superficiality, and their life was spiritually void. Many writers at that time escaped from the United States, including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. American writer Gertrude Stein called these American writers the “Lost Generation”, who leaving his home country and moving from city to city just to find the meaning of life.
The Lost Generation
Disillusionment is a common theme of fiction at that time. The moral values and virtues he appreciated before the war were outdated and questionable. Instead of seeking answers from the outside society, he turned to his inner thoughts and the philosophy know as existentialism, which indicates that universal meaning of life does not exist, and people, by making choices and taking actions, define their own meaning of life.
Ernest Miller Hemingway writes the book the Sun also rises in 1926 to present the living condition of “Lost Generation”, which is characterized by decadent, dissolute, and confused young people. The novel is a snapshot of real life of Hemingway at that time; the characters are based on people within Hemingway’s social circle, and the story is based on real events that actually happened. The book tells a story of the postwar adventure of Jack and his friends and unrealistic love of young Lady Brett, reflecting the moral bankruptcy and spiritual dissolution of this lost generation. World War I destroyed the hope and innocence of young generation. Instead of pursuing their American dream, these young people wasted their time drinking and throwing parties to forget their frustrations. They were hurt by the horrors of war physically and emotionally, and deviated from their convention source of faith such as family, friends, and love. They led a bitter and aimless life, and held irresponsible and careless attitudes towards others.
The generation lost themselves in liquor and alcohol. Just like what happened to Jake during the war, the horrible memories from the war itself drove young people away from reality. Jake is falls in love with Brett, and the two young people love each other, but they will not have a romantic relationship because her sexual desire is great but Jake cannot have a sexual relationship due to the wound during the war. Only liquor helped young people to escape the unsettling and restless postwar world. In addition, in this book, characters do not have meaningful communication; instead, they fight against each other. People can’t really start a conversation; Jake and Brett’s talk run in circles, and Jake and Bill always talk about bull fighting against someone else. Young generation seems gradually lose the ability to communicate effectively, the connection between people starts to break down. Moreover, young people, with more choices of entertainment, seem to lose the connection with nature. Most characters in the book spend most of their time inside buildings such as hotels and restaurants. They are losing the ability to appreciate the beauty and grace of nature, and lose themselves in the concrete forest made by people. Alcohol abuse, fighting, loss ability to communication, all elements included in this book portrays the moral state of young people – the lost generation at that time.
Another book by Hemingway is A Farewell to Arms, a retrospective of the war of Frederic Henry, a wounded soldier, and his love with Catherine Barkley. At the very beginning, the war help Frederic stay away from drinking and sex. However, after he experiences the war, he realizes that it is an unjust enormity and senseless waste of life. The breakdown of human spirit impacts characters in this book. The war not only destroyed their home and country, but also destroy will and spirit of the young generation. Catherine wants to distract herself from loss of loved one, and Frederic wants to get rid of the pain form the war. They find temporary comfort zone that they can stay away things bothering them, and they find power to fuel that sustains each other. They intend to be refuge for each other. However, their love is temporary in this unsettling postwar world, which is a tragedy that reflects the outcome of love for the young generation after WWI.They are obsessed with dreaming of a better world, and they want to hide themselves in the name of love. They confused the boundary between reality and illusion, just to escape from their anxiety and pain.
Youth in Materialism World
After recovering the darkness of the First World War, American youth enjoyed modern staff and the fancy living styles in city. They embraced the new genre in music jazz, new technology of automobile, and open experience with opposite sex. With the Prohibition, many young people openly violated without being afraid of any consequences. According to writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, the 1920s America is a time "the parties were bigger, the pace was faster, the buildings were higher and the morals were looser. " (Fitzgerald)
F. Scott Fitzgerald was the best representative of this trend. In his book This Side of Paradise in 1920, he portrayed the image of rebellious young people of the Jazz age, and in his another book The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925, he wrote about the material excess and superficiality in the Roaring Twenties of American society, which is characterized by unprecedented commercial prosperity, the flapper culture, the jazz music, and some criminal organizations.
Set on the 1922 Long Island, he Great Gatsby is not merely a romantic story, but epitomizes 1920s American society, a society distorted by the unprecedented prosperity in economy. Fitzgerald described that people in this era were greedy with corrupted moral values and unrestrained desire for pleasure, which can be evidenced by the fancy parties that Gatsby throws every weekend. Nobles goals and moral values were decayed, and their American dream was almost collapsing. The young generation after the WWI experienced intensive disillusion, as the Victorian morality was not practicable anymore, the specious prosperity in financial market led to materialism. Young people were obsessed in the world with excess materiality, and they began to consume at unprecedented level. In addition, in 1919, the government banned the sale and transaction of alcohol, a black market was created to satisfy people’s evil demand for liquor for both poor or rich people.
Gatsby is just like one of the young man in this era. He experienced and fought in the WWI, and turned to be cosmopolitanism with great wealth. Gatsby’s guests to the parties were social climbers who were thinking about networking and doing business, but when he faced difficulties, no one would show up and offer a hand.
As Nick explains, American dream should be all about discovery, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. In his mind, it is the ability to create meaningful things consist the American dream. However, pleasure and money were eroding this dream. Just take Gatsby as an example. Originally, he wanted to accumulate wealth as much as possible to impress the girl he loves Daisy, and he even derives money from criminal conducts. He regards Daisy as perfection and his dream. However, it is just another illusion and unworthiness goal, just like the desire for money and power of young people in that era. Young people got lost the world of money and desire, and they lived up to something that did not deserve the effort and time. He shows his loyalty and love for Daisy, but his sincere heart leads him to death. To save and protect Daisy, he takes the blame for murdering Myrtle.
The economic growth during this period led to rampant materialism. Gatsby lives in a spacious house and drives a fancy Rolls-Royce, but money cannot offer him grace and taste. The Great Gatsby is like a fancy tale of the decadent side within American. The tragic ending reveals the same of “excesses of rich, and recklessness of youth” (Symkus). The wave of materialism blinded young people to pursue freedom and happiness; instead, they just wanted to pursue money and power. However, for a young man like Gatsby with no strong background to support his American dream, he led a life in anxiety and confusion.
Gatsby lived in a society where young people urged to use innovation rather than inherited position to gain status. Youth wanted change but the old generation resisted it. Evidence could be seen through the new wave of immigrants, successful minorities, and increasing power of women. As Gillespie states, "while the specific terms of the equation are always changing, it's easy to see echoes of Gatsby's basic conflict between established sources of economic and cultural power and upstarts in virtually all aspects of American society” (Gillespie), which is also the spiritual state of many young people at that age.
Sinclair Lewis published a novel Main Street to attack the narrow-mindedness of small-town American during the postwar time. At that time, many Americans viewed the small town as the last bastion of conventional American morals. The fast-changing and increasingly horrifying modern world scares some people. In his novel, however, Lewis portrays the bore of small-town life in its unreasonable requirement for conformity, its narrow definition for success, and the lack of innovation and development. Instead of portray people in the small town as warm-hearted neighbors, he presents them as suspicious spies.
In this book, Carol Milford, is a young woman with quick intelligence, and after graduation from college, she marries Will Kennicott, a kindly but unimaginative physician in a small town. He tells she that the town needs her to develop and people here need her help. She is determined to reform the town in terms of both social and aesthetical aspects. However, she cannot fulfill this goal because of her intellectual frippery and weak faith. At first, she tries to organizes a local theatre, which falls flat; then she joins a literary club, but escape when the members behave in a creepy way. The intellectual material of the town turns out to be cowardly. Carol discovers that she is detested for attempts to bring in civic and social improvement and for her critics on traditional norms of the locals. In the end, like thousands of other young people in Americans, she abandons her love and the small town and flees back to big cities. She starts to feel lone and realizes that all the characteristics of a small town have already become part of her personality. Finally, she goes back to the town.
With the end of the war, the traditional American progressivism vanished, and many young people started to think about their life. The “revolt from the village” has been mentioned repeatedly in American fiction, which is characterized by the fake gentility, hypocritical pursuit for value, and unbearably provincial. With the urbanization during this time, some young people with passion wanted to flee from the old-fashioned and hopeless little town and realize their dream in big city, while others were determined to change the current condition of small town by their power and efforts. In either way, young generations want to make change to the traditional rules and norms, and live up to their goal for their life. Faced with too many choices and crossroads, accompanied with difficulties unforeseen and hinders from old generation, they would easy give up to reality if they did not have faith and confidence within themselves. The struggling between life in big city and small town consists the spiritual state of youth of this era.
Harlem Renaissance and Change Image of Women
The postwar era is one period of great change for young African Americans. In the postwar time, the Great Migration brought African Americans back to North society. young African-American writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, started to reshape the image of their society. Before this literature movement, Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima were two archetypes of them. The image of Uncle Tom is a slave who submitted to his master humbly, hurting the feeling of this new generation writers. As a result, they urged a change in the image by fiction and other forms of art. In addition, the white literary community also turned to Harlem. They felt lost and disillusioned by the war, but they regained inspiration and strength in African American literature. As a result, the talented African-American youth and the Lost generation writers ally to counter the stereotypes and to gain recognition for blacks in the U.S.
Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes portrays African-American life during this time, which focuses on the effects of class on community. In his book, the writer shows how Sandy, a typical African-American boy, tries best to achieve his dream and grows rapidly from a young kid to mature and responsible adult, aspiring a number of young people. The book When Washington Was in Vogue by Edward Christopher Williams is another example of fiction focusing the theme of African-American life. As young African-American gain more power and feel stronger, they now started to look for their happiness and voice. They pursue the happiness from love, from the booming economy, and from the increasing freedom and power (Huggin). In conclusion, Harlem Renaissance opened doors for African-American youth, to a new world where they can express their feelings and desires with more freedom.
The postwar time is also a great change for women. The short hair of women is a symbol of emancipation and femininity. In addition, women stopped wearing corsets and started to reinvent themselves based on their own preferences. Moreover, just like man did, women started to smoking and drinking in public, and they tended to hold more relaxing attitudes toward sex. Fitzgerald, in his book The Great Gatsby, describes that women were breaking the cage and restrictions that society one placed on them. For example, Myrtle, one of the character in the book, wishes to climb the social ladder, so she makes efforts to achieve her dream at all costs. Another woman character Daisy spares no effort and struggles to break down the wall the environment she was raised put on her. In addition, evidence can also be found in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Catherine deviates from the traditional role of women at that time, and she does not suppress her desire to love Frederick. Moreover, although she loves Frederick, she still remains independent and strives for her own dreams. For example, she refuses to adapt religious ceremonies as Frederick pleases, which represents her strength and power.
The 1920s saw an unsettling society, characterized by American young generation rebelling against the conventional rules by old generations. The horrifying war left deep scares in their heart, and the excessive materialism reshapes their recognition and core value. They lived in anxiety, wondering which kind of life should they live and how to realize the meaning of life. They lived in confusion, the notion of money and wealth blinded their eyes to pursue the pure and real happiness. In conclusion, four major types of spiritual states exit during the postwar time. The first one is the anxiety and confusion of the lost generation, who wanted to abandon the traditional values and establish new faith but did not have an answer. The next one is the distorted value due to excess material and emphasis on wealth and power. The booming economy made young generation greedy and materialist. The third type is wavering attitudes between urban and small town life. With the process of urbanization, young people started to wonder where is the best place to develop themselves, to form a family, and to launch their career. The last one is the change image of women and African Americans. With more freedom and power, they became independent, strong, and confident. Fiction during the same period is just like a mirror and snapshot of the whole society, adapted from stories of real people and recorded in the way that conveys the vision of talented writers.
Abravanel, Genevieve. Americanizing Britain: The Rise of Modernism in the Age of the Entertainment Empire. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Baldick, Chris. Literature of the 1920s: Writers among the Ruins. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
Gillespie, Nick. " The Great Gatsby's Creative Destruction." Reason(2013).
Hemingway, Ernest. American Quotes. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ernesthemi146433.html>.
Huggin, Nathan Irvin. "Harlem Renaissance." The Journal of American History (1972): 190-191.
Schorer, Mark. "Afterword, Main Street." Schorer, Mark. New American Library. n.d. 433-439.
Symkus, Ed. "Gatsby:What's so great." Boston Globe(2013).
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