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Lost in the Generation of Writing

A Review of Marc Dolan’s Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of “The Lost Generation”

A professor of English, American studies, and film studies, Marc Dolan actively renews his knowledge at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Writer of both the Lost Generation and Bruce Springfield’s influence on Rock and Roll, Dolan displays his knowledge of the arts. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

The Lost Generation has long been associated with the 1920s, following the brutalities of World War I. Popularized by Ernest Hemingway, the term “Lost Generation” was originally by Gertrude Stein – the person who Hemingway credits the phrase to in The Sun Also Rises. Through the use of this term as an epigraph in The Sun Also Rises, it started to popularize generation of war post WWI.  Marc Dolan explains in his Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of “The Lost Generation” that the “lost generation” emerged from the autobiographies of famous writers – Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Dolan relates the ideas between the personal and historical narratives. As the author elucidates the concept of the lost generation, the ideas of self, society, nation, and culture influence the personal and national identity of America to the present.

There are said to be three revolutions. The first expanded throughout the last three quarters of the nineteenth century. These scholars were “postcoloialists before their time: they sought to study the forward development of U.S. literature in its own right.”1 The second revolution included scholars who went in quest of “a presumed but ultimately elusive American ‘national character’.”2 The third revolution is what the present time of American Studies. The Lost Generation is neither a mere name nor thing for which a name stands, but a discursive object, a simultaneous discovery and product of inquiry. It is a literal group of coevals, a specific cultural subset of the demographic grouping, and a theory of how American arts, letters, and culture evolved after WWI. The focus was the younger generation, also known as the Baby Bloomers. They were visible symbols that were thought to be new about the American economy in the early 1920s. Soon, widespread curiosity of the younger generation began with writers such as Stephen Vincent Benet, Kenneth Burke, and Edmund Wilson began to focus on. Also, the question of the differences between “modern”, “modernism”, and “modernity” sprung from Frederick Karl. When defined, these three words allow the distinguishing of the new 20th century trends and impulses. Modernity, being the most straight-forward, is represented as “the maelstrom of modern life.”3 It is not a way of being but the way of experiencing and transformation. In addition, modernism and modernization are used to describe art and industry and lives of the elite and the common masses. This Modernist Era exemplifies the discursive triad of modernity, modernization, and modernism and its influence over the American ontology.

For many years, Ernest Hemingway threatened to write nonfictional account of his first years in Paris. However, the spring of 1957 he started seriously to begin writing memoirs, depicting his life of nostalgic memories. His edition of A Moveable Feast recalled pettiness and venality. Hemingway admitted that his drafts of the sketches from Pairs enjoin the readers to view the book as fiction rather than nonfiction. He uses these sketches to portray a “myth of his literary beginnings.”4 Modern autobiographical studies emphasize “not the real signified but the signifier and the formal signifying practices of the text.”5 These modernist formal biographies present the self in fragmentary rather than unitary terms. The way in which Hemingway writes is not only contrived, but also concealed and omitted. This method turns his texts into a guessing game in which the truest part of the story is the part that is most hidden. In the opening sketches, Ernest, the protagonist of the sketch, views the artistic process as a constant search for transplantable literary material. His sketches from Paris provide an example of commonplace cases in which one autobiographical modes cross over into another. Hemingway’s sketches have two parallel stories: one about the study of growth of an artist’s talents, another about slow death of an artist’s marriage. His type of prose can be viewed as alternative modernism. But, Hemingway’s suicide leads to many unresolved conjectures about his Paris sketches. Although he fully represented a revolution in aesthetic consciousness, one textual unity resisted- the contrived, retrospective unity of this own aesthetic development.

Malcolm Cowley produced two versions of Exile’s Return; proportionally, his reputations between these two versions and the reputation of the Lost Generation significantly rose. As a critic, his reviews and essays help further expand the same general historiographical model. Exile’s Return exemplifies a formal autobiography about formation of shared and presumed generational identity, opposing from Hemingway’s writings of personal and idiosyncratic identity. Cowley’s text is more open to perspectives of those who are not its subject. His alternative practice in his text is tthat “the autobiographical subject frequently vanishes.”6 Many other American autobiographies of the 20th century took a similarly typifying view of their subjects, assimilating them as it were a collective American historical teleology. In many first and second generation immigrant texts, prior uniqueness served another function, beyond its pre-existence to a more desirable state of reproducibility. Immigration could not be ignored for its transformation of American society had already begun. The seemingly foreign experience of immigration, assimilation, and rebirth came to serve as a powerful metaphor for native born Americans of the early 20th century. Although Exile’s Return does not look much like an autobiography, it is a work of history. Its structure encourages readers to classify it as a work of historical analysis. By willing his own anonymity and lack of autonomy, Cowley gained the power to influence the memories of the history of the Lost Generation.

Unlike both Hemingway and Cowley, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a habitual formal autobiographer. He would use the genres of memoir, fiction, and even poetry as a medium for his autobiographical explorations and revelations. A majority of the Fitzgerald’s’ revelatory essays are best understood neither as self-conscious works of biographical artifice nor as reductions of their lives to socio-cultural typology, but as examples of “demotic or Low Rent” side of autobiography.7 In the early decades of the 20th century was a high demand for autobiographical writings by celebrities and their advices or opinions became as common as the celebrity autobiographical sketch. The Crack-Up, Edmund Wilson’s tribute volume to Fitzgerald, portrayed Fitzgerald in a limited and retrospective mood. It concealed Fitzgerald’s commercial impulses that were otherwise too noticeable. Fitzgerald’s ultimate exploration of ontological crisis lies in the essays of the Crack-Up trilogy. The tension between concealment and revelation is vaguely reminiscent of the celebrity’s play between given and crafted images of self. Fitzgerald’s autobiographical style was more often “reminiscent of a movie star’s self revelations than those of a canonical American novelist.”8 On paper he was neither omnipotent nor abject; he became a “writer only”- almost a “person only.”9

Dolan acknowledges the idea that the Lost Generation is more than just people of the 20s. The ideas of unity of self, society, culture, and nation; combined, make the Lost Generation. The Lost Generation established a network of identification by which mainstream Americans could empathize with marginalized minorities through the shared experience of loss. Thus, a symbol of “humbling and displacement of the citizens who should have felt most at home” is represented.10 The Lost Generation is a discursive object, one that is able to exist in interactions rather than isolation. Dolan concerns with the myth of the Lost Generation which dramatized the loss of a centralized national cultural, a consensual American identity. This touched upon people affected by immigration, racial divisions, and gender boundaries. In addition, Dolan acknowledges that the central theme of the 1920s’ discourse came from the profound anxiety toward the threat of cultural plurality. As a result, the readings of Hemingway, Cowley, and Fitzgerald show the tensions between traditional forms of individuality. In conclusion, Dolan tells the audience that the Lost Generation represents more than a time frame of 1920s; rather, the collection of regionalism, ethnicity, class, and sex constitute the network that unites the people of a generation.

The author’s multiple studies in history helped create his point of view. Sources from the English Department of John Jay College, CUNY, and Harvard helped create this book. With plentiful information, Dolan has written not only about the Lost Generation but also about Rock and Roll. Also, by revisiting topic decades ago, Dolan draws facts from previous writings of primary and secondary sources to reach conclusions. As a new left historian, Dolan focuses on the masses and experience, and is inclusive of all acts. He places emphasis on pluralism- the existence of many people, ethnic groups, and races.

Critics have long looked to generation characters as a means of segmenting history. The emergence of a new generation occasions intense debate in the media over the mindset of the young. Generational identity is essential the art of generalization; it sifts tumult and contradiction out of cultural moment. Analyzing Marc Dolan’s Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of “The Lost Generation”, it seems that Dolan “investigates the Lost Generation not as a predictably minimal historical fact.”11 The book asks how a literary genre came to symbolize an entire period of time. As the youthful disaffection and iconoclasm became popular, visible symbols of the new in the modern age became ways to characterize modern American civilization. However, Dolan argues that the Lost Generation provides a “trope for a certain type of early twentieth-century American to ask questions about her/his own life and its relation to history, society, and culture.”12 The truest test to identifying a member of the Lost Generation was neither by birth date nor other superficial classifications, but by the pure emotion.  Although readers might question Dolan’s organization, his examples of what multicultural studies can bring to canonical works oversee the flaws. This book reminds readers that generational identities are more than demographic truisms of sociological stereotypes; rather they are a network of identification that “unites the ‘I’ and ‘we’ in the sense of ‘us’.”13

Dolan’s book is structured with three central chapters that approach their subjects adjacently.  Dolan believes that the writing of the period is autobiographical since autobiography marks a fertile field for dislocated people to imagine their “place in the historical process.”14 The texts explain how the “Paris Moment” was later mythologized by participants and critics alike. Within the three texts are views of their subject retrospectively; they either emerge from or gain their reputation in the future where the subject can be analyzed from a historical distance. Hemingway’s Paris sketches from A Moveable Feast  and Fitzgerald’s essays from The Crack-Up are posthumous rearrangements, stitched together by the editors who may have imposed narrative patterns on their author’s lives. And, Exile’s Return, a book commonly regarded as a work of cultural analysis, is read ingeniously by those who accept it as an autobiography. Dolan recognizes the problems that these texts are not seen as autobiographical; therefore, he navigates between the “auto- and heterobiographic poles” of A Moveable Feast and The Crack-Up and threats the texts as both attempts to both mythologize themselves while at the same time execute editorial mythmaking.15 To disperse and pluralize the concept of a homogeneous nation culture is Dolan’s main objective. It was the construction of the Lost Generation as a synecdoche for an entire historical period which accounted for the notion of a culturally unified rather than a diversified America.  

The author’s knowledge of modern American literature and culture is both informative and impressive. Movement through the book is lucid and easy to follow. This book provides an in-depth perspective on the Lost Generation, and also provides extensive interpretations of the works of Hemingway, Cowley, Fitzgerald, and many other Lost Generation writers. He draws out the subtle relationships between the personal and historical narratives, as well as the ways in which the distinct generation allowed those authors to pass back and forth between “the personal and the historical.”16 Modern Lives opens out the concept of the Lost Generation to reveal the clashing formulations of “self, society, nation, and culture” that were contained within the previous concept and now influence the present.17

The art of writing during the period of the Lost Generation reflects the American values through accurate depiction of post war disturbance. The “lost” people were confused about the true values of Americanism, and the book describes the “generation” of people that struggled in finding these values. Writers of the lost generation depicted post war children as lost. However, the epitome of the Lost Generation children were “battered, but not lost.”18 Despite demoralizing events and a drastic change in society, the Lost Generation still had hope in finding its own light. The impact the Lost Generation writings showed the events of decline and decline in optimism post WWI.  It was not only in America, but also in Europe in which the Lost Generation had been present. Rather than classifying the Lost Generation as certain people born within a time frame, it is best to identify these members through their emotions. The Lost Generation remains seen as a collective and interwoven network of identification that unites the American people.

1: Dolan, Marc. Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of "The Lost Generation" West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 1996. Print. 1.
2: Dolan, Marc. 1
3: Dolan, Marc. 31
4: Dolan, Marc. 53
5: Dolan, Marc. 56
6: Dolan, Marc. 89
7: Dolan, Marc. 118
8: Dolan, Marc. 150
9: Dolan, Marc. 153
10: Dolan, Marc. 185
11: Curnutt, Kirk. "The Hemingway Review." Rev. of Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of “The Lost Generation”. 1997: 94-98. Print. 95
12: Curnutt, Kirk. 96
13: Curnutt, Kirk. 98
14: Schopp, Joseph C. "Book Review." Rev. of Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of “The Lost Generation”. 1997: 467-71. Print. 469
15: Schopp, Joseph C. 469
16: Dolan, Marc. 186
17: Dolan, Marc. 186
18: Dolan, Marc. 52