No aspect of life in the Twenties has been more commented upon and sensationally romanticized than the so-called Revolt of the Younger Generation. The slightest mention of the decade brings nostalgic recollections to the middle-aged and curious questionings by the young: memories of the deliciously illicit thrill of the first visit to a speakeasy, of the brave denunciation of Puritan morality, and of the fashionable experimentations in amour in the parked sedan on a country road;
questions about the naughty, jazzy parties, the flask-toting “sheik”, and the moral and stylistic vagaries of the “flapper” and the “drugstore cowboy.” “Were young people really so wild?” present-day students ask their parents and teachers. “Was there really a Younger Generation problem?” The answers to such inquiries must of necessity be “yes” and “no”- “yes” because the business of growing up is always accompanied by a Younger Generation Problem; “no” because what seemed so wild, irresponsible, and immoral in social behavior at the time can now be seen in perspective as being something considerably less sensational than the degeneration of our jazz mad youth.
Actually, the revolt of the young people was a logical outcome of conditions in the age. First of all, it must be remembered that the rebellion was not confined to the United States, but affected the entire Western world as a result of the aftermath of the first serious war in a century.
Second, in the United States it was reluctantly realized by some—— subconsciously if not openly—— that our country was no longer isolated in either politics or tradition and that we had reached an international stature that would forever prevent us from retreating behind the artificial walls of a provincial morality or the geographical protection of our two bordering oceans.
The rejection of Victorian gentility was, in any case, inevitable. The booming of American industry, with its gigantic roaring factories, its corporate impersonality, and its large-scale aggressiveness, no longer left any room for the code of polite behavior and well-bred morality fashioned in a quieter and less competitive age. War or no war, as the generations passed, it became increasingly difficult for our young to accept standards of behavior that bore no relationship to the bustling business medium in which they were expected to battle for success.
The war acted merely as a catalyst agent in this breakdown of the Victorian social structure, and by precipitating our young people into a pattern of mass murder it released their inhibited violent energies which, after the shooting was over, were turned in both Europe and America to the destruction of an obsolescent nineteenth-century society.
Thus in a changing world youth was faced with the challenge of bringing our mores up to date. But at the same time it was tempted, in America at least, to escape its responsibilities and retreat behind an air of naughty alcoholic sophistication and a pose of Bohemian immorality. The faddishness, the wild spending of money on transitory pleasures and momentary novelties, the hectic air of gaiety, the experimentation in sensation-- sex, drugs, alcohol, perversions- were all part of the pattern of escape, an escape made possible by a general prosperity and a post-war fatigue with politics, economic restrictions, and international responsibilities.
Prohibition afforded the young the additional opportunity of making their pleasures illicit, and the much-publicized orgies and defiant manifestos of the intellectuals crowding into Greenwich Village gave them a pattern and a philosophic defense for their escapism. And like most escapist sprees, this one lasted until the money ran out, until the crash of the world economic structure at the end of the decade called the party to a hault and forced the revelers to sober up and face the problems of the new age.
The rebellion started with World War 1. The prolonged stalemate of 1915-1916, the increasing insolence of Germany toward the United States, and our official reluctance to declare our status as a belligerent were intolerable to many of our idealistic citizens, and, with typical American adventurousness enhanced somewhat by the strenuous jingoism of Theodore Roosevelt, our young Men began to enlist under foreign flags. In the words of Joe Williams, in John Dos Passos' USA, they “wanted to get into the fun before the whole thing turned belly up.” For military service, in 1916-1917, was stil a romantic occupation. The young men of college age in 1917 knew nothing of modern warfare. The strife of 1861-1865 had popularly become, in motion picture and story, a magnoliascented soap opera, while the one-hundred-days' fracad with Spain in 1898 had dissolved into a one-sided victory at Manila and a cinematic charge up San Juan Hill.
Furthermore, there were enough High school assembly orators proclaiming the character-forming force of the strenuous life to convince more than enough otherwise sensible boys thay service in the European conflict would be of great personal value, in addition to being idealistic and exciting. Accordingly, they began to join the various armies in increasing numbers, the “intellectuals” in the ambulance corps, others in the infantry, merchant machine, or whatever else they could find a place. Those who were reluctant to serve in a foreign army talked excitedly about Preparedness, occasionally considered joining the National Guard, and rushed to enlist when we finally did enter the conflict. So tremendous was the storming of recruitment centers that harassed sergeants actually pleaded with volunteers to “go home and wait for the draft,” but since no self-respecting person wanted to suffer the disgrace of being drafted, the enlistment craze continued unabated.
Naturally, the spirit of carnival and the enthusiasm for high military adventure were soon dissipated once the eager young men had received a good taste of twentieth-century warfare. To their lasting glory, they fought with distinction, but it was a much altered group of soldiers who returned from the battlefields in 1919. Especially was this true of the college contingent, whose idealism had led them to enlist early and who had generally seen a considerable amount of action.
To them, it was bitter to return to a home town virtually untouched by the conflict, where citizens still talked with the naive Fourth-of-July bombast they themselves had been guilty of two or three years earlier. It was even more bitter to find that their old jobs had been taken by the stay-at-homes, that business wad suffering a recession that prevented the opening up of new jobs, and that veterans were considered problem children and less desirable than non-veterans for whatever business opportunities that did exist. Their very homes were often uncomfortable to them; they had outgrown town and families and had developed a sudden bewildering world-weariness which neither they nor their relatives could understand.
Their energies had been whipped up and their naivete destroyed by the war and now, in sleepy Gopher Prairies all over the country, they were being asked to curb those energies and resume the pose of self-deceiving Victorian innocence that they now felt to be as outmoded as the notion that their fighting had “made the world safe for democracy.” And, as if home town conditions were not enough, the returning veteran also had to face the sodden, Napoleonic cynicism of Versailles, the hypocritical do-goodism of Prohibition, and the smug patriotism of the war profiteers. Something in the tension-ridden youth of America had to “give” and, after a short period of bitter resentment, it “gave” in the form of a complete overthrow of genteel standards of behavior.
Greenwich Village set the pattern. Since the Seventies a dwelling place for artists and writers who settled there because living was cheap, the village had long enjoyed a dubious reputation for Bohemianism and eccentricity. It had also harbored enough major writers, especially in the decade before World War 1, to support its claim to being the intellectual center of the nation. After the war, it was only natural that hopeful young writers, their minds and pens inflamed against war, Babbittry, and “Puritanical” gentility, should flock to the traditional artistic center (where living was still cheap in 1919) to pour out their new-found creative strength, to tear down the old world, to flout the morality of their grandfathers, and to give all to art, love and sensation.
Soon they found their imitators among the non-intellectuals. As it became more and more fashionable throughout the country for young persons defy the law and the conventions and to add their own little matchsticks to the conflagration of “flaming youth”, it was Greenwich Village that fanned the flames. “Bohemian” living became a fad. Each town had its “fast” set which prided itself on its unconventionality, although in reality this self-conscious unconventionality was rapidly becoming a standard feature of the country club class-and its less affluent imitators- throughout the nation.
Before long the movement had become officially recognized by the pulpit(whic denounced it), by the movies and magazines(which made it attractively naughty while pretending to denounce it), and by advertising(which obliquely encouraged it by selling everything from cigarettes to automobiles with the implied promise that their owners would be rendered sexually irresistible). Younger brothers and sisters of the war generation, who had been playing with marbles and dolls during the battles of Belleua Wood and Chateau-Thierry, and who had suffered no real disillusionment or sense of loss, now began to imitate the manners of their elders and play with the toys of vulgar rebellion. Their parents shocked, but belong long they found themselves and their friends adopting the New gaiety. By the middle of the decade, the “wild party” had become as commonplace a factor in American life as the flapper, the Model T, or the Dutch Colonial home in Floral Heights.
Meanwhile, the true intellectuals were far from flattered. What they had wanted was am America more sensitive to art and culture, less avid for material gain, and less susceptible to standardization. Instead, their ideas had been generally ignored, while their behavior had contributed to that standardization by furnishing a pattern of Bohemianism that had become as conventionalized as a Rotary luncheon. As a result, their dissatisfaction with their native country, already acute upon their return from the war, now became even more intolerable. Flaming diatribes poured from their pens denouncing the materialism and what they considered to be the cultural boobery of our society. An important book rather grandiosely entitled Civilization in the United States, written by “thirty intellectuals” under the editorship of Harold E. Stearns, was the rallying point of sensitive persons disgusted with America.
The burden of the volume was that the best minds in the country were being ignored, the art was unappreciated, and that big business had corrupted everything. Journalism was a mere adjunt to moneymaking, politics were corrupted and filled with incompetents and crooks, and American family life so devoted to making money and keeping up with the Joneses that it had become joyless, patterned, hypocritical, and sexually inadequate. These defects would disappear if only creative art were allowed to show the way to better things, but since the country was blind and deaf to Everything save the glint and ring of the dollar, There was little remedy for the sensitive mind but to emigrate to Europe where “they do things better.” By the time Civilization in the United States was published(1921), most of its contributions had taken their own advice and were living abroad, and many more of the artistic and would-be artistic had followed suit.
It was in their defiant, but generally short-lived, European expatriation that our leading writers of the Twenties learned to think of themselves, in the words of Gertrude Stein, as the “lost generation”. In no sense a movement in itself, the “lost generation” attitude nevertheless acted as a Common denominator of the writing of the times. The war and the cynical power politics of Versailles had convinced these young Men and women that spirituality was dead; they felt as stunned as John Andrews, the defeated aesthete in Dos Passos' Three Soldiers, ad rootless as Hemingway's wandering alcoholics in The Sun Also Rises. Besides Stein, Dos Passos, and Hemingway, there were Lewis, Ezra, S, M, H, T, E, M, and many other novelists, dramatists, poets and critics who tried to find their souls in the Antibes and on the Left Bank, who directed sad and bitter blasts at their native land and who, almost to a man, drifted back within a few years out of sheer homesickness, to take up residence on coastal islands and in New England farmhouses and to produce works ripened by the tempering of an older, more sophisticated society.
For actually the “lost generation” was never lost. It was shocked, supported for a time, bitter, critical, rebellious, iconoclastic, experimental, often absurd, more often misdirected- but never “lost.” A decade that produced, in addition to the writers listed above, such figures as Eugenr... and innumerable others could never be written off as sterile, even by itself in a moment of self-pity. The intellectuals of the Twenties, the “sad young men,” ad F called them, cursed their luck but didn't die; escaped but voluntarily returned; flayed the Babbitts but loved their country, and in so doing gave the nation the livelist, freshest, most stimulating writing in its literary experimence.