The Lost Generation

It had been called the greatest period of literary creativity in American history, and many of its novels, poetry, and plays were reactions against recent Victorian attitudes. Forged by the fires of World War I, these young, cynical writers dwelled on the images of a doomed youth. Yet far from being alienated, they were embraced by a wide audience eager to immerse itself in the authors’ self-indulgent lifestyles that were so critical of the older generation.

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The decade opened in 1920 with two seminal works: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. Fitzgerald’s work introduced the “flapper,” a flirtatious gal, audacious in both dress and manner. His main character, Amory Blaine, was, like Fitzgerald himself, a man whose faith had been shaken by world events. Lewis sowed his scorn closer to home. Main Street vilified small town snobbery and decried America’s superficial materialism. The first generation gap of the century was now in full force, a gap opened by a war that had claimed so many. And for what? As the poet Ezra Pound contemptuously concluded, “For an old bitch gone in the teeth, for a botched civilization.”

Fitzgerald and Lewis were followed by Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises about the futility of the war, while John DosPassos dissected city life in Manhattan Transfer.

Journalism also underwent an upsurge in originality and journalists. None were more famous or more renowned than H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Herald and American Mercury, who lambasted old writers, praised the new authors, criticized the Bible Belt and called the American majority the “booboisie.” Ring Lardner was a master who Hemingway adored, while few were spared Dorothy Parker’s razor wit. The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Time and The New Yorker all made their debut during the decade.

Eugene O’Neill revolutionized theater with plays such as Emperor Jones and Strange Interlude, both of which were influenced by playwright Henrik Ibsen and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Langston Hughes

In poetry, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay were just a few of the emerging geniuses of the age. Poet Archibald MacLeish proudly stated that the Twenties was “the greatest period of painting and music, literary and artistic innovation since the Renaissance.”

And the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing as poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Jones, novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay, and black artists made Harlem the soul and heart of African-American culture.Spurred by Marcus Garvey, Harlem’s population swelled and was an American success as the village’s economy and the arts flourished.