The term “lost generation” refers to a group of writers—but also to an entire generation—who came of age during World War I. Here is why they are called “lost.”
Why Do They Call It the Lost Generation? It Started with a Quote
The term “lost generation” came from a statement. “All of you young people who served in the war. . . . You are all a lost generation,” writer Gertrude Stein said to a young Ernest Hemingway in the years after World War I, according to his account years later in A Moveable Feast.
The phrase “lost generation” described the disillusionment felt by many, especially intellectuals and creatives, after the death and carnage of World War I. The loss of faith in traditional values and ideals led many who came of age during World War I to become hedonistic, rebellious, and aimless—“lost.” This cynicism and disillusionment defined the literary and creative landscape of the 1920s.
Who Were Part of the Lost Generation?
The term “Lost Generation” became associated with a group of writers and artists with whom Hemingway worked in Paris, France, during the early 1920s. However, the term also refers more broadly to all those who reached adulthood during World War I. In Europe, they have also been called “the generation of 1914.”
The “Lost Generation” of World War I
Worldwide, about 20 million people died in World War I (or the Great War, as it was known at the time)—and another 20 million or so were wounded. Those born in the last two decades of the 1800s were heavily impacted. Young people served in the military in large numbers and figured highly in those casualties.
Many who survived the war emerged with deep physical or emotional wounds. Young adults lost friends and often saw their careers and family plans disrupted. In war-torn regions, family homes and livelihoods were sometimes destroyed. During a season of life when they would typically anticipate joyful rites of passage—graduations, new jobs, weddings, parenthood—many instead felt alone, disabled, unmoored from traditional values, and uncertain or pessimistic about the future.
In regard to survivors, the phrase “lost generation” suggests that even though their lives were physically spared, many still felt lost.
The Lost Generation of Writers
Many writers and poets who came of age during the Great War voiced their deep sense of loss, anger, and disillusionment. One was Wilfred Owens, an English poet and soldier who wrote from the trenches. One of his most famous poems pits the horrors of a gas attack against the idea of the nobility of going to war. The title, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” refers to an ancient Roman saying: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Owen died on the battlefield only a week before the Armistice of November 11, 1918. He is considered an early voice of the Lost Generation writers.
The famous core of Lost Generation writers was a group of American expatriates who lived in Paris, France, during the 1920s. Among them was Hemingway, who had driven ambulances in Italy during the Great War. In Paris, he associated with mentor Gertrude Stein and other friends who profoundly influenced his work. His novels The Sun Also Rises and Farewell to Arms were both written in the late 1920s and follow the turbulent lives of characters living through World War I or in its aftermath.
F. Scott Fitzgerald turned the literary spotlight on another Lost Generation theme. His 1920s novels (This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby) center on the empty, decadent, materialistic lifestyles pursued by his characters after the Great War. These books also explore how these choices affected marriages and relationships.
Other writers included in the circle of the lost generation include Sylvia Beach, E. E. Cummings, Max Eastman, T. S. Eliot, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound.
How did the events of World War I affect your family?Ask older members of your family what they know. Search World War I records from several countries to see who may have served. For ancestors who lived in the United States, search for their families in the 1920 census.