The Jazz Age
In the aftermath of World War I, American society went through a period of dramatic change. Traditional beliefs in God, country, and humanity were shaken as Americans faced the devastation of a war of this magnitude. The feelings of confusion and dislocation that resulted led to a questioning and often a rejection of conventional morality and beliefs. In the 1920s, Americans recognized that an old order had been replaced by a new, freer society, one that adopted innovative fashions in clothing, behavior, and the arts. Fitzgerald called this decade the “Jazz Age,” which along with the “roaring twenties” came to express the cultural revolution that was then taking place.
During this era of Prohibition, Americans experimented with expressions of personal and social freedom in dress, sexuality, and lifestyle. Women cut their hair and wore shapeless “flapper” dresses that gave then an androgynous look. Premarital sex began to lose its stigma, and exciting developments in musical styles pulled whites into predominantly black neighborhoods. The pursuit of pleasure, especially as related to the accumulation of wealth, became a primary goal, overturning traditional notions of hard work, social conformity, and respectability. Literary historian Margot Norris in her essay “Modernist Eruptions” notes that during this age, “the aesthetics of glamour produced by material and social extravagance” were “simulated and stimulated by the celluloid images of the burgeoning movie industry.”
The Lost Generation
This term became associated with a group of American writers during this period that felt a growing sense of disillusionment after World War I. As a result, many left America for Europe. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound initially relocated to London, while Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway traveled to Paris, which appeared to offer them a much freer society than America or England did. During this period, Paris became a mecca for these expatriates, who congregated in literary salons, restaurants, and bars to discuss their work in the context of the new age. One such salon was dominated by Gertrude Stein, who at one gathering, insisted “you are all a lost generation.” Stein, an author herself, supported and publicized artists and writers in this movement. Ernest Hemingway immortalized her quote in For Whom the Bell Tolls, which like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, has become a penetrating portrait of this lost generation.
W. R. Anderson, in his article on Fitzgerald for Dictionary of Literary Biography, explains that the author never quite felt as comfortable in Paris as did his compatriots. Even though he lived there for over six years, during a most productive period in his literary career, “an air of transience” emerges in his writing. Yet, he notes, Paris, and his association with the other writers of the lost generation, had a major impact on his work.
The characters in works by these authors reflected their growing sense of disillusionment along with the new ideas in psychology, anthropology, and philosophy that had become popular in the early part of the century. Freudian psychology, for example, which had caused a loosening of sexual morality during the Jazz Age, began to be studied by these writers, as they explored the psyche of their characters, and recorded their often subjective points of view of themselves and their world. Hemingway’s men and women faced a meaningless world with courage and dignity, exhibiting “grace under pressure,” while Fitzgerald sought the redemptive power of love in a world driven by materialism.
This age of confusion, redefinition, and experimentation produced one of the most fruitful periods in American letters. These writers helped create a new form of literature, later called modernism, which repudiated traditional literary conventions. Prior to the twentieth century, writers structured their works to reflect their belief in the stability of character and the intelligibility of experience. Traditionally, novels and stories ended with a clear sense of closure as conflicts were resolved and characters gained knowledge about themselves and their world. The authors of the Lost Generation challenged these assumptions as they expanded the genre’s traditional form to accommodate their characters’ questions about the individual’s place in the world.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Published by Gale, 2002.