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The Lost Generation

The Left Bank

References to the Left Bank have never lost their power to evoke the most piquant images of Paris. The Left Bank's geographic and cerebral hub is the Latin Quarter, which takes its name from the university tradition of studying and speaking in Latin, a practice that disappeared at the time of the French Revolution. The area is populated mainly by students and academics from the Sorbonne, the headquarters of the University of Paris. Most of the St-Germain cafés, where the likes of Sartre, Picasso and Hemingway spent their days and nights, are patronized largely by tourists now. Yet the Left Bank is far from dead. It is a lively and colorful district, rich in history and character. To the south, dwarfed beneath its 59-story Tower, lies Montparnasse, the bohemian center of interwar Paris.

Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound & John QuinnDuring the 17th century, students from the Latin Quarter had jokingly given this area the pompous name of Mont Parnasse (Mount Parnassus). It developed during the 18th century into a center for popular entertainment, as bars, restaurants and cabarets -- which were at that time just outside the city boundaries -- could serve tax-free wine. That tradition survived even after the district became part of Paris during the latter half of the 19th century. While the area of Montmartre had been popular in bohemian circles through the 1890s, during the period immediately prior to World War I, artists and poets suddenly moved to Montparnasse on the Left Bank, thereby bringing it into the limelight and attracting painters and composers as well. Even Russian political refugees such as Lenin and Trotsky became a part of the intellectual community whose social life centered around four cafés on the boulevard Montparnasse -- la Coupole, le Select, la Rotonde, and le Dôme.

The Lost Generation

Though several stories conjecture on how the Lost Generation came to be called thus, the most plausible seems to be this: One summer in Belley, while Gertrude Stein's Ford auto was in need of some repair, it was serviced quickly by a young garage mechanic at the hotel where she was staying. When she mentioned the young man's efficiency to the proprietor, her friend M. Pernollet, he replied that boys of his age made good workers, though it was different with the ones who had gone to war. Young men became civilized between the ages of 18 and 25, while the soldiers had missed that civilizing experience. They were, he said, une génération perdue.

When Hemingway heard the story at the rue de Fleurus, he decided to use the sentence "You are all a lost generation" (attributing it to Gertrude Stein) as an epigraph for his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, a story about the 'uncivilized', aimless lives of the very people M. Pernollet had in mind. Due to the book's tremendous success, the phrase was guaranteed enduring fame.

Although the description -- in its original sense -- only applied to survivors of the war who had been unable or unwilling to settle back into the routines of peacetime life, other writers eagerly adopted the catch phrase, using it more and more loosely until 'The Lost Generation' came to signify the whole anonymous horde of young Americans abroad, particularly those with literary or artistic inclinations.

Zelda, Scott Fitzgerald & ScottyParis was indisputably the capital city of the Lost Generation. It passed, of course, through other towns en route, from Munich to Madrid, Pamplona to Rapallo. Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca can even be counted as a border outpost. But the greatest concentration of expatriates was always to be found in Paris, and more specifically in the streets around the boulevard Montparnasse on the Left Bank that provided the scene for the first part of Hemingway's novel. It was there that the wanderers came closest to finding a home.

The city had a double attraction for writers. Its artistic reputation had never been higher. It was the home of all that was most daringly modern. As Gertrude Stein used to say, Paris was where the twentieth century was. Secondly, it was also a city where Americans could live on very little money. Even young writers with nothing to show for their ambitions but bundles of rejection slips could live like boulevardiers on small allowances from back home. In the exchange bonanza of the 1920s it took real dedication to starve. Writers who had always wanted to live in Paris suddenly made the discovery that it was a practical economic proposition.

Ezra Pound was one of the first to arrive, coming from England where he had lived throughout the war. He had come to the conclusion that postwar London was dead. "There is no longer any intellectual life in England," he wrote to William Carlos Williams in 1920, "save what centers in this eight by ten pentagonal room." He and his wife Dorothy moved to what he called "the Island of Paris", convinced that it was the one live spot in Europe and hoping to find there "a poetic serum to save English letters from postmature and American letters from premature suicide and decomposition."

He soon made his presence felt on the Paris literary scene, at the salons in the rue Jacob and the rue de Fleurus and in the little magazines. He was living in a ground floor flat on the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, where he set about making the furniture he needed from packing cases, canvas and wooden boards. Though reticent about his writing, he was boastful on the subject of his carpentry. He used to point out the fine points of the workmanship to guests who came to perch uncomfortably on the hard wooden chairs.

Hadley & Ernest HemingwaySoon writers were arriving thick and fast. Sherwood Anderson paid his first brief visit in 1921. Later that year the 22-year-old Ernest Hemingway arrived in town with his bride, Hadley. He was a shy, good looking young man, who tended to listen more than talk. He was living off his wife's allowance and the income from occasional pieces written for a Canadian newspaper.

Another significant visitor in the summer of 1921 was Scott Fitzgerald. Unlike Hemingway, Fitzgerald had already made a name for himself with his first novel. His wife Zelda and he spent only a few days in Paris at this time. Three disillusioning years were to pass before the two of them, worn out with parties, were to return to the city where Scott had decided that they could work, live cheaply and escape from the burden of their friends.

Throughout the twenties, when money was plentiful and exchange rates favorable, other writers drifted in and out of town. Not the least of Paris' attractions for writers was that it was a good place to get published. It was the home of a succession of expatriate literary reviews. The first of these was Ford Madox Ford's transatlantic review, edited from a loft on the Ile St. Louis, which featured the works of Pound, Hemingway and Stein, among others.

The literary colony was based in Montparnasse, known familiarly as the Quarter. In the center of Montparnasse, then as now, lay the four large cafés that dominate the crossroads where the boulevard Montparnasse meets the boulevard Raspail. The Coupole and the Rotonde, the Dôme and the Sélect soon had international reputations. The twenties' expatriates were as closely identified with these cafés as Sartre and the Existentialists were with the Flore and the Deux Magots on the boulevard St. Germain in their day.

Hemingway preferred La Closerie des Lilas, tending to shun much of the Montparnasse crowd in favor of his work. In fact, while many of the American expatriates' literary careers and lives -- perhaps most notably that of Scott Fitzgerald -- succumbed to alcohol and patronage of the cabarets, Hemingway was quite dedicated, arranging his schedule and surroundings to provide the least distraction to his writing. At first, he had rented a garret room in a hotel on the rue du Cardinal Lemoine to work, but later took to writing in cafés in the daytime when there were few people to disturb him. His customary arsenal on the Closerie's marble-topped tables included his blue-backed notebooks, two pencils and a pencil sharpener.

Sadly, many other talents in the Quarter did not posess the same dedication. Poet and author Robert McAlmon was to be the prime literary casualty of Paris in the twenties. Although he was a generous patron of other people's talents, publishing works by Hemingway, Stein, Ford and William Carlos Williams, his own writing languished as he buried himself in drink. Perhaps it was a reaction to Prohibition back home or a natural side effect of café life, but the writers took to alcohol with gusto. The poet Hart Crane managed to flatten four waiters and knock out a gendarme in a drunken display at the Sélect. Perhaps most tragic was the fate of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: because of their incessant partying, Scott was frequently carried home, too drunk to stand up, and Zelda was soon institutionalized. Ezra Pound disapproved of his peers' mounting excesses, which is one of the reasons why he eventually moved to Italy. In many ways, living in the fast lane as they were, this 'Lost Generation' was hell-bent on self-destruction, more than amply living up to its adopted name. By the end of the decade, many of the expatriate community had either returned to the States or moved on to other locales.

Author: Ian C. Mills ©1998-99 All Rights Reserved
Bibliography: The Cafés of Paris: A Guide, Christine Graf, Interlink Publishing Group Inc., Brooklyn, NY. Paris: A Literary Companion, Ian Littlewood, Franklin Watts Inc., New York (out-of-print). Americans In Paris, Tony Allan, 1979, Contemporary Books Inc., Chicago (out-of-print). A Guide To Hemingway's Paris - with Walking Tours, John Leland, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, NC, division of Workman Publishing Co. Inc., New York. Passport's Illustrated Travel Guide to Paris, 3rd Edition, Elizabeth Morris, 1996, Passport Books, division of NTC Publishing Group, Chicago. Fodor's 97 France, Fodor's Travel Publications, Inc., published in the U.S. by Random House, Inc., New York. Tripod LiteraTour: Hemingway.
Image sources: Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound & John Quinn, in Paris founding the transatlantic review: Humanities Research Center, University of Texas. Zelda, Scott Fitzgerald and Scotty; Hadley & Ernest Hemingway (standing together): from A Moveable Feast,
© 1964 Ernest Hemingway Ltd., Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Ernest Hemingway, standing, hands in pockets: from USIS.


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Ernest Hemingway

by Kenneth S. Lynn

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Paperback, 702 pages, Reprint edition
Published March 1995
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ISBN: 0674387325

Ernest Hemingway was a mythic figure of overt masculinity and vibrant literary genius. He lived life on an epic scale, presenting to the world a character as compelling as the fiction he created. But behind it all lurked an insecure, troubled man. Now, in this immensely powerful and revealing study, Kenneth S. Lynn penetrates the Hemingway persona and explores the many tragic facets that both nurtured his work and eroded his life.

Stories of how Hemingway interacted with other great writers of his day are fascinating. Although the book is over 700 pages, the author's easy narrative style holds the reader's attention and no where do we get lost or feel overwhelmed with detail.

Continued with
" Hemingway's Hangouts & Landmarks - Part III"

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