Lost Generation Short Stories

As part of the modernist imperative to “make it new,” writers of the 1920s and 1930s consistently wreaked havoc with existing genre conventions. “Poems” no longer rhymed and scanned predictably; essays and reviews had a subjective, even idiosyncratic, slant; plays were anything but three long acts; and the well-made moralizing short story had given way to the “sketch,” the prose poem improvisation, some innovative grouping of pages that offended editors and readers alike. Because the short story has become so intrinsically an American province, readers have difficulty appreciating how bold short story writers of the Lost Generation were. Damned (and seldom published) by commercial editors, they persisted in writing in this form—and changed the world’s understanding of what a short story might be.

This avant-garde current was tempered and influenced by the fact that some short story writers of the time were making large sums of money by publishing more conventional stories in slick American magazines. It might be said that the visibly experimental stories of Djuna Barnes, Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, Kay Boyle, Katherine Anne Porter, and others were prompted into being by the possibility of earning good money. The near notoriety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s financial success from 1920 on dominated most young writers’ imaginations; indeed, during the 1930s, when William Faulkner’s novels had been monetary disasters, he set himself the task of writing simple, or at least easily accessible, short fiction to try to recoup his losses on the publication of his first half-dozen novels. His careful records of which stories had been sent to which magazines showed the power of the financial imperative.

Actress Betty Field Dances in Party Scene From “The Great Gatsby”. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The tug of war between aesthetic merit and moneymaking potential made the struggle for the modern short story form a truly American activity. It also generated a literal flood of short fiction that helped effect the change from the notion that only Guy de Maupassant or Edgar Allan Poe could craft a story to a willingness to recognize even the brief prose poem segments of Ernest Hemingway’s in our time (1924) (and the later In Our Time, 1925) as stories. The short story was fast becoming one of the most interesting of literary forms.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers, may have planted the seed of a romanticized disillusion that made the phrase lost generation appealing to the post—World War I generation. Hemingway, in one epigraph to his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, wryly quoted Gertrude Stein as having used the phrase (when in reality it was Stein’s garage mechanic, speaking of a French prewar generation). The phrase struck many war survivors, especially those living abroad, as a kind of defiant rallying cry. The realists (see REALISM) who had known war were often those who demanded the new in art; just as history could not be repeated, neither could earlier aesthetics be effective in modern times.

The best of Fitzgerald’s stories blended realism with illusion, and the influence of his first works—“Benediction,” “The Ice Palace,” even “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”—grew to be as important as that of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 Winesburg, Ohio. The grotesque, as Anderson described his lost characters, were less picturesque and more real in Fitzgerald and Glenway Wescott (as they had been, somewhat earlier, in Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, and Stephen Crane). The first half of the 1920s saw remarkable stories— and collections—peaking in books that were central to readers’ views of both the literary form and gender relations in the United States. Fitzgerald’s 1926 collection of stories (his third) was All the Sad Young Men; Hemingway’s 1927 collection of stories (his second) was Men without Women. The stories in each drew from the patterns that already existed in both Winesburg and Jean Toomer’s Cane(1923), where women were featured as objects of men’s desire rather than as subjects. Similarly, in these collections of some of the greatest stories of the century (“The Rich Boy,” “The Undefeated”), male characters sorted through their lives— analyzing, assessing, dissecting—and placed sexual satisfaction, or romance, low on their list of priorities. In many of these stories men, struggling to find dignity and belief, abandoned any hope of finding love.

Perhaps that paradigm helped to explain the difficulty some other American writers of the time had in finding publication, much less fame. Katherine Anne Porter’s stories, like those of Djuna Barnes, Zora Neale Hurston, Tillie Olsen, and Willa Cather, seemed enigmatic: For readers who understood Fitzgerald and Hemingway, women protagonists led lives that seemed either frustrating or bizarre. By the early 1930s stories by William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, William Carlos Williams, Nathanael West, and, somewhat later, John Steinbeck, Albert Maltz, Richard Wright, and other male writers, were also finding acceptance. Until assessments that began during the 1980s, the bravura performance of short story writers of the Lost Generation was marked as gendered: crucial to the development of the short story as the world knew it, fascinating in its variation and vitality, and almost exclusively male-oriented in its characters and themeEs.

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Dolan, Marc. Modern Lives, A Cultural Re-Reading of “The Lost Generation.” West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1996.
Faulkner, Peter, ed. The English Modernist Reader, 1910– 1930. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
Ingram, Forrest. Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century: Studies in a Literary Genre. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.
Kennedy, J. Gerald, ed. Modern American Short Story Sequences. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Kenner, Hugh. The Proud Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Koppelman, Susan. “Short Story.” In Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, edited by Cathy N Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Lohaffer, Susan, and Jo Ellyn Clarey, ed. Short Story Theory at a Crossroads. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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