From time to time throughout the course of the 20th century, there was a tendency for the mass media – movies, radio, newspapers, TV, etc. – to label and describe the youth of a particular generation. Thus, we had the “Lost Generation,” the “Beat Generation,” the “Now Generation” and perhaps others. Each of these generations was promoted as something new and revolutionarily different from their parent’s generation; that is, there was allegedly a generation gap between parents and their kids. To varying degrees, youth of these succeeding generations were in fact different and actually made some important innovations in art, music, and American morality in general. Especially, in our sexual morality and behavior.
The “Lost Generation” was a loosely-tagged, rebellious underground that existed in the late 1920s. Among its most celebrated rebels were the flappers, the avant-garde “reckless” women of the day. There were also famous criminals like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel who supplied the illegal booze and who frequently owned and operated the speakeasies in the time of Prohibition. The artistic innovators were known as Bohemians, a French word meaning “intellectual gypsy,” imagery I’ve always found quite delightful. Famous Bohemian artists included Picasso and George Braque. There were also Bohemian writers like Hemingway (of course), F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller.
“Lost Generation” was coined by Gertrude Stein. Hemingway seized the concept and dedicated his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” to the Lost Generation. Thereafter, the label became popular and the characteristics of this generation were indelibly stamped on our collective unconscious. They still make popular films and write important book about Capone, Picasso and others. Most recently, these include Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” and TV’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Stein used the term to describe an entire generation of American youth but, in fact, the number of kids involved were proportionately very small. They were essentially urban youth in key cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans, and even there only a relatively few youngsters. (I mean, really now, how many gin-drinking, jazz-dancing, cigarette-smoking, flatout sexy flappers do you think there were in Kansas, Montana, Alabama and most of the country?) Though their numbers were small, they made an enormous, permanent impact on the art, literature, and morals of the whole society.
The Lost Generation was swept away by the Depression. The whole thing didn’t last more than five years. However, something similar rose from its residue in the late 1950s.
It was called the “Beat Generation” and it was also characterized by artistic and literary Bohemians, but now they were called “Beatniks” or merely “Beats.” Artists included Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning. The literary side had poet Allen Ginsberg and novelists Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer.
Yet, despite all the hell they raised, by the early 1960s they were hopelessly passé. What effect they may have had on American culture is debatable. For sure, they were front-runners in the use of many illegal drugs and they loosened the sexual morality more than the flapper could ever have imagined. Though abstract expressionism created quite a firestorm in art circles, it wasn’t nearly as innovative as cubism. Even though Ginsberg’s “Howl” was a new and inventive form of “protest” poetry, it certainly isn’t as brilliant or beautiful as the work of T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. On a personal level, the lifestyle portrayed in “On the Road” made a deep, irreversible impression on me – but I never, for even an instant, thought Kerouac was a good writer.
Perhaps the Beats will be best remembered as prophets who pointed the direction and defined the dreams of yet another generation, the hippies and the “Now Generation” of the late 1960s.
More next week.