Old Values vs. New Values

47d. Books and Movies

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin, whose slapstick comedy made him a superstar of early films

They were called the Lost Generation. America's most talented writers of the 1920s were completely disillusioned by the world and alienated by the changes in modern America. The ghastly horrors of trench warfare were a testament to human inhumanity. The ability of the human race to destroy itself had never been more evident. The materialism sparked by the Roaring Twenties left many intellectuals empty. Surely there was more to life than middle-class conformity, they pined. Intolerance toward immigrants and socialists led many writers to see America as grossly provincial. Thus the literature of the decade was that of disaffection and withdrawal, and many of America's greatest talents expatriated to Europe in despair.

The Writers

Ernest Hemingway
Typical of the writing of the age were the desolate landscapes of Ernest Hemingway

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the excesses of the Jazz Age. He and his wife Zelda operated among the social elite in New York, Paris, and on the French Riviera. The Great Gatsby, his most famous novel, highlights the opulence of American materialism while harshly criticizing its morality. Ernest Hemingway wrote of disillusioned youths wandering Europe in the wake of World War I in search of meaning in The Sun Also Rises. T.S. Eliot commented on the emptiness of American life in his epic poem The Waste Land. American theater earned worldwide acclaim in the 1920s. The foremost playwright of this newly respected American genre was Eugene O'Neill, noted for Desire Under the Elms and A Long Day's Journey Into Night. The sharpest critic of American middle-class lifestyle was Sinclair Lewis. In Main Street, he takes aim on small-town American life. Babbitt denounced the emptiness of middle-class life in the city. After a string of successful novels, Lewis brought honor to American writers by becoming the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature.

The Movies

While the written page marked a quest for intellectual insight, the movie industry catered to mass audiences. Every town seemed to have at least one theater for the new craze. The early decade saw millions flock to the screens to see silent action films and slapstick comedies by the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Sex appeal reigned supreme as American women swooned for Rudolph Valentino and American men yearned for the all-American beauty Mary Pickford. To keep standards of morality high in the film industry, the Hays Office stifled artistic license by censoring objectionable scenes. Because of soaring profits, studios sought quantity rather than quality. Therefore the decade saw few pictures of merit. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, appeared in 1927. Walt Disney introduced Mickey Mouse to the American public the following year in Steamboat Willie. By the end of the decade over 100 million viewers attended moviehouses each week, more than the number of weekly churchgoers.

On the Web
The Greatest Films of 1927
Provides you with a short synopsis of some of the biggest films of 1927, as well as links to more extensive reviews and discussions. Check out "The Jazz Singer" for an in-depth look at this film milestone.
A Brief Life of Francis Scott Fitzgerald
A detailed biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, his literary contributions, and the years 1924 through 1927 which he spent in France. From the University of South Carolina. Sorry, no pics.
Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time
Dozens of photos, paintings and images of artifacts, related to Nobel-Prize- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Ernest Hemingway, from infancy through adulthood, are woven together with a rich narrative of his life and professional career. The section on "Paris Years" details his move to Paris, his close association with Anderson, Stein, Fitzgerald, Pound and others. The online exhibit was produced by the National Portrait Gallery, but includes images from many collections.
Zelda Fitzgerald
Zelda, wife and muse of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was a writer and artist in her own right and a central figure in the Lost Generation's social and artisitic circles in Europe. This site captures the paradox of her involvement as a direct participant in the scene, and yet her exclusion from it when she was seen only as Fitzgerald's wife.
We grew up founding our dreams on the infinite promise of American advertising. I still believe that one can learn to play the piano by mail and that mud will give you a perfect complexion.
— Zelda Fitzgerald
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Gertrude Stein first used the term "Lost Generation," referring to Hemingway, MacLeish, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and other American expatriate writers struggling to come to terms with the devastation of World War I.
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After WWI, the French Riviera became the playground of rich Americans like Gerald and Sara Murphy. Known for wild, extravagant partying, their guests included the brightest stars of the Lost Generation.
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