The Lost Generation returns to active duty every few years as it captures the imagination of each generation that follows. Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Joyce, Eliot, Stein, Pound, Picasso and company flicker by in images on the walls of our brains: wild parties, spirited discussions, sidewalk cafes, manly men, and lively women, eternal poster children for a creative new generation taking the world by storm.
Recently the Paris emigrés have resurfaced in Woody Allen’s lovely Midnight in Paris, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, and in an earlier in David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris 1830-1900.
Forever at the center of this circle, occupying just the position he would like, despite any protestations to the contrary, is Ernest Hemingway. No matter what one thinks of the man, one must admit that his presence is as vivid as ever. Personally, I admire his lean, economical writing style and the idea of grace under pressure, but loathe his chest-beating narcissism and the way he treated his wives. Ultimately, it would be a shame to let your feelings about the man keep you away from his best work or from appreciating its resounding echoes through generations of other writers.
If you want to read Hemingway on the Lost Generation, you have two basic choices. Fiction fans should probably pursue The Sun also Rises at some point (although the frequent assignment of this book to high schoolers—who find the ennui of drunken, burnt out thirty-somethings completely alien—is a personal pet peeve). I prefer A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s nonfiction about his early years in Paris with first wife Hadley. In a series of vignettes, he captures the place, the people, and the good and bad in himself.
The long gestation of Feast is fascinating. It was constructed from notes taken at the time, which Hemingway began to cobble into a memoir when he rediscovered them in the mid 1950s. The book didn’t actually see publication until 1964, when after his death, his last wife and literary executor Mary edited it into publication readiness. Another revision appeared in 2009 under the guidance of grandson Seán. Scholars have disputed Hemingway’s characterizations of Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, and Stein; questioned his depictions of himself as a starving artist or as completely self-assured; and mourned Mary’s removal of his apologies to Hadley. Quibbles aside, however, the heart of the book beats strongly. It’s still a fast and evocative read after all these years, one that’s at the heart of the Hemingway mystique.
Check the WRL catalog for A Moveable Feast
Or listen to it on audio CDs