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Modern Lives

A Cultural Re-reading of "The Lost Generation"

Marc Dolan

Purdue University Press

For nearly half a century, the American 1920s were widely characterized as the era of “the lost generation.” Experiences like European expatriation, habitual drunkenness, and repeated artistic failure (which were wholly unrepresentative of most early-twentieth-century American lives) were nevertheless frequently employed in both popular and academic venues as useful symbols for that pivotal era. In recent years, this misleading image of the period has generally faded. It has been replaced by a more inclusive vision of the 1920’s as a decade that saw many Americans incorporate aspects of aesthetic modernism, ethnic diversity, and the new mass culture into their preexisting way of life. Nevertheless, “the lost generation” remains a fascinating instance of historical mythology – a widely known and accepted account of American history that had little if any basis in fact.

Written with the general Americanist rather than the theoretical specialist in mind, Modern Lives traces the development of the idea of "the lost generation" and reinterprets it in light of more recent versions of the American 1920s. Employing a wide range of historical, literary, and cultural theory, Marc Dolan focuses on American versions of "the lost generation," particularly as they emerged in the autobiographical writings of the generation's supposed "members." By examining the narrative and discursive forms that Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others imposed on the raw data of their lives, Dolan draws out the subtle relationships between personal and historical narratives of the early twentieth century, as well as the ways in which the mediating notion of a distinct "generation" allowed those authors to pass back and forth between "the personal" and "the historical."