Like many other cities in Europe, Paris was devastated by the Great War. As has been widely acknowledged, the war was one of the world’s first highly mechanised conflicts. After decades of excitement and futurist dreams on both sides of the Atlantic—typified by the Great Exhibitions in London, Paris, and Chicago from 1851—the War reflected the dark, disturbing underside of technological invention. Some of the artists and authors who remained in Paris after the cessation of hostilities had served in this unprecedented clash of civilisations; others had reported on the events and the terrible political and humanitarian upheavals afterwards.
If the War highlighted alarming aspects of twentieth-century innovation, Paris also somehow clung to its reputation as the capital of bohemian culture. The city had long been famous for its philosophical intrigues and artistic inspiration, its avant-garde tastes and flamboyant personalities. The inter-war period saw the rise of Montparnasse as the hub of the city’s artistic community, its bars and cafés resounding to the pulse of “hot” jazz music and intellectual debate.
All this colour and creativity was so different from the austere materialism of American cities (mainly New York and Chicago), as depicted by “Naturalist” writers like Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair (all of whom would make their way to Europe in due course). As the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses suggested in 1922, the Parisian cultural scene was more permissive of literature which confronted established mores and codes of behaviour. Culturally as well as morally, Paris in the 1920s remained one of the most exciting, sophisticated cities in the world. Capital of the avant-garde in all its forms, the city played host to any number of intersecting artistic cliques including Modernists and Cubists, Dadaists and Futurists, Expressionists and Surrealists. These were the years of Picasso and Modigliani, Braque and Duchamp, Stravinski and Satie, Diaghilev and Cocteau. Radical developments in the visual and performing arts were mirrored in the Continental literature of the time, from the surrealist shock tactics of André Bréton and Guillaume Apollinaire, to the textual experimentation of Joyce and Beckett. It was into this vibrant, inspiring foment of idea and innovation that the self-imposed exiles of America’s “Lost Generation” flung themselves. Young radicals like Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, and Ezra Pound, and, a little later on, Henry Miller and Anais Nin, published some of their most powerful and controversial works in the city.
On the face of it the sobriquet of “Lost Generation” seems an odd collective description for a group of writers and artists who were among the brightest flowering of American literary talent yet to emerge on the international stage. In fact, it was Gertrude Stein—the scene’s abiding spirit and prominent literary hostess—who coined the phrase in conversation with Ernest Hemingway (“you are all a lost generation”). However, it was undoubtedly the latter’s use of the phrase as the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner’s, 1926; 12711.c.22), his epochal novel of wild years spent in Paris and Spain, that popularised the expression and made clear its apocalyptic overtones. The phrase—and Hemingway’s book—depicted this generation as characterised by doomed youth, hedonism, uncompromising creativity, and wounded—both literally and metaphorically—by the experience of war. To varying degrees, these virtues and vices were to be found in the life-story of nearly every member of the Lost Generation. Aside from their wild lifestyles, though, what is most striking is the astonishing range, depth, and influence of work produced by this community of American expatriates in Paris.
This outburst of creativity was supported by an explosion of small-scale entrepreneurialism in the creative arts. Much of the literature produced by the American Modernists was published by small presses also run by expatriates, including Shakespeare & Company, Contact Editions, Black Sun Press, Three Mountains Press, Plain Editions, and Obelisk Press. A list of the canonical works of inter-war American literature produced in Paris, following the landmark publication of Joyce’s Ulysses by Shakespeare & Co. (owned by Princeton expatriate Sylvia Beach 1 ) in 1922, provides a key to the literary future of the United States:
- H.D (Hilda Doolittle), Palimpsest (Paris: Contact Editions, 1922; 12651.i.54)
- William Carlos Williams, The Great American Novel (Paris: Three Mountains Press, 1923; Cup.510.fac.4)
- Ezra Pound, Indiscretions (Paris: Three Mountains Press, 1923; Cup.510.fac.1 [mislaid])
- Ernest Hemingway, in our time (Paris: Three Mountains Press, 1924; Cup.510.fac.6)
- Robert McAlmon, Village: as it happened through a fifteen year period (Paris: Contact Editions, 1924; Cup.410.f.1246)
- Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanac (Paris: Contact Editions, 1926; X.519/20735)
- Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (Paris: Contact Press, 1925; X.520/32188)
- Hart Crane, The Bridge, A Poem (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1930; Cup.510.fa.15)
- Archibald MacLeish, New Found Land, Fourteen Poems (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1930; Cup.400.c.22)
- Ezra Pound, Imaginary Letters (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1930; Cup.510.fa.16)
- ________. A Draft of XXX Cantos (Paris: Hours Press, 1930; Cup.510.fac.14)
- Nathanael West, The Dream Life of Basso Snell (Paris: Contact Editions, 1931; Cup.410g.725)
- William Faulkner, Sanctuary (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1932)
- Ernest Hemingway, The Torrents of Spring (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1932)
- Dorothy Parker, Laments for the Living (Paris: Black Sun Press, 1932)
- Katherine Anne Porter, Hacienda (Harrison of Paris, 1934)
- Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (Paris: Obelisk Press, 1935; Cup.804.bb.5)
- Henry Miller, Black Spring (Paris: Obelisk, 1936; Cup.804.p.6; Durrell 124)
- Anais Nin, House of Incest (Paris: Obelisk, 1936; 12623.k.28)
- Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (Paris: Obelisk, 1939; Cup.804.bb.8)
- Anais Nin, Winter of Artifice (Paris: Obelisk, 1939; 12631.r.6)
1. James Joyce, Ulysses (Paris: Shakespeare & Company, 1922; C.116.g.17). Supporting the manuscript holdings of the many authors who surrounded her, the British Library also holds a substantial collection of correspondence and other manuscript material related to Sylvia Beach and her proprietorship of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. According to André Chamson, Beach’s library and bookstore did “more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined”; Chamson, quoted in Hugh Ford, Published in Paris: American and British Writers, Printers, and Publishers in Paris, 1920-1939 (1975; X.981/10131).
Copyright: © British Library
Copyright: © British Library