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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Harvey

Part One: The Generations Before the Founding

One hundred years ago, Gertrude Stein said to one Ernst Hemingway by a cafe window in Paris, "That is what you are. That's what you all are ... all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation." Hemingway did not believe in that though, he believed that maybe some were misguided, left in the abysmal effects of the war to end all wars, consumed by the golden flask, transfixed to the diamond opportunities in front of them. Between the two, each side like a magnetic pole, many became lost. And what Hemingway seemed to realize was that later on is that even when a generation may be “lost”, that just means there is a chance to be found again- an opening, a defining moment wherein they could have fixed themselves. It is my belief that the so-called “Lost Generation” does not have the exclusive quality of having gone astray in the insanity of a degrading world. Every generation has its lost souls, no matter how perfect it may seem to be. Except what made the Lost Generation “lost”, in the previous generations’ eyes, was that they were the first to be seen as such. They were the first of the modern generations to have gone so far off the peak, to be so universally affected by the general madness of the world, that they were seen as dysfunctional. A whole generation, never before in human history, classified as existing as one population, one sub-group of society, that all had one virtue- a virtue which other generations believed would be their ruin. The virtue of self-absolution.

And those previous generations saw the Lost Generation as being astray because those who were a part of it, both men and women, were willing to go out and become lost in the first place. They were willing to go out on their own self-explorative journeys, a journey that was embarked on as to find comfort within themselves and become something greater. Meanwhile, generations prior would merely have just accepted their lives as they were, with the exception of those who were at the forefront of the Transcendentalist Movements of the early 1800s. But if a man was consumed by the darkness of war or inner turmoil, he processed it by worshiping a God and sitting out on the deck while having another glass of bourbon at hisside. All the while, his wife was stuck wondering if she would live that night, or if the demons of the man she loved took her life. But the Lost Generation, while also being heavily consumed by alcoholism, were among the first to look within and express how they saw the world without sheathing a single aspect of it over. Without the Lost Generation, all that we have today in regards to literature, art, and culture would not exist.

Never before were novels that encapsulated the dangers and inconsistencies of society being published in the masses, with novels like The Sun Also Rises and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf being two examples of such. Additionally, paintings that focused on the true inner workings of the human spirit, being categorized then as Expressionism, were on display for the entire world to see. And, during this time, films were just beginning to be developed and screened, taking a deeper look at what it meant to be human. They managed to mirror the emotions and experiences we have as humans through using the genres we know today like comedy, horror, dramas, and romance. Of course, they were the categories within plays and musicals attributed to the ancient Greeks, but never before were they put in a place where everyone could see them. It was no longer a higher-class activity to go and see a complete and wonderful story playout right before your eyes, everyone in society could now have this experience and, most importantly, take something away from it. Movies like “The Mark of Zorro” looked at how precious it is to be in a free society, and “Greed”, directed by Eric Stroheim in 1924, looked at how one can become so entrenched in his own wanting’s, pleasures, and desires that it may not just harm him- but those he loves around him. Do those two themes sound familiar?

Not to mention, those are just a few examples, and that’s without explaining the social nuances that came from America’s very own classical music: jazz. The sheer technicality and improvisations of the art form morphed the idea of what “music” was, and who could listen to it. Jazz was the first form of music, like with film, that was for everybody, that was not just for the rich citizens of a society. It could be played in bars and barn houses, on the side of streets and inside mansions, not just merely for the wealthy that could sit in booths at a concert hall. Although what was truly unique was that there were no racial boundaries, for blacks, whites, and latinos alike contributed to the artform, each recognizing the other as being significant and important to its formation. Especially now, when we look back, seeing how quintessential the African Americans of New Orleans were in creating this art form, that then created other forms of music later on down the line. For if you look, without jazz you do not have the jazz pop of the late 30s that went into the 1950s, and without that you do not have Elvis who harnessed the blues and rhythm of the genre. Then, from Elvis comes all of rock, inspiring the Beatles, which then brought about many of the bands that would progress the genre on after. Conclusively, the basslines and sad melodies of jazz would also make its way into becoming funk and disco, both of which would help give birth to the most popular music form we have today- rap.

And, like with most things with the Lost Generation, the things they accomplished were merely the first step towards the end goal: us. But they were only the first, and many other generations would receive nicknames that were attached to the traits given by generations before, assessing how socioeconomic circumstances within each population's time period would give into the definition of what they are. If the Lost Generation did anything, though, it got a running start for those who would come later. They are the origin of all things creative and expressive that we know today, and they opened the floodgates for everybody, not just the wealthy to add onto culture and make society a better place, but for those who were poor or considered disenfranchised as well. The days of old where a family’s past financial status was key to being important and powerful in society was no longer, for even the poor man could be capable of revolutionizing America, on any one of the open outlets that Lost Generation had then allowed to exist.

But if one is to consider the Lost Generation as the father of all American generations, the origin of everything that we have today, then The Greatest Generation is its favorite child- and rightfully so. The Greatest Generations resilience and survival during the most tumultuous time in all of recent human history was beyond remarkable. They grew up starving in the Great Depression, immediately going into World War Two then after. Even more impressive- they kept their heads held high when most other generations would have crumbled to the ground and prayed to God for sanctuary. Moreover, they continued to do the work that the Lost Generation started, and they did it exceptionally well, furthering on the tradition of self-exploration and divulgence of the realities of America. Black civil rights advocates like Malcolm X and James Baldwin tore apart society's false conclusion that the Civil War solved all the problems of racial conflict and oppression that came from the birth of this nation. Psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers created the Humanistic Perspective, opposing the Lost Generations era of psychologists that formed the Behaviorist Perspective, focusing on looking at the person and how they can grow. If the Behaviorists were the ones to identify how a person learned their behaviors, the Humanists looked to identify and help them to cope, or fix, the behaviors they acquired throughout their life. They looked inward and saw that we, as human beings with emotions and an infinite amount of potential energy that could change worlds, were not being acted upon enough as to achieve the best forms of ourselves. Quite simply, without the Humanists you do not have the sort of advocacy for mental health that there is today. They were among the first to say that humans cannot just exist amongst each other, for that was not enough. We need to communicate as human beings, to talk about our feelings and fears as to have a better chance at reaching self-actualization, a personal nirvana. The Humanists defined aspects of life such as the feelings of belonging, love, high self-esteem, and self-actualization as being actual human needs, all of which were considered only to be nice side dishes in the full course of life prior.

This kind of introduction of the idea that to every person there is a profound amount of opportunities to grow and achieve then sparked a complete social movement across America in the 1950s and 60s, taking from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from 1943 and Rogers Personality Theory of 1959. Smaller sectors of the U.S. population were now in a full on assault towards the men in power that held them back from achieving the needs that the Humanists emphasized in the years prior, creating more conversation on social issues than ever before. While the Humanists may not have directly been cited by these groups- those ideas still lingered in the air of a changing society. This is most evident in the case of the Second Wave of Feminism, including revolutionaries such as Betty Friedan’s and The Feminine Mystique, along with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Concerning The Feminine Mystique, Friedan’s intellectual analysis of the housewife’s daily lives illustrated perfectly how social standards held women back, keeping them in the house to tend to children’s needs and the husband's pleasure, and preventing any chances for a fulfillment of one’s own purpose and capabilities. On the other side of the coin, Plath and her novel, The Bell Jar, has been considered to be one of the first true novels that focused on the reality of women along with managing to successfully pair it with the actuality that mentally ill citizens in America were being handled correctly, both on an ethical and moral front. With her serene yet horrifying tone, Plath illustrates how methods like shock therapy were being used consistently as a main solution to mental health issues. Her description of this reality, this domino effect of being rejected because of your own gender, was, and still is, brutal for any person to read. Then, Plath shows how one gets shoved further down that pitiful rabbit hole, a rabbit hole that one day would lead to her suicide. And it was all because of the treatments and social standards that were used to make those who dealt with mental illnesses, with women being a large demographic in this, feel as if it were their faults and not society’s or, quite plainly, life’s.

But what is truly inspiring, in the midst of all of this, was that this is the bare minimum. It extends even further to apply to the workers’ rights movements and acts spanning across both these generations, spanning from the Adamson Act of 1916, to Roosevelt's New Deal, and then connecting that to Cesar Chavez; all whilst looking at the psychological and social movements of those times and seeing how they impacted the tides of change across the board in America. One could also connect a lot of this to Native American rights and immigration laws, but no short essay could truly do any of those subject’s justice. They deserve their own bits and own analysis by writers and historians far more capable than myself.

The one thing that is essential to understand, that has to be taken out of this essay- is that you must look around. Right at this moment. All that we have, the information, the knowledge, the ideas, the social movements in place- come from our past American generations that allowed for them to exist. You do not have school counselors and mental health advocacy without those who paved the road for there to be a dialogue before us. We would not have social movements like Black Lives Matter or the Me Too Movement without figures from both the Lost Generation, such as W.E.B Du Bois, or from the Greatest Generation, with organizations like The Women’s Liberation movement. Distinguishably, the Women’s Liberation Movement was an organization inspired by the Feminine Mystique that stood up to cultural franchises like Playboy Magazine that suggested that having a sexist and degrading society, a culture that deemed women as mere objects for pleasure by men in power, was justified. Not to mention, this was a culture that would then manifest itself into bringing men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby into existence, thinking that the actions they were perpetrating were somehow normal and morally acceptable.

Although, at the end of the day, the Lost Generation and the Greatest Generation, with every generation in between, has all been worked up to this, to us- The Founding Generation. To identify us as just another generation with a letter at the end of its name or as just the iGen would be a disgrace to those before us. And we are not a Founding Generation, we have nothing special to us, for we have not discovered or established anything. We will at some point, but that is not what makes us, or any generation after us for that matter, important. What deems us the most valuable, most notably right now, is that we have been given the tools and opportunity from past generations to find and to establish better ways of going about life that were not there before. We are the climax of the story with the options to either change things for the better or leave them to be devoured by the worst. For whatever we do, the other generations after us will follow, and our past ancestors, the past cultures that allowed for there to be more open communications as the decades passed by, have helped to create the map that we can now use to navigate towards a better world, a better America. They have provided us with the inspiration, the understanding, the technology, the studies, and the means of finishing what they started, to once and for all find a solution to the external and internal conflicts waged across this great nation, and this great world. And right now we do not have the title of “The Founding Generation”, not yet at least. At the moment, we are mere infants, soaking in the world, growing up in the most uncertain and questionable times, a time where anything goes- but we can get there. We have had a more significant chance to transform society than any other generation prior, and it is because of this foundation that they have laid that we can create everlasting change for the betterment of all peoples across the globe. It is just up to us to recognize, to seize, and to become that Founding Generation that our ancestors fought so hard, so valiantly, to give the opportunity to have been born and manifested out of their blood, sweat, and tears.

How do we get there, though, as one may ask? Well, there is a theory for that as well, and it involves what is in your hands right now, and in your head as you read this.

But for now, I will leave you with a quote from one of the spearheads of the Lost Generation himself, a man that saw the importance of contributing to the start of our conception, and wrote in down in his story about a paradise, “I simply state that I’m a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation—with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals. Even if, deep in my heart, I thought we were all blind atoms in a world as limited as a stroke of a pendulum, I and my sort would struggle against tradition; try, at least, to displace old cants with new ones…”


To read more articles from B. F. Harvey click here.

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