I read Earnest Heminway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in high school. I found their works in paperback at the Waldenbooks near he apartment where we lived while my parents househunted in Houston, Texas, and I bought them with babysitting money. During my senior year, I took an advanced English course that challenged me to write about my favorite authors and the influences shaping their work, and that’s how I first encountered Gertrude Stein.
“Vous etes un generation perdue,” she told Hemingway. You are a lost generation.
In college, I looked deeper. Why was Hemingway lost? Why were he and his peers self destructive and expatriated? Wasn’t that an outdated, oversimplified way of categorizing a generation of American artists? I learned about the tumultuous nature of American life at the time and the difficulties many Americans faced. I learned about urban-rural conflict in prewar American culture, and I wrote some papers about that.
But Hemingway and his like were out of fashion at the time. I found exactly one course about my favorite and his peers, but that professor left the A&M English department before I was a junior. I then moved on to more trendy subjects: gender studies and British and American novelists who challenged the stereotypes the lost generation of writers had done much to perpetuate.
When Woody Allen made “Midnight in Paris,” I remembered my first literary loves. I had the advantage of a few decades of life experience by then, which prompted me to look back and wonder. Of all the writers and all the paperbacks at the Kingwood, TX Waldenbooks in 1986, why did I spend my babysitting money on the lost? Why Hemingway? Why Fitzgerald? Was I already sensing a kindred relationship between their American experience and the one that my budding generation (adeptly defined around that time by a handful of John Hughes movies) had just begun to gather?
I made some startling discoveries. Apparently, my generation, dubbed “Generation X” in a novel by Douglas Coupland circa 1991, was already being called the second Lost Generation. Though raised to believe it was our duty to fulfill it, we are the first generation in American history with little hope of achieving the American Dream. In addition, a study has already been completed that labels us as the generational group dying off early at our hands one way or another; we are, largely unnoticed, suffering “Deaths of Despair.” I also learned something I had no idea was true: although socially the group we most focus on saving from suicide is adolescent and young adult, the largest number of American suicides are in their parents’ age range–that’s us.
And then I looked at my own life and realized my experience was not that different from my peers. I looked around and discovered that none of us were saying very much about it. I think that should change. We may be a small group. We may be struggling with midlife disappointment.
But we don’t have to be so silent on our issues, and we certainly are not alone.