Tag Archives: World War I

Happy 115th Birthday, Hemingway!

21 Jul

Ernest_Hemingway_Kenya_safari_1954Ernest Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1954, via the JFK Library


That irascible author Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. One of my friends, a fellow Scrippsie, actually took me to visit his birth home a number of years ago when I visited her in Chicago, and it’s an impressive house.

Hemingway lived quite the life! He was an ambulance driver in World War I, he reported on the Spanish Civil War, he married four times, he had a whole lotta cats, and he traveled and lived all over the world.

There’s even a planet named after him.

The author of sparsely worded novels, Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and other highly regarded works of literature.

While in Paris, Hemingway hung out with other expatriate writers. As Gertrude Stein put it, they were a Lost Generation. Hemingway quoted her in The Sun Also Rises.

It was this Lost Generation that inspired Jack Kerouac to come up with the term Beat Generation when he was talking with John Clellon Holmes one day. And Hollywood has taken notice.


Life Continues to Be Absurd: Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph O’Niell

11 Apr


When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher gave our class a list of topics we could do our research papers on. We had never studied Saul Bellow before, but his name was on the list, and I chose to write about his absurd heroes. As Wikipedia states:

In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.

When you’re an angsty teenager, life is Absurd. Writing out Spanish vocabulary words three times each in a row for homework was absurd. Learning square dancing in gym class while living in northern New Jersey was absurd. Having to do math long-hand when calculators existed was absurd. Parents were absurd. The routine of waking up, eating cold cuts for lunch, doing homework until bedtime was all absurd. Surely, there had to be more to life than this humdrum suburban life?

When I became an adult, working in a cubicle, my personal email address had the following quote from Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man:

It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as ‘the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,’ or ‘the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,’ and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps, eager for consequences.

It turned out, even when you’re an adult, life is Absurd. I was supposed to be over that the melodramatic apathy of a teenager, but I couldn’t shake that feeling that there had to be more to life. And I don’t think I was living a life more boring than most people. I was working in New York City. I had an enviable job. I had my own one-bedroom apartment. I had a boyfriend. I had a great group of friends. I was happy. But the routine of the day-in, day-out felt so mundane and ordinary … and meaningless. Being happy and successful wasn’t enough.

This is what Saul Bellow’s books capture so wonderfully. At the end of Henderson the Rain King–it came out in 1959; deal with the spoiler–the main character realizes that instead of searching to fulfill his own desires, he should have been helping others get what they want. It’s a long book, and it takes Henderson a long time to get there. Isn’t that just like life? He goes on a road trip of sorts to Africa. He sort of bumbles his way through adventures and has a lot of philosophical mad talk.

It’s because I first read and studied Saul Bellow that I was primed to understand Jack Kerouac. Even though I read it first, Henderson the Rain King actually came out two years after Kerouac’s On the Road, in which bumbling characters frenetically philosophized while road tripping across America. Both Bellow’s and Kerouac’s characters, sensing the alienation and Absurdism of life, have a longing that can best be described as spiritual. The dates of these books’ publications are important to note: Both Bellow and Kerouac had been in the merchant marine during World War II, and these are postwar novels dealing with the philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life.

Tonight, Joseph O’Niell is reading at the Saul Bellow Slam II at Housing Works. O’Niell is the author of  Netherland. This beautiful novel isn’t written in the aftermath of World War II, like Bellow’s and Kerouac’s works, but of September 11. James Wood, however, wrote in the New Yorker, that it has been “consistently misread as a 9/11 novel, which stints what is most remarkable about it: that it is a postcolonial re-writing of The Great Gatsby.” Astute as that revelation is, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a post-World-War-I novel, whose narrator is  war veteran swept up in Gatsby’s boozy parties that allow people to escape the mundaneness of their lives through social interaction. Netherlands, likewise, deals with the human need for connection.

We live in an Absurd world. We live in a sanitized, consumer, over-educated-and-underemployed culture. There are mass shootings and stabbings and an ongoing war. It is tempting to disengage, to “turn on, boot up, jack in,” as Timothy Leary said. Oftentimes, those who do choose to engage fashion themselves as critics and don a coat of irony. They comment on life from afar instead of risking to bumble through it.

I struggle with letting my walls down, with opening up. I don’t like the idea that people might think the most memorable thing about my day is that I had two cups of coffee or ate burnt toast. It’s hard to admit I long for something more, that I’m not satisfied. I keep turning to this literature, though, and I sense that this dissatisfaction or angst is a good thing. This world will never satisfy, and if I am too comfortable or too fulfilled or too put-together then I am probably deluding myself.

From the Lost Generation to the Beat Generation: Hollywood’s Obsession

12 Jul



With Hemingway and Gellhorn currently on HBO and a remake of The Great Gatsby heading to theatres this Christmas, The Observer’s Daniel D’Addario ponders if we’re experiencing a “Lost Generation Boom.”

The Lost Generation refers to the writers during the World War I era, many of whom became expatriates.  The Lost Generation writers include F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos, among others.  Hemingway popularized the term in A Moveable Feast, in which he quoted Stein as telling him a story about a man who said, “That’s what you all are … all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

D’Addario also references last summer’s Midnight in Paris, but in some regard, we’ve been experiencing the “boom” for quite some time now … at least in the cocktail scene.  A few years ago, speakeasy-type bars became all the rage here in New York.  Dimly lit lounges served up spiked punches in tea cups.  There are also Jazz Age parties on Governor’s Island, where everyone gets all dolled up in fantastic flapper dresses and Sacque suits.  And the Oak Room—which in the ‘20s was Algonquin’s Pergola Room—just reopened.

However, Hollywood isn’t only obsessed with the Lost Generation.  The Beat Generation, which wasn’t popular for a long time, is beginning to see a revival.  On the Road, based on Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s novel, just premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May and will be released Stateside sometime later this year.  Next year, Kill Your Darlings, about a murder involving Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and others associated with the Beat Generation, will be released.  In 2010, Howl, based on Allen Ginsberg’s poem and the trial that followed its publication, came out.  These aren’t small movies by any means.  Howl starred it-boy James Franco, Kill Your Darlings will star Daniel Radcliffe, and much has been made of On the Road starring Kristen Stewart.

Perhaps we’re trying to figure out our own generation by looking at those in the past.