- Writing the Lost Generation: Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism
This book highlights the autobiographical output of the American artists who lived in France during the 1920s, the heyday of Modernism. Although the vibrant stream of expatriate American art produced during this time continues to generate lively scholarly dialogue, few scholars have surveyed the published autobiographies or memoirs of this generation in order to arrive at some consensus as to what these personal accounts might have to say, individually and collectively, about life in Paris between the World Wars. To his credit, Craig Monk sidelines theoretical approaches that might obscure a fresh and honest reading of each autobiography, both on its own terms and within the ongoing collective narrative. He organizes his discussion chronologically, beginning with the earliest works, to illuminate how these texts have heavily influenced commonly held perceptions about this era. As the Preface emphasizes, "Writing the Lost Generation is a detailed look at eighty years of American autobiography intended to appeal both to readers of life narrative as a subject of critical inquiry and readers of literary history fascinated with the 1920s in Paris, a distant time in a distant place that truly reshaped art, and the way in which art is regarded, in the United States" (xiv). Monk reiterates here that he has "read as many autobiographies written by Americans abroad as was reasonably possible—from that of Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the greatest modern novelist from the United States, to that of Bill Rogers, a doughboy who met Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas after the First World War—and still failed to use them all in a meaningful way" (xiv).
When one considers the aggregate number of autobiographical accounts written over these eighty years, however, the number seems sparse, particularly when lined up against the huge literary output of the day. This somewhat reflects the fact that memoir had not yet defined itself, in the minds of these artists or the literary world, as a legitimate genre—one that could be more artful than self-serving. F. Scott Fitzgerald's three Crack-Up essays, which he published in Esquire between 1934–1936 and which analyzed his personal and artistic break-down, appalled his colleagues, including Hemingway, who [End Page 559] had already told Fitzgerald (in a letter of 28 May 1934) to "forget your personal tragedy" and take "the damned hurt" and "use it" for his fiction (Baker 408). Fitzgerald wrote these highly personal autobiographical essays on the heels of Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which came out in 1933 and broke open the genre of autobiographical narrative as a legitimate and intricate art form. Monk argues that the commercial success of this work allowed Stein to become more assertive in determining her publishing future, just as it also became the defining touchstone in encouraging other artists of the day to embrace memoir: "Virtually every expatriate autobiography after it, every remembrance that dealt with the interwar period and the flowering of high modernism among Americans abroad, would have to come to terms with its story" (64).
For the purposes of his discussion, Monk incorporates approximately seventeen different works that he considers seminal, along with a few other tangential works, even as he acknowledges his inability to use all of the pertinent autobiographical material in his discussion. Any student of the Lost Generation will recognize the key works that Monk incorporates, including Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (1964) along with (in chronological order) Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return (1934), Harold Stearn's The Street I Know (1935), Robert McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together: An Autobiography (1938), Samuel Putnam's Paris Was Our Mistress: Memoirs of a Lost and Found Generation (1947), and Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company (1956). In discussing Beach's work, Monk bemoans Beach's "self-effacing" voice that fails to make her "live" as a viable character by her own accounting, and he acknowledges the disproportionate...