Lost Generation

In the aftermath of World War I there arose a group of young persons known as the “Lost Generation.” The term was coined from something Gertrude Stein witnessed the owner of a garage saying to his young employee, which Hemingway later used as an epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926): “You are all a lost generation.” This accusation referred to the lack of purpose or drive resulting from the horrific disillusionment felt by those who grew up and lived through the war, and were then in their twenties and thirties. Having seen pointless death on such a huge scale, many lost faith in traditional values like courage, patriotism, and masculinity. Some in turn became aimless, reckless, and focused on material wealth, unable to believe in abstract ideals.

In literature, the “Lost Generation” refers to a group of writers and poets who were men and women of this period. All were American, but several members emigrated to Europe. The most famous members were Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot.

Common themes in works of literature by members of the Lost Generation include:

Decadence – Consider the lavish parties of James Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or those thrown by the characters in his Tales of the Jazz Age. Recall the aimless traveling, drinking, and parties of the circles of expatriates in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. With ideals shattered so thoroughly by the war, for many, hedonism was the result. Lost Generation writers revealed the sordid nature of the shallow, frivolous lives of the young and independently wealthy in the aftermath of the war.

Gender roles and Impotence – Faced with the destruction of the chivalric notions of warfare as a glamorous calling for a young man, a serious blow was dealt to traditional gender roles and images of masculinity. In The Sun Also Rises, the narrator, Jake, literally is impotent as a result of a war wound, and instead it is his female love Brett who acts the man, manipulating sexual partners and taking charge of their lives. Think also of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Prufrock’s inability to declare his love to the unnamed recipient.

Idealised past – Rather than face the horrors of warfare, many worked to create an idealised but unattainable image of the past, a glossy image with no bearing in reality. The best example is in Gatsby’s idealisation of Daisy, his inability to see her as she truly is, and the closing lines to the novel after all its death and disappointment:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther… And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sources: Writers Inspire

Dorothy Parker’s Birthday

Today in Literary History —> Happy Birthday to Dorothy Parker, American poet, satirist and critic best known for her wisecracks and sharp wit. Her writing graced the pages of Vogue, VanityFair, and The New Yorker, and she was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a famous 20th century New York literary circle.

Following the breakup of the circle, Parker traveled to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. Her successes there, including two Academy Award nominations, were curtailed when her involvement in left-wing politics led to a place on the Hollywood blacklist. Dismissive of her own talents, she deplored her reputation as a “wisecracker.” Nevertheless, both her literary output and reputation for sharp wit have endured. Born on this day in 1893…

FavoriteWriters #HappyBirthday #DorothyParker #AlgonquinRoundTable

Mary Wollstonecraft: Emancipation From Domesticity

In 1792, with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft fired a powerful early salvo in the battle for female emancipation from domesticity. She wrote her feminist polemic in response to 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, such as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who did not extend their ideas of liberalism to women. She criticizes the injustice and inconsistency of such men calling for freedom yet still subjugating women. She also rejects the contemporary perception that women were less rational.

“Who made man the exclusive judge?” she demands. Women, she writes, might be weaker physically, but are just as capable of rational thought as men.

Wollstonecraft maintains that women remained inferior because they were kept in the domestic sphere, forced to be men’s “toys and playthings.” Society taught them that looks, male opinion, and marriage were more important than intellectual and personal fulfilment. Sculpted by a gender stereotype that their mothers reinforced, girls were brought up to exploit their looks in order to find a man who would support and protect them.

Wollstonecraft was the first feminist to describe “marriage for support” as a form of prostitution— a shocking assertion for the time. A lack of means often compelled women to marry. Degraded by their dependency on male approval, they effectively became men’s slaves. She felt that such a restricted life, limited by domestic trivia, could also wreak psychological damage.

To restore women’s dignity, Wollstonecraft recommends “a revolution in female manners.” She believed women and men should be educated equally, even suggesting a coeducational system. Women, she believed, should be in the public sphere and should be trained for work outside the home, in areas such as medicine, midwifery, and business. She urges an end to the social distinction between the sexes and calls for equal rights for women to enable them to take control of their lives.
Mixed reactions

Vindication was well received, particularly in intellectual circles. A hostile press, however, described Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats” for both her book and her unorthodox lifestyle. The book was not reprinted until the mid-19th century, when it was admired by figures such as British suffragist Millicent Fawcett and American activist Lucretia Mott. Wollstonecraft’s advanced ideas would be echoed in the works of feminists from Barbara Bodichon to Simone de Beauvoir”

Sources: The Feminism Book (DK)

Alone – by Maya Angelou

Alone

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

~ Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Confessional Poetry

Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or “I.” This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Lowell’s book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.

The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.

The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.

One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is “Daddy” by Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time–
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

Another confessional poet of this generation was John Berryman. His major work was The Dream Songs, which consists of 385 poems about a character named Henry and his friend Mr. Bones. Many of the poems contain elements of Berryman’s own life and traumas, such as his father’s suicide. Below is an excerpt from “Dream Song 1”:

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

The confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day.

Sources: Poets.org

Mad Poet’s Society: McLean Hospital, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton

In suburban Massachusetts, on 240 acres of peaceful grounds, is a literary legend—of sorts. McLean Hospital, with its long history of treating the blue bloods of Boston, has become an unlikely poetry landmark after providing both recuperation and inspiration to Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

Plath was the first of the three to stay at McLean. In 1953, during a summer at home before her senior year in college, Plath swallowed a bottle of pills and crawled beneath her house. Her failed suicide attempt led to months of treatment at McLean and began her long relationship with the psychiatrist Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse. While there, Plath received insulin-shock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs, and ultimately electroshock therapy. The experience surfaced years later in her poem, “The Hanging Man,” which begins, “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.”

Lowell was admitted to McLean in 1958, though his infamous manic outbursts had already resulted in numerous stays at other mental institutions. Over eight years, he stayed there four times, correspondeding frequently from his hospital address, and sending letters to Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound, and even Jackie Kennedy. Written about his first stay at McLean, his poem “Waking in the Blue” mentions Bowditch Hall and was pasted on the wall of the nurse’s station there for years.

Highly competitive with Plath, Sexton tried for years to be admitted to McLean, but her therapist, aware of the high cost, refused to admit her. Sexton first entered McLean as a teacher. In 1968, she was invited to lead a weekly poetry seminar in the hospital, providing Sexton with her first teaching experience, after which she became a professor at Boston University. In 1973, a year before her death by suicide, Sexton achieved her wish and was admitted to McLean for a five-day examination.

Plath and Sexton both attended a poetry seminar taught by Lowell at Boston University in 1959. They were each inspired by his confessional poetry and the appreciation for madness that he cultivated. In “Elegy in the Classroom,” Sexton wrote about Lowell: “I must admire your skill. / You are so gracefully insane.” Through his encouragement, they began to turn their personal experiences into verse—a quality that would mark their later work.

Plath discovered she could mine her McLean experiences for literary inspiration. She wrote in her journal, “There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don’t relive, recreate it.” Thus she began her famous novel, The Bell Jar. Years later, in his introduction to Plath’s posthumous poetry collection Ariel, Lowell said, “Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of fever.”

Source: poets.org

One need not be a chamber to be haunted – Emily Dickinson

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

~ Emily Dickinson

Waking in the Blue – By Robert Lowell

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.

A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale–
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobbie,”
Porcellian ’29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig–
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young. 

In between the limits of day, 
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts 
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle 
of the Roman Catholic attendants. 
(There are no Mayflower 
screwballs in the Catholic Church.) 

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

~ Robert Lowell, from Life Studies, 1959

Five principles of good writing according to George Orwell

Five principles of good writing according to George Orwell:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett

On this date in 1948, Terence (Terry) David John Pratchett was born in Buckinghamshire, England. He enjoyed reading, especially science fiction, fantasy, myth and ancient history. He has said that from a young age he was skeptical about Christianity and came to the conclusion that there was no god. He has won many awards, including the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and Educated Rodents (2001), and was knighted in 2009 for his services to literature. Several of his books have been adapted as movies for television.

Pratchett’s first novel, Carpet People, a children’s fantasy, was published in 1971. Pratchett is best known for his “Discworld” novels, a fantasy series tied together not by characters or plot but by the setting of the Discworld, a flat world sitting on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space. The first book in this series, The Color of Magic, a fantasy adventure starring a hapless wizard parodying many conventions of the genre, was published in 1983, and the thirty-eighth, I Shall Wear Midnight, a coming-of-age story featuring a strong young witch battling prejudice, was published in 2010. The Discworld, like many fantasy worlds, features gods who occasionally interfere directly in events or feature as characters in some way. In 2007, Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but has continued to write and publish new books, albeit at a slower pace. He has made many public statements in support of the right to die, and talks openly about his Alzheimer’s experience, including his wish to take his own life before his disease is critical. He was knighted in 2009.

Throughout his work, Pratchett questions religion in many different ways, pointing out religious hypocrisy while at the same time illustrating how different the world would be if God, or any gods, were real. The 1992 Discworld novel Small Gods shows the god Om visiting his worshipers, and being deeply dissatisfied with the direction in which his church has gone. Good Omens (1990), co-written with fellow British fantasy author Neil Gaiman, deals with Christian mythology and the book of Revelations. It begins with an angel and a demon conversing outside the Garden of Eden and questioning God’s motives regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It ends with the ten-year-old antichrist, Adam, contemplating the raid of a neighbor’s orchard and thinking, “There never was an apple . . . that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.” Pratchett said, “I read the Old Testament all the way through when I was about 13 and was horrified” (The Daily Mail, U.K., June 21, 2008).

“There is a rumor going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is s evidence that they exist.”
~ Sir Terry Pratchett, The Daily Mail (U.K.), June 21, 2008