By Luísa Gonçalves
Imagine Paris in the 20s. Not the 20s of this century (I believe we all wish that this decade had a different beginning…) but the 1920s. Imagine yourself walking in the streets of Paris. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is up but global warming is not a concern. The birds are singing on the trees and jumping on its branches. There is a fresh breeze in the air. You decide to stop for a coffee. You sit on this beautiful Parisian promenade and order yourself your favourite. Then, you look to your left and there they are, seating all at the same table your American literary idols from the 20th century. Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Kay Boyle, John Glassco, Morley Callaghan, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein. Just to say a few. They talk with energetic gestures and ambition in their voice. You hear them discuss the literary styles of the past, the new modernist ways, and their vision for a better tomorrow.
You probably heard about the Lost Generation and how after the 1st World War (back then only known as the Great War), writers from the United States of America, United Kingdom and Canada, all flew to Paris in order to pursue their artistics dreams and feed their imagination in a more stimulating environment. In truth, living in Paris was cheap and the Bohemian and Modernist movements that were revolutionizing its streets provide a more stimulating environment than old, conservative and judgmental America. In fact, America didn’t provide room to think differently, to explore. The artists wanted more. They needed more. They wanted to become better. They wanted to revolutionize the world with their minds and write some stories that would surpass their lifetime. They needed Paris.
Born between 1883 and 1900, this generation grew up in a more literate, consumerist and media saturated than ever before. Most of them also participated, in a way or another, in the First World War and had their story to tell. Because of the war they found old literary norms irrelevant and the old ways of writing no longer reliable. Making sense of the present was frustrating for them. They went to Paris to write stories, books and novels expressing their resentment towards the materialism and individualism of the new era, and to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.
During their time there, these writers spent their time writing, networking and frequenting a range of cafés and restaurants, like the “Café du Dome”, “Les Deux Magots”, “Café de Flore”, and gardens like the “Jardin du Luxembourg”, where they would go for a walk to stimulate their creative process.
Gertrude Stein was in the centre of it all, nurturing the groups’ talent at her apartment with her salons every Saturday night, hosting not only writers but artists like Picasso and Henri Matisse. These gatherings were an opportunity for the writers and other artists to brainstorm and impress each other’s work. Just imagine the conversations on these evenings between Matisse and De Passos, between Picasso and T.S. Eliot. The ideas exchanged. The stories told. The lessons learned.
Gertrude had a reciprocal relationship with these artists, adopting styles of Cubism and Abstraction in her writings, influenced by Picasso work. On the other hand, her work influenced Hemingway style, as he informs us in his book ‘A Moveable Feast’ (1964), she was central to his career. Hemingway refers to the role Stein played as his mentor, but also how she influenced the entire artistic community, particularly the writers’ community. By reading and critiquing the writers’ work, Stein helped them to be more courageous in using modern techniques and found their voice in the chaotic world. She was the main beta reader, the one they must trust to evaluate their manuscript.
Thanks to Hemingway’s book, we now know the influence that these artists and writers had on his work and on his contemporaries. Hemingway learned the modernist style with the poet Ezra Pound, for example, and how to describe landscapes with the artist Cézanne.
“You become the people you surround yourself with” is a saying we hear from time to time. The true fact is, if you surround yourself with people you admire, people with the same goals as you, people that inspire you and encourage you to do better, you will improve yourself, you will improve your skills, and you will improve your talent.
Hemingway knew that. Within four years after arriving in Paris and into this artistic and writers’ community, Hemingway went from being an unknown individual to one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
In true fact and generally speaking, that was an essential part of their success: their community and support group. This Lost Generation in Paris created one of the most successful and engaging community of writers that the world has ever seen. They lift each other up, asking for advice on their writing skills, giving character suggestions, and sharing prompt ideas.
How can we explain the enormous talent and success of the group? They created novels and a literary movements that influence the global literary landscape to date. Would they reach the quality of writing and storytelling that they did if they had stayed back home? If they hadn’t engaged in this community? If they didn’t learn from each other? The true fact we will never know, but one thing is for certain: this writers’ community created some of the greatest stories and books of the 20th Century, and for that the literary world will forever be thankful for communities and for Paris in the 1920s.