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Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and the Lost Generation: An Interview with Kirk Curnutt

Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and the Lost Generation: An Interview with Kirk Curnutt

Kirk Curnutt is the author of several books about the Lost Generation including Coffee with Hemingway, Key West Hemingway, The Cambridge Introduction to F Scott Fitzgerald, Critical Responses to Gertrude Stein and more. He also writes contemporary fiction. More information about Kirk, including his website, is listed below.

I had so many questions I wanted to ask Kirk that I created two separate interviews. This first interview is focused on the Lost Generation experience. Kirk’s book, Literary Topics: Ernest Hemingway and the Expatriate Modernist Movement is a wonderful resource for readers who want to know more about the generation of artists and writers who lived in Europe in the 1920′s. The second interview will be about our friend Ernest, whose 111th birthday is tomorrow!

Thank you to Joe Grant for contributing questions about Zelda. Readers are always welcome to submit questions for any upcoming interviews.

AB: Although Gertrude Stein’s car mechanic is credited with coining the term “lost generation”; it must have started before it was named. When did the migration to Europe start?

KC: Americans have been living abroad in Europe as long as there has been an America to run away from. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though, traveling overseas for extended periods as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Henry James did was a matter of getting “cultured.” After World War I, it wasn’t so much about immersing oneself in the history of Europe as getting away from the perceived Puritanism of America as opposed to its lack of history and tradition. The lost generation felt uprooted by the experience of war, and they felt the homefront couldn’t deal with the reality—at least that’s one version. You see it in “Soldier’s Home,” in which Harold Krebs, a scarred vet, has to deal with the inanities of his mother. But again, that’s a version. A lot of young people simply escaped to Europe for the abandonment. You could drink legally in Paris, after all.

AB: What conditions made young people want to leave the United States in the 20’s?

KC: I think there was a general dissatisfaction with prudery. As I mentioned, the Volstead Act pretty much put a crimp in your style if you were just entering your twenties. And remember that this was a period you couldn’t check into a hotel with a member of the opposite sex unless you were married—or a good liar. That’s a scene dramatized in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. The morality police were in hot pursuit of anyone and everyone who didn’t look like a Rotarian. Also, America seemed too business-minded. Later in the twenties Calvin Coolidge said that the business of America was business. That didn’t bode well if you were an artist and your business was art.

AB: Did the expats integrate with the French, or did they stay in English speaking circles? How did the French feel about them?

KC: The degree of integration really depended on the individual American. Hemingway is usually celebrated for living outside of an expatriate center—at least during his first foray in 1921-23. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, always seemed to want to center himself among fellow expatriates. But by and large Americans formed isolated colonies. If they interacted with the French, it was as employers for housekeepers (such as Gertrude Stein) or babysitters (Hemingway). Henry Miller had a whole other level of integration: he loved French prostitutes. The cannier French entrepreneurs learned how to service Americans by being more American. Thus, the general absence of moustaches on waiters in Paris after 1926. Restaurant and bar owners wanted them clean-shaven to look American.

AB: The first mention of the poverty in Paris during the 20’s I’ve heard is a comment Hadley makes about how the streets of Paris felt poor and dirty and were frightening to her when she first arrived. What was the city like then?

KC: Paris was not unlike any other metropolitan city: there were extremes of poverty and extremes of great wealth. Hadley was exposed to them in Paris because she’d come from a fairly sheltered middle-class life and suddenly her husband was insisting they live in a working-class quarter. In all fairness, a lot of lost generation exposure to poverty was what today we would call slumming. The Hemingways still ate in restaurants, took vacations, bought wine, and bet on horses. They had a decent amount of money but were intent on living cheaply.

AB: Were there other cities in Europe where expats also gravitated?

KC: There were several other expatriate centers: London, Berlin, Zurich, Mallorca, the Nice and Antibes the Riviera, of course, even Morocco. That’s not to mention lesser-known cities, little pockets of isolation, such as the Camargue where Hemingway set The Garden of Eden.

AB: Bobbed hair was a symbol of youthful rebellion, a new kind of woman, and independence. Which side of the ocean did the Bob originate?

KC: That’s a good question. I’m not sure anyone can trace its origin. But it’s clear it was in America by 1915 with the dancer Irene Castle. What’s interesting is the outrage it excited in America. Because women with short hair were perceived as rejecting conventional femininity. A few out-of-control city councils even tried to outlaw bobbed hair. So that’s another reason to expatriate to Europe: you could have whatever kind of hairstyle you wanted.

AB: Can you give me a picture of the expat process, how long did it take to get to Paris by ship? What was the exchange rate like? How much money could a young person live on?

KC: In general the trip abroad was only six to seven days, depending on your points of departure and arrival. It’s not widely remembered, for example, that Hemingway actually journeyed back to America in early 1926 to sign his contract with Scribner’s for The Sun Also Rises—a pretty expensive thing to do for a piece of paper, but one that didn’t cost him but a week of time. Seven days over, eleven days in NYC, seven days back—about a month. Some work, lots of partying—he even went and saw the Broadway version of The Great Gatsby during this trip. In the early to mid-twenties, the exchange rate hovered anywhere between roughly fourteen and twenty-five francs to the dollar, which made living cheap. The Hemingways paid 250 francs for their first apartment, or $20 a month. You could eat in a restaurant for fifty cents. Depending on the degree of austerity you could accommodate, you could live cheap. Ernest and Hadley initially made it on about $2,000 a year, and that was with excursions and jaunts and plenty of nights out.

AB: In your book on the expatriate modernist movement, you describe how the Great War influenced modernist literature and introduced a feeling of irony and aloofness to literature; can you tell me more about that?

KC: I think the War was the first crack in the culture of reverence. The brutality of violence and the lack of moral purity in the outcome—the political revenge exacted on Germany in 1919—inspired a lot of cynicism. Combine that with the rise of a youth culture that defined itself in opposition to adults, and you had a lot of young people who didn’t feel inclined to be respectful. The thing about irony is that is allows for emotional detachment—it introduces a distance in your relationship with the people or things you observe. Once you can feel you’re free to say whatever pops in your head, without concern for being labeled moral or vulgar, you can mock, ridicule, and be as profane as you want. And once it becomes an attitude promoted in the mass media and consumer culture as style, it becomes even easier to imitate. A lot of the literature of the period was exploring the boundaries of freedom by exploring taboos far more openly in print than had ever been allowed. I mean, Hemingway wanted to use words that even today we find impolite. And even when he was forced to hyphenate them, readers knew what he was saying when he used the F— word or said “c—s—r.”

AB: Overall, what did the lost generation write about? Where were most lost generation books set? Were there common themes or conflicts, (cultural, personal, generational, historical) found in the literature of this period?

KC: Lost generation books tended to be very biographical, because the writers were aware they were mythologizing their experience. They were convinced they were the products of a generational breach, and they wanted to capture the experience of newness in the world around them. As such, they tended to write about alienation, unstable mores (drinking), divorce, sex, and different varieties of unconventional identities (gender-bending, for example). There was very little interest in writing about “others.” And they weren’t particularly gracious to people who weren’t like them. There is a lot of satire in lost generation fiction, and most of it makes fun of elders or figures of authority—and, unfortunately, Jews. Perhaps the truly contradictory thing is that these writers wanted it both ways. They wanted to write about breaking boundaries, but they also wanted to reserve the right to lament their “falling away” from norms and standards.

AB: The Lost generation writers were certainly transformed by World War 1 and their experiences in Europe. How did their writing, which reflected their experiences, transform American readers back home?

KC: It created a romance for traveling abroad back home. The books made some readers want to relocate to Paris and act like Hemingway. They would track down the same bars and restaurants, the same vacation sites. Every time you hear about some accountant from Rhode Island gored by a bull at the San Fermin in Pamplona, we have Hemingway to blame. I think it also glamorized self-destruction to a certain extent. I mean, by the mid-twenties, Fitzgerald was telling the New Yorker, “I’m the most famous alcoholic I know.” He was not doing that to promote temperance or as a cautionary tale. He was celebrating the new binge culture. To a certain extent, expatriation has to be recognized as an expression of the new consumerism of the 1920s—it was a lifestyle that encouraged debt and indulgence.

AB: Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald were considered modern writers. How do they differ in their interpretation of modernism? How do they differ as spokesmen for the lost generation?

KC: Hemingway searched more consciously for rituals and patterns that would provide stable forms to survive the upheaval of modernity. Fitzgerald didn’t really have an interest in preserving the past—he needed it to lose it. Hemingway was also much more preoccupied with the artistic experimentation that modernism encouraged—at least initially. Fitzgerald wanted to be a popular writer, and that meant he had to shape his work to fit the marketplace. Eventually Hemingway was happy to do that as well, but at least in the period he was doing In Our Time he saw himself as an outsider. As spokesmen, I think the biggest difference is in the degree to which they sought that role. Fitzgerald wanted to be the voice of his generation; Hemingway just wanted to be the best writer of it. That difference led to some pretty interesting distinctions in literary behavior. In the twenties, for example, Fitzgerald had no qualms about writing essays for popular magazines with titles like “What I Think and Feel at 25.” To Hemingway that would have been ludicrous. But then in the 1930s, he decided it was all right, and suddenly he was cranking out essays for Esquire on how to fish and hunt, as well as opinion pieces on the Spanish Civil War.

AB: How did coming from the Midwest inform or shape the fiction of Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Did coming from the Midwest sharpen their observations of the newness they encountered in their experiences in Europe?

KC: Both writers were of their generation in that they gave the Midwest a bad rap. The Midwest was what you escaped from—it was the symbol of provincialism you defined yourself against. If Faulkner had been a Midwesterner, he’d have left it too. The South just had its own internal conflict between the past and historical progress that gave it a drama to explore. By and large if you wrote a novel about the Midwest, it was going to be about watching the corn grow. Of course, that diminishes a lot of great Midwestern books such as Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost. Having written a novel about Indiana myself, I’m fascinated by lost farming novels such as Leroy MacLeod’s The Years of Peace (1932), but they’re very pastoral, seemingly written outside of time. More often than not, however, writers of this period didn’t trust that rusticity. That’s why Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, felt compelled to unmask the Midwest as a hotbed of neuroses.

AB: What makes Hemingway or Fitzgerald a member of the Lost generation but not e e Cummings?

KC: Well, I think by any measure ee does belong to the lg. He was in Paris, he experimented in radical ways, and he wrote an antiwar novel, The Enormous Room. I think the fact that he came home earlier (1923) than many expatriates may have something to do with the perception that he’s not “one of them,” though he did go back several times. There are sort of levels of membership we sometimes make in our ideas of the Lost Generation. Cummings may be down a rung or two only because the experience of expatriation wasn’t as necessarily central to his public image as it was to Hemingway’s. That is, he wasn’t on the forefront of popularizing living abroad. Plus his work wasn’t as accessible, and therefore, he wasn’t as famous.

AB: What did everyone drink in Paris? What did Scott ruin his liver drinking? What did Hemingway drink before he got to Key West and Cuba? I have always been curious about what the women drank – What did they get “tight” on, do you know?

KC: They drank a variety of alcohol, including beer, wine, and hard liquors. Hemingway tended early on toward bourbon and Scotch, while Fitzgerald preferred gin. Later on Hemingway liked daiquiris; thus the famous “Papa Dobles” of Key West and Cuba. He also liked mojitos. One of the interesting things about gender politics was how little women’s drinking differed from men’s. In The Sun Also Rises, Brett Ashley can drink her men under the table. I think what distinguishes Hemingway is that he was eager to down whatever the local quaff might be. Probably the most notorious expatriate drink is absinthe—it represents the hallucinatory irreality of modern life.

AB; There were several people who helped foster the art that came from this generation. I’m thinking of Sylvia Beach, the Murphy’s, and Gertrude Stein. These people were older and more established. What imprint did they leave?

KC: Beach and Stein were mother figures. One might even call Beach a midwife for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses. As Shari Benstock notes in her excellent Women of the Left Bank (1986), many of the women in Paris in the 1920s belonged informally to salons—small communities of women who clustered socially around a patron such as Natalie Barney. Sara Murphy served something of a similar role, though her supposedly ideal marriage to Gerald made her somewhat unique among these names. Ditto, briefly, Caresse Crosby, whose husband, Harry, is probably the most famous expatriate cautionary tale (drugs, decadence, suicide). These groups were rife with rivalries and jealousies, but they were also networks of support. A number of maternal modernists were also editors—Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap of “The Little Review” being the most important.

AB: What, in that same generation, was being written at home in the states? Is it all considered ‘American literature’?

KC: Faulkner is now the most recognized name not to go abroad in the twenties for an extended period, but there were plenty of others. One thinks of the Algonquin wits, some of whom traveled abroad but were too tied to New York (Broadway) and later Hollywood to really make a life of it overseas. We also forget that a lot of the hardboiled writers of this generation were in America—Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, obviously. That’s not even to mention writers who were popular then but not as widely read today outside of the classroom—Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Maxwell Bodenheim, writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I would say it’s all considered American literature. There are a lot of branches of it, and expatriate fiction is only one.

AB: How did the small magazines on both sides of the ocean help launch the voices of this generation? Do you think the internet comparable in its independent nature?

KC: Small magazines were essential—they reflect the DIY spirit we see in independent publishing today. Gertrude Stein couldn’t get a “commercial” book publisher until she was sixty. Before that it was self-publishing, fly-by-night publishers, publishers who were notoriously unstable expatriates themselves (Robert McAlmon, who published her The Making of Americans in 1925). Lost magazines rose up as a forum for the “alternative” writing produced by expatriate modernists. They were essentially self-made forums to publish oneself and one’s friends. I’m not sure the Internet, as DIY as it certainly is, is comparable. The thing about expatriate magazines was that they were extremely rare, with poor circulation and distribution. Yet they were often highly publicized, if only because editors made sure newspaper columnists had copies of them to comment on. Hemingway’s early Three Stories and Ten Poems and the first version of In Our time are good examples. Both had very modest press runs and were sold largely by subscription. Yet Edmund Wilson reviewed them in the Dial in 1924, and that positive notice was crucial to the development of Hemingway’s literary reputation—it made him a contender. I think the situation is opposite today: DIY literary journals abound on the Internet, but they don’t often get reviewed, and the few remaining literary tastemakers there are tend not to look for tomorrow’s voices in them.

AB: What was the average age of a lost generation artist?

KC: I would say they were generally in their late twenties and early thirties in the 1920s. Most were born between 1890 and 1900. That’s excluding the maternal generation, of course.

AB: Why do you think Hemingway resisted the bohemian artist label?

KC: The very notion of bohemianism offended his work ethic. He wrote an essay early on called “American Bohemians in Paris” that spells out his disgust. Expatriate bohemianism was a subcultural fashion more than a literary movement. That means its members weren’t really all that devoted to writing. They were more preoccupied with being seen at the Select and the Dôme (two of the famous Montparnasse bars) imbibing. But Hemingway believed in putting pencil to paper.

AB: Your interview with Elizabeth Glixman describes you as a “Zelda Lover”, tell me about Zelda –

KC: That was Elizabeth’s phrase, not mine! But Zelda was a symbol of flapperhood in the 1920s, even though she was really only a flapper after her husband made her famous by claiming his modeled his female characters on her. She stood for a certain type of twenties’ woman: bold, outlandish, feminine but not mousy or decorous. She wasn’t really “one of the boys,” but she could hang with them. Mostly she reflects a bold, impetuous spirit. Of course, unfortunately, she became a cautionary tale and an emblem of mental illness.

AB: Hemingway claimed that Zelda ruined Scott’s career. What does the research say about his? What do you think?

KC: I think Scott ruined Scott’s career. He was an alcoholic and had little money savvy. He was also enamored with decadence and the idea of moral dissolution, and they became self-fulfilling prophecies for him. Zelda’s mental illness did put an incredible emotional and financial strain on him, but to his credit he made sure she received what he thought was the best treatment available. She no more ruined his career than he drove her crazy.

AB: Do you think Zelda has gotten a fair shake from biographers?

KC: It depends on which biographer you read. The early ones—Mizener and Turnbull—made little effort to understand her. She had to serve as the femme fatale in the story they had to tell. Nancy Milford’s biography is often criticized as too negative toward Scott, but that book has to be read in the spirit of the feminist movement of the early 1970s. Its influence on a generation of women writers, scholars, and readers cannot be underestimated. When I was in college all the cool literary girls had the paperback, and that was long after the book had been in print. Later tellings of the story tend to veer to one extreme or the other; in a sense, the story lets biographers work through their feelings toward feminism, pro or con. My own view is that they suffered from what today we would call co-dependency. I hate that term—but it’s true.

AB: What do you think presaged Zelda’s mental deterioration in Paris? The non-stop drinking? The freedom of sex? Scott’s success? Ernest’s friendship?

KC: I believe she had a predisposition to mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifestyle. I also think her intense, almost manic need to succeed as a ballerina drove her over the brink. The interesting thing about the Fitzgeralds is that neither was sexually progressive. Hemingway, we’ve come to see, was, at least in the forties with his fourth wife, Mary. And what I mean by that is that they seem to have experimented in ways that defy our notion of sexual essentialism—the idea that we are men and women by biological and physiological determinism. But the Fitzgeralds were too squeamish for this. They were into romance, not sex.

AB; As a Fitzgerald fan, how did you feel about the way Hemingway wrote about him in A Moveable Feast?

KC: Hemingway was responding to the Fitzgerald revival of the fifties when he wrote that unflattering portrait. He thought Fitzgerald’s reputation was being overinflated. And I think he thought that his own would suffer for the simple fact that he had survived his former rival by nearly twenty years. So he was attempting to reset the scales. Also, Hemingway tended to project his own self-dissatisfaction onto his rivals. And by the late fifties he was very unhappy with himself. In critiquing Fitzgerald’s excesses, he was attempting to convince himself that he hadn’t succumbed to those same ones.

AB: Who was Gertrude Stein personally? I honestly can’t get a sense of her as a person, only as a “figure”.

KC: That’s such a great question. I don’t get a sense of her either. There is a whole different Gertrude Stein that comes through in her correspondence with Alice B. Toklas—an emotionally dependent, insecure, anxious partner who adores her wife almost as badly as she needs her approval. But it’s very hard to find those two selves fused in some revealing portrait. It’s almost as if she was one extreme or the other. I’m not sure many Victorians had the psychological contours we look for when we read about contemporary personalities. They tended to be more guarded even in private. Or maybe not private, but not as self-examining. That is a modern phenomenon.

AB: In your Expatriate book, you state that many of Hemingway’s major works focus on “characters struggling to maintain their morality while living abroad.” What about the expat experience creates this struggle?

KC: It’s the freedom from moral scrutiny. Again, the Puritanism of America was pretty stringent in the 1920s—there were consequences for certain behaviors. Once you lived abroad, as long as you had some money, you didn’t have to work, and you could indulge whatever desires were repressed at home.

AB: If you could drop in and observe any moment in Fitzgerald’s life, what would it be?

KC: I would like to have known Fitzgerald after he was expelled from Princeton. I don’t think I would have responded well to his preening elitism before then. But I would love to have known him the way Thomas Boyd did in St. Paul in 1921—as young and famous, a model for aspiring writers. I think the era in which he was writing Gatsby in 1924 would have been fascinating as well, just to watch the idea come together in his mind. I also would like to have been there when he was finally able to start pulling Tender Is the Night together in 1932-early 1934. It would have been very cool to read those drafts and encourage him.

AB: What was the tipping point for those leaving Europe and the end of the Lost Generation? When did it end?

KC: It ended because it became too much of a fad with too many poseurs. It made the allure too irresistible for too many people. Hemingway was basically out after A Farewell to Arms, though he came back to Europe off and on from the late thirties on. In a sense, The Sun Also Rises was a nail in the coffin. As a result, Tender Is the Night seemed old-hat when it came out in 1934. It would be as if I wrote a novel today about the burst of the Internet bubble in the late 1990s—so much of our world has changed since then that the fad or trend seems irrelevant.

AB: What is your favorite book from this era? How did you fall in love with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and this time period?

KC: My favorite tends to shift around. Right now I’m in a Tender Is the Night mood. I don’t know why—sometimes I just really fall in love with the poetry of Fitzgerald’s style. It’s such a dense book in texture, always very intricate and lyrical. For a while I was reading and rereading Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for the same reasons—there are those italicized passages of interior monologue that tap a flow that’s so exciting to ride. Another piece I also return to is Zelda’s “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Room —,” a great 1934 essay that has the same sort of glide. Occasionally I go full-tilt Gertrude Stein, though that’s more technically than emotionally satisfying, at least for me.

I fell in love with Hemingway first because I grew up in Michigan. The eighties were still a time when a male teenager could go off on pseudo-Hemingway adventures. I was fond of a place called Sleeping Bear Dunes, on the other side of Traverse City from Hemingway’s Walloon Lake. As for Fitzgerald, it was all about the writing. I read a book of stories called All the Sad Young Men, and suddenly there didn’t seem anything cooler than the Jazz Age.
AB: Thank you Kirk, I enjoyed learning more about the Lost Generation from you!
Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University Montgomery. A member of the board of directors of the Hemingway Foundation and Society, he is the author of Coffee with Hemingway (2007), an imagined dialogue with the maestro with a preface by John Updike, and the co-editor of Key West Hemingway, a collection of essays on Hemingway’s Mile Zero years.
He is also the author of two novels, Dixie Noir and Breathing Out the Ghost. His website is kirkcurnutt.