Looking for the Lost Generation

Published in Paris: American and British Writers, Printers, and Publishers in Paris, 1920-1939

by Hugh Ford, with a foreword by Janet Flanner
Macmillan, 453 pp., $14.95

In France the 1920s are known as l’époque. The Thirties, less glamorous artistically, though grander far in a destructive way, are called simply les années trente. Both are nevertheless a part of the twenty-year armistice during which Europe and America prepared themselves for going on with the World War. And their artistic history, though it fluttered a bit with the financial tremors of 1929, is a continuous one.

An official view of modern painting and sculpture—long ago set up by collectors, curators, and commission men—assumes aesthetic values, historical values, and monetary values to be identical. This monumental myth is still the operating axiom of art-as-business. The musical spoils of the time, far less controllable by ownership, are still being fought over by the heirs to school-of-Paris modernism and the German publishers, heirs to virtually everything else, including vast resources for promotion.

Literature during those crucial decades, when lives and livings, senses and sensibilities, were evolving in unexpected ways and needed in consequence every freedom for being written about convincingly, turns out to have centered its main progress in Paris. Writing in Russia, in Italy, in the Germanic regions, and in the Iberian peninsula had suffered gravely from government interference. But France still had a tradition of literature as a private enterprise, with a dozen or more prosperous publishers and with authors aplenty. England and America too. But in 1920 Paris was cheaper. It was also exploding with intellectual energies as well as with other enticements for the young, far more so than either the United States or Britain. That is why so much of the best American writing and a good deal of the British took place there.

Actually the British-American literary scene was so full of vigor, so active in poetry, fiction, reporting, and polemics, that it is hard nowadays to distinguish the products of pre-last-war France from the home-grown. Nevertheless, one fact is clear, that the two chief English-language gene-complexes of our century—James Joyce and Gertrude Stein—were carriers of the evolutionary process through a twist of which only one part is native, the other ineluctably Parisian.

One is constantly being asked what it was like, living and working in Paris between the two wars. Not what any particular aspect was like, but all of it, all of life and art and love and food and hygiene. The young, of course, have no idea. And it’s hard explaining that everything, literally everything, was different, even the food.

Artistic values, for instance, were a freely floating currency, though during the Twenties these were still somewhat sensitive to snob favor. In the Thirties another influence appeared, demands for political and sociological cogency, right or left. But during both times the daily press, the liberal or the Catholic weeklies, the far-out fashion monthlies, and the learned quarterlies all were less involved with fomenting consumption than with, at best, expressing amazement, at the worst denouncing the times. This is different from now, believe me, when, more often …

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Letters

A Private Press April 29, 1976