In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the surprising origins of a well-known phrase
Who coined the phrase ‘Lost Generation’? The term has become synonymous with the generation of American expatriates living in France after the First World War: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other men in their early twenties during the early twenties. Most people credit the origins of the phrase ‘Lost Generation’ to Gertrude Stein, another American expatriate living in France at the time (albeit one who was a whole generation older than the Lost Generation). But did Stein actually coin it? And if she didn’t, who did?
The phrase has become famous thanks largely to Hemingway, who used it as the epigraph for his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, his novel set partly in France among the American expatriates living there after the First World War: ‘You are all a lost generation’.
In actual fact, Stein, it appears, wasn’t the one who originated it. She herself acknowledged that the phrase had its origins in a French chef and hotelier named Monsieur Pernollet. Pernollet, himself a veteran of the Great War, was the one who coined the phrase ‘une generation perdue’, according to Stein herself. Stein was living in Pernollet’s hotel, Belley’s Hotel Pernollet, on the Avenue d’Alsace-Lorraine, and according to her account, Pernollet used the phrase of a young car mechanic who was fixing Stein’s car.
Stein elaborated that Pernollet’s comment was made regarding the development of young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, who become ‘civilised’ at around that age. The men of Hemingway’s generation were a ‘lost generation’ because they were robbed of that opportunity to become civilised, because they were away fighting in the trenches.
So, Gertrude Stein was simply repeating the phrase that Pernollet had coined, and popularising it among her English-speaking American friends and fellow writers. Far from coining ‘Lost Generation’, Stein simply translated it. Yet without Stein’s use of the term to describe Hemingway and his contemporaries, undoubtedly the phrase would never have become as entrenched in the history of 1920s Paris, the Left Bank, and the American literature of the period.
What’s more, Hemingway himself, even while he was crediting Stein with coining the term, acknowledged that Stein apparently get it from someone else: in his posthumously published memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway mentions a French garage owner who serviced Stein’s car; the owner is said to have shouted at the young mechanic, who was working too slowly for the owner’s liking, that he and his fellow generation were a ‘génération perdue’.
Although Hemingway doesn’t always tell the truth in A Moveable Feast and sometimes his memory (or his willingness to rewrite that particular period of history) was not always entirely reliable, his rendering of the phrase’s origin chimes with Stein’s account, even if Hemingway misremembers the chef Pernollet as a garage owner rather than a hotelier and cook. Of his epigraphs to his novel written at the time, The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway later said that he had ‘tried to balance Miss Stein’s quotation from the garage keeper with one from Ecclesiastes’. In using the word ‘quotation’, Hemingway was acknowledging that Stein herself did not come up with the phrase. Like any good writer, Stein simply listened to what people were saying and adapted it for her purposes – and then, through passing it on to Hemingway, allowed him to do the same.
One last thing is worth noting about the phrase as Stein used it: she didn’t employ it sympathetically to denote the trauma and loss that Hemingway and other young men of his generation had endured during the First World War. If anything, it was a term of rebuke, a way to chastise them for drinking themselves to an early grave (certainly true of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died at 44). As Hemingway recorded, Stein told him and his friends off for having ‘no respect for anything’ and for ‘drink[ing them]selves to death’. Just as the chef (or garage owner?) used the term as an insult, so Stein, in appropriating it, used it at a term of reproach. But in doing so, part of the Roaring Twenties mythos was created.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.