Fitzgerald, Hemingway and American Existentialism

In the 1920s, the old Victorian values broke down and Modern values emerged in art, music, film and literature even as American mainstream politics under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover reverted to the conservatism of a bygone age. The alienation of young Losters from the mainstream of American culture and politics led them to begin to articulate existentialism as expatriates.

The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:

“The initiates in Hemingway’s stories and novels have this talent. They are existentialists in fact, if not in name. They know the nothingness, the “nada” as Hemingway calls it, that exists outside those clean, well-lighted islands of meaning man vainly tries to create. They are obsessed with violence and pain because in the face of death life is stripped to its essence. External sugar-coatings drop away. Man stands terribly alone but free to choose his fate. Thus the figures of the matador in the building and the soldier on the battlefield recur repeatedly in Hemingway’s writing. In existential terms such persons are at peace; their decisions give their life a personal meaning. In traditional terms Hemingway’s heroes would not be considered heroic at all. But Hemingway was creating new rules for a new game. He posited the nonhero-hero – one who stood out from the crowd not by attaining glory but by confronting failure.

Clutching around his shoulders the self-conceived mantle of the Lost Generation, and rather enjoying it, Hemingway prepared to use the war experience and the resulting despair to fashion a new philosophy of life. Existential protagonists fill his pages. One thinks of Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises who, in the face of the breakdown of all value and meaning, simply decides not to be a bitch. Or of Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms (1929) who, on learning of the death of both his lover and his newborn baby, neither cries nor prays nor commits suicide but walks away slowly and stoically back to his hotel in the rain. Human existence, Hemingway suggests near the end of his book, is comparable to that of ants surrounded by a campfire. Pain is a constant companion. Ultimately they whither in the heat and die. There is no purpose, no plan, no meaning in the annihilation. No one cares. Ethics, in the traditional sense, simply do not exist. The individual must make his own ethics by deciding how he will face the human condition.”

American intellectuals seceded from the old values of the Victorian era and went to Europe in search of new values. Modern values took root in the American intelligentsia during this decade.


“The protagonist of this journey’s story was not only Cowley, but an entire prewar literary generation. Trained for a world that existed largely in books, many of this generation volunteered before America’s entry into World War I for wartime service in a Europe that no longer existed. The slaughters at Chemin des Dames, the morass of Passchendaele, and the rout of the Italian army at Caporetto, among many other battles, profoundly altered this literary generation’s sense of both itself and the world. As Cowley puts it, “The generation belonged to a period of transition from values already fixed to values that had to be created.”

Moreover, upon returning to the States from the war, whose end was declared with the November 11, 1918, armistice, the uprooted found themselves exiles in their own land, spectators of a culture they had no hand in creating, and disenfranchised socially, economically, and politically. Boosterism, a new conformity, was dominant. After Sinclair Lewis’s social satire Babbitt appeared in 1922, “Babbittry” became the moniker for this pecuniary vision of repressive progress. Those whose values didn’t match the norm were suspect. The Ku Klux Klan had begun its northern migration, the Palmer raids had begun rounding up supposed radicals (including the soon-to-be-celebrated Sacco and Vanzetti), labor organizing efforts were trounced in Seattle and in the coal, rail, and steel industries, and the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, instituting Prohibition, had been passed. Progress and power were praised, intellect and ideas were not. Cynically, after disillusioning trips home where challenging work was not to be found, many of Cowley’s ilk migrated to New York, particularly Greenwich Village, where they worked bad jobs, lived in coldwater flats, and generally refound each other. With a shared net of ideas—essentially, down with the hypocrisy of business and up with the sanctity of art—and a common rejection of contemporary values, they forged a bond. Cowley, thinking back to the war, calls it “the long furlough.” Given their bleak prospects, many of this lost generation began to think it might not be a bad idea simply to repack their bags, this time with civilian clothes, and head back to France, where the exchange rate favored the dollar and the culture confirmed the images their educations had fed them.”

In light of the upcoming election and the dismal reality of what is likely to follow in its wake, this really isn’t such a bad attitude.

The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:

“Floyd Dell knew what Hemingway meant. A chief spokesman of the Greenwich Village intelligentsia, Dell attempted to summarize their creed in 1926. “Life, we felt, consisted so largely of spilt milk that there is no use crying over it – we might just as well celebrate the magnificent inevitability of the spilling.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work embodied the same attitude:

“In This Side of Paradise (1920) F. Scott Fitzgerald the often quoted portrait of Amory Blaine and his college-age contemporaries: “here was a new generation … grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” The statement has been widely understood as defining the empty universe of a lost generation. Fitzgerald, however, is, like Hemingway, determined to salvage from the void some meaning and value for Amory and, presumably, for himself. His solution is to cast Amory in an existential stance. …

In the meantime, Amory has become alienated from the values allegedly at stake in World War I. He is swept clean, ready to experiment with a new philosophy …”

What are our values?

We’ve given up on the “mainstream” values.

About Hunter Wallace 12380 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. Reason and science have become their own religions. Its practitioners tend to believe their brains are so powerful, they are replacements for the god they insist doesn’t exist. Their reason can figure out and control the entire universe, eventually. But nothing is original in this world. All ideas emerged from language, signs, symbols and thoughts already extant, so your hubris is absurd vanity, if that’s your belief system.

  2. Speaking of existentialism, I wonder what Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer is up to. Let’s take a look.

    Oh my, Richard retweeted a tweet suggesting Macron is the savior of Europe. Forget the fact that Macron used to his police state to curb stomp the yellow vests, an actual populist freedom movement, and that Macron once declared himself a proud globalist. Interesting. So according to the retweet, populism is a failure and we should put our faith in the future which is moderate-liberalism aka globalism. If I didn’t know any better I would say Richard Spencer is a Marxist and Macron isn’t sincere, but what do I know.

    Oh look, a tweet by Spencer saying the polls are accurate. But he doesn’t give a reason why in the tweet. Interesting. Because we all know these pollsters have our best interests at heart, because Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer said so.

    Perhaps Richard can sense things we cannot sense due to his metrosexual instincts. Not all of us can have our brains personally massaged by the Aryan gods, such as Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer’s brain.

  3. Nick Adams is one of Hemingway’s most interesting characters. Adams the White American caught up in situations he doesn’t understand.

  4. Hey Hunter, I know you’ve been hard at work tracing the origins of the decline back to its modernist roots and all, but have you checked out the TV series “Barbarians” about the Germano-Roman conflict around the time of the Battle of Teutoburg? It recently came out on Netflix. It’s quite well done. The German characters speak German and the Roman characters Latin. I’m only one episode in, but it’s mercifully free of groids in unlikely places so far (prob won’t last), although they’ve amped the grrlpower a bit perhaps to compensate. Worth taking a look at.

  5. I’m not sure that packing one’s bags and heading for France at the moment is a good plan. Unless one wishes a 1918 Lost Generation experience. As previewed on this site there’s not much sanctity left in modern art either.

  6. “Clutching around his shoulders the self-conceived mantle of the Lost Generation, and rather enjoying it, Hemingway prepared to use the war experience and the resulting despair to fashion a new philosophy of life.”

    Happening just at the time that electric light was flooding the big cities.

    Now we know that electric light, especially blue light, greatly disturbs sleep.

    So, fight in World War I, the first Industrial War, come home to cities full of artificial light, suffer restlessness and declare that life is despair and engage in morose existential musings.

    It’s not that EVERYTHING is purely materialist, it’s that 99% of everything is.

    The final red pill is the Ted Pill.

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