If Jack Kerouac wasn’t the one who invented “hip,” if the Beats’ claim to be the authors of “cool” is false, who were the first real hipsters?
Start with the beginning, “the generation of 1914,” men and women born between 1880 and 1900. No generation had ever grown up in a situation anything close to what this group experienced and despite their colossal failures, they invented the modern world.
“…a host of images leaps to mind: of students packing off to war with flowers in their rifles….; of pleasure-seekers in the 1920s, cigarette hanging from the corner of their mouth, defiance and despair showing in the directness of their stare and the set of their face; of Communists, heads bobbing in a sea of masses; of Fascists, tight-lipped, stiff-postured, without pity for others or themselves; of pacifists protesting belligerently against war; of veterans unable to forget…; of wasted women… widows before they became wives; of a generation missing, sacrificed… destroyed ‘for an old bitch gone in the teeth, for a botched civilization.’” (Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914, Harvard UniversityPress 1979, p 1)
The invention of “Youth”
Their story resonates today. It seems familiar because it is. The difference between them and us is they were first, the first moderns, the first of a new type of human. The birth was difficult and the story doesn’t end well but in so many ways, they made us and hopefully we can learn from their triumphs and their despair.
They had to be different from all previous generations, conditions demanded it. By the turn of the 20th century, industrialization had spread throughout the developed world and penetrated to the very core of life. Everything was changed, even the word “generation.”
Up to that point, it had always referred to the difference between fathers and sons or to people born at approximately the same time. Starting around 1900, “generation” signified comrades in age and experience. More exactly, it referred to the gulf separating youth from the older generation.
The old ways were no longer relevant. Fathers no longer knew enough yet they still demanded obedience to their authority and their old way of life. The gulf grew into a chasm as generational conflict became codified in a new movement of rebellion called “Modernism.”
Modernism rejected the past in all its forms except one, the ideal that originated in the 18th Century Enlightenment which spawned the American and French Revolutions. The future could be better than today once obstacles to a life of reason were removed. The main impediments to progress and change were superstition and tradition, negative forces associated with the “old men.”
The whole concept of youth changed. Industrialization created a new kind of career, salaried white-collar office, and civil service personnel. Big business recruited masses of this new employee with the required university degrees. Students now went from secondary school to university and the period of youth grew longer. Early forms of mass media spread the imagery and the message of the young to the young. The term “youth” now signified a distinct special interest group.
These ideas were spread by elites of the young generation. Avant-Garde artists and writers in Paris, New York, Berlin, and other major cities were the original Influencers. [wiki:influencer marketing]
That was before 1914. The first years of the 20th century had been an era of optimism, progress, and prosperity. Visual artists disrupted form and created a new aesthetic that reinvented cities, fashion, and products. Emerging technologies and scientific developments changed attitudes and lifestyles. But World War I disrupted everything. What was supposed to be “The war to end all wars” turned out to be an epic blunder promulgated by incompetent old men for the sake of finance and profit. It provoked a generational revolt.
In Europe, every young man served and for the first time class distinctions faded. They were all one in the trenches and new philosophies born of war and PTSD, unknown at that time, became foundations for the radical politics that emerged after the peace. The revolutionary mentality confined to the Avante-Garde in the early years of the century spread throughout the mass of troops on both sides.
Youth vs. the Old Men – The Modernist Revolt
“Didn’t we swear to our friends out there on the field of death, crouched together below the parapet or huddled together in the dugout, in shattered woods and villages, under the hail of shrapnel, and beneath the light of the stars – didn’t we swear then by all that was most sacred that one good thing must come out of the war – an uprising of youth? …Our fathers had betrayed us and the young who had know war, hard and unsentimental, would begin the business of spring-cleaning. If we had not the right to, who had?”
Ernest Toller I was a German, Lonon, 1934.
“But I’m not on the Left.”
“Are you on the Right?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not on the Right either.”
“What are you?”
“I’m against the old men.”
“I see, that’s it.”
“But no, Madame, the old men are on both the Right and the Left.”
Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, La Comerdie de Charleroi, 1934.
“In a very short time, I realized that the London I had come back to was a different place from the London I had left in 1914, let alone prewar London. Everything seemed askew. The streets were dirty and shabby… The decent, orderly, good-natured Londoners had become as snappy and selfish as the far more sorely tried French. There was a shortage of everything except returning soldiers and debts… Lodgings or apartments were almost impossible to find… There was a devil-take-the-hindmost scramble for money and position in the new world, and an extravagance which seemed incredible to me who had known the old sober England. I stood aghast at this degeneration of my people, visible to me, as it was not to them, because of my long absence. I asked myself anxiously if I too had not degenerated, as it seemed to me I had.”
Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake, 1941 pp 203-204 (cited in Wohl, The Generation of 1914, pp. 290-292).
It was clear. Youth were the victims of warmongering old men. Youth took comfort in their belief that the war had been a cleansing of the old, a necessary preparation for the birth of the new.
But soon after the peace, things quickly returned to normal and the old men again took power. The treaty signed at Versailles in the spring of 1919 was “a peace of interests and imperialism rather than one that would reconcile peoples or lead to international harmony.” (Wohl p. 224 ) Apocalyptic dreams of the young were frustrated and they could not forget. For the rest of their lives this generation would feel trapped in a dead zone, an interregnum between two worlds; “one dead, the other powerless to be born.”
Older veterans returned to their jobs and families but millions of young men had only ideologies of the Front which they brought back to a society in the midst of technological transformation. Young women who had entered the workforce like never before during the war felt trapped in low paying jobs and political powerlessness. They were subject to the same disillusionment affecting young men.
Between 1917 and 1920 a revolutionary wave broke over every European country. Armies grew restive and mutinied, urban populations staged riots and insurrections over rising prices, unions swelled in membership and workers began to challenge factory owners.
The New Woman
“Anyone who is still engaged in revolution is a fool.” (Alexander Lernet-Hotentia, 1926 cited in Germany in the Twenties, The Artist as Social Critic, University of Minnesota: 1980 p. 197)
There was nothing to come back to. Idealistic dreams of young veterans were put on indefinite hold and many “fled in disgust into a spiritual exile or a ‘flight without end.’” (Wohl p. 225)
The Dawes Act infused massive American funds, pacified Europe and brought Germany back from the brink of total collapse. Socialism failed in Western Europe and Russian Communism was turning toward the totalitarian system the West had feared. In the West, “money and the mob” took over.
As the twenties began to roar, radical political movements went underground and simmered. The scramble for wealth was all that mattered. To drown their disillusionment, young people turned to physical experience and enjoyment and gave up on making changes they’d committed themselves to not so long ago.
“They viewed themselves as wanderers and vagabonds who traveled without itineraries because timetables were undependable and ‘tour guides gave false information.’ They were ‘never tiring analysts of the verb depart’ who, like the writer, Henry de Montherlant, was ‘always wandering, always pursuing something, always fleeing something… at the prey of all temptations.’” (Wohl, p. 224)
The urge to travel was universal for those who had the means. The “new woman,” high strung, too slender, athletic, having discarded her corset for designs of Coco Chanel was constantly on the move. Influencers, now media celebrities, were always in motion; on horseback, dancing, driving open-topped and anticipating jet-set society.
“The whole Art Deco epoch is implied in this fleeting vision of a pretty woman with khol-lined eyes, cherry lips and close-cropped hair with a cloche hat, wearing a short dress by Madeleine Voinet or Coco Chanel trousers, and driving a Bugatti through Montparnasse, en route to Deauville or Saint Moritz…” (Gilles Neret, The Arts of the Twenties, New York, 1986 p.164)
The invention of Modern Entertainment
Three decades before Jack Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road, the generation of 1914 captured imagery of the open road as freedom.
“To take off down the road. To cruise with the top down on the highway at 160 kilometers an hour, to push on straight ahead, from one road marker to the other, to tear the world in two in following the dotted line…” (Blaise Cendrars, quoted by Wohl, p, 237)
The writer who best expressed the restlessness of the era was Frédéric-Louis Sauser. He became famous as Blaise Cendrars and invented modern storytelling.
Cendrars wrote action as it had never been written before. Real life was “crime, theft, jealousy, hunger, lies, screwing, stupidity, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, heaps of corpses.” Action alone liberated.
“Drive to the bottom of the abyss, to the bottom of the unknown in order to find something new…”
(cited in Monique Chefdor Complete Postcards from the Americas, Poems of the Road and Sea. UC Press. 1976 (p. 29)
Cendrars went to war with enthusiasm, lost his right arm, learned to write left-handed. His work was known worldwide and set precedents for following generations including the Beats. But characters he created possessed a depth that few of his successors ever achieved. “I always participate and take a side, although I no longer believe in anything.”
The Jazz Age
The soundtrack for the new narrative of action was American Jazz emanating from the Harlem Renaissance and it became the rage in Europe just as it was in the United States. People came to Paris from everywhere; exiled Russian princesses selling off their jewels, aging American women seeking to rekindle flames of their youth in the arms of dark gigolos. Socialites frequented “Black balls” and danced the Black Bottom.
Mass media emerged in the 1920s. Suddenly, everyone owned a radio and jazz was the universal language. This was the moment of the “Cabaret,” a meme that actually existed, especially in Berlin and Paris, living proof the generation of 1914 invented the modern way of partying.
The Baouf-sur-le toit was a hot Parisian club named after one of Jean Cocteau’s latest movies. It was a small club in the rue Boissy d’Anglas and the most beautiful women in Paris could be seen there accompanied by men in fine tuxedos drinking and dancing next to someone like Picasso in a sweater or Coco Chanel sporting the asymmetric look with only one eyebrow. Celebrities like the ballerina, Caryathis, often led the dance from a small stage elevated above the crowd like what “go-go girls” would do much later in the twentieth century. Cigarette smoke filled the room, liquor flowed freely, cocaine was available. Revolutionary Dadaist paintings, now objects of decoration, hung on the walls to add an atmosphere of rebellion and excitement.
American funds ended European instability after the war and ignited the Roaring 20s. The stock market boom and new freedoms of expression ushered in a period of brash social experimentation called “High Modernism.”
Americans had first seen the new European art in New York, at the Armory Show in 1913. Paintings by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinski, and many others helped stimulate the building boom of Art Deco skyscrapers that made Manhattan the iconic urban skyline.
Though Paris and Berlin were still the centers of culture, New York was the city of dreams for European Influencers.
“Your New York is the Cubist city, the Futurist city. In its architecture, its life and spirit, it expresses the modern mind. You have passed through all the old schools and you are Futurists in works, acts and thoughts.” (Francis Picabia quoted in the New York American March 30, 1913)
Along with American funds, American culture was injected into Europe after the war. But many of the intellectual elite were skeptical, even hostile. Transformation to the American method of business was called “rationalization.” It was soulless and American culture was crass. They feared capitalism and the masses, “money and the mob,” would snuff out “spirit,” the distinctive European heritage and set of values which had evolved over centuries. This proud legacy was easily distorted into what became the basis of Fascism. When the American stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression hit Europe in 1930, social experimentation ceased. Radical movements resurfaced and gained power.
The First Fascists
In the beginning, no one could foresee what Fascism would become. Concepts of “left” and “right” as we know them were not yet clearly defined. Fascism arose as a spiritual rebirth and a political revival promising the creation of a new man; a middle-class alternative to both the rising tide of Communism and the crass capitalism of the Americans.
“Youth” became a tool of propaganda. Partisans of the Bolshevik revolution, of Mussolini’s Fascism, and eventually of Hitler’s Nazis used the idea of youth and generational solidarity to attract and control their followers.
Ideals of democracy had become associated with pointless war, gross exploitation of workers and the stifling mediocrity of a middle class manipulated by big money. The rhetoric of radical right and left was often indistinguishable and they shared a common belief in secret underlying connections between the two factions, a belief that made it possible for many to pass from one side to the other in their search for solutions to the personal and collective crises of the period.
An eerie gloom spread from after 1933 to the outbreak of World War II. The early 1930s were good for people with money despite the worldwide economic slowdown following the crash of 29. But the shadow over every perceptive intelligence was a realization of coming disaster. “To the point people suppressed this knowledge, acquiesced… and submitted to the generals and the politicians” is the extent to which the cherished ideals of the generation of 1914 failed. “Conceived as an insurrection against a society which accepted, if it did not celebrate, nationalism and militarism, the movement had sprung from the forehead of one war and now would be trodden beneath the heal of another.” (Malcolm Haslam, The Real World of the Surrealists, Rizzoli, 1978, p. 237)
Had any group been dealt a worse hand than the generation of 1914? Have youthful aspirations of so many ever been so thoroughly crushed yet, has any generation ever accomplished so much despite such complete misfortune?
In his seminal work, The Generation of 1914, published in 1979, Professor Robert Wohl states:
“This sense of living through an interregnum, though shared by large numbers of people, did not create a new worldview or a new philosophy. Nor did it launch a new school of thought that expressed the ideals and aspirations of an entire generation. It did bring into being and keep alive a mentality, a collective state of mind, that left its imprint on the language and literature of the 1920s.”
It’s hard to agree with that statement. True, they didn’t leave us heavy tombs or treatises of philosophical principles like earlier European thinkers. But who cares about Nietzche anymore? What does he have to say to us today and who would listen? He was a brilliant madman who died in an asylum. What about Hegel, or Descartes, or even Marx?
The Invention of Our World
The generation of 1914 left much more than an “imprint on the language, and literature of the 1920s.” They changed the art of storytelling for all media and that influence reaches us every day. They set examples for living in a fully industrialized modern society which are still relevant. They conceived designs for the cities we inhabit today. It’s been said we live in a “Postmodern” world but looking at what the generation of 1914 left behind, it’s clear that most of us could feel at home in their world. The differences between then and now are more minor than they are daunting while the similarities are truly surprising.
Professor Wohl continues:
“Travel and activity compensated for the shock generated by the overwhelming speed of change in a world overtaken by the second phase of the industrial revolution. Action was a celebration of living and an escape that offered nourishment to a spiritual life …unable to sustain itself on its own resources and that was constantly on the verge of dissolving into suicidal despair.” (Wohl, p234)
Not much has changed there. In fact, that psychological fragility could be getting worse in our own time due to the “overwhelming speed of change in a world overtaken by the” third phase of the industrial revolution. It comes via non-stop connectivity and social media. It’s an inescapable fact of life in our age, whether called modern or postmodern, and humans haven’t learned how to fully adapt. We are still a living experiment.
Dr. Wohl makes another point. The generation of 1914 witnessed “the breakup of the… world into which they had been born, the most perceptive among them realized at an early age the necessity of developing new forms of collective life.”
He continues on those leaders of youth, “…neither the education nor the experience of these men prepared them to meet these challenges and accomplish these tasks… Most remained obsessed by the fantasy of heroic action… they had little sympathy for the ‘materialistic’ ambitions of workers and peasants to better their lives and to achieve greater self-esteem. They resented, or at best were ambivalent about, industrial society…Few considered the social and economic organization of society worthy of analysis.” (pp. 235-236)
That could be true, however, does it explain the two great political experiments of that generation, Communism and Fascism? Wohl himself explains: “Fascism and Communism were the great political adventures of the generation of 1914. Fascism had been in its origins an attempt to provide a middle-class alternative to the Marxist scenario of social transformation.”
It seems obvious their interest in these movements grew out of their own fears and their fears for the rest of society. But Professor Wohl could be right. Perhaps the generation of 1914 suffered from mass narcissism and was totally unconcerned with the plight of working people. Somehow, I doubt it. Perhaps they were so removed from the reality of those working classes they were unaware of the suffering. If that is true, it feels eerily similar to the situation in the USA today. The Presidential election of 2016 demonstrated that all too clearly.
The End of the Experiment
After the war, the generation of 1914 lost faith in Democracy and followed leaders into what was believed to be new and better forms of government. Professor Wohl rightly criticizes them for that but on second thought, they weren’t the first. Writing at the end of the ancient Athenian renaissance, both Plato and Aristotle concluded that democracy always degenerates into an oligarchy. Humans have still not solved that problem.
“Fascism had been in its origins an attempt to provide a middle-class alternative to the Marxist scenario of social transformation. In the beginning, it had aimed at a spiritual revolution and the creation of a new man. By 1943 it was clear to all but the most doggedly reactionary and anti-Semitic members of the generation of 1914 that Fascism had been a colossal failure. It had provided a means for checking social change rather than advancing it; it had failed to deliver on its promises of creating a new type of human being and a new system of values; it had released a flood of violence and aggression; it had committed crimes of unprecedented horror; and… resulted in a disastrous civil war of European nation states that left Europe impoverished and powerless.” (Wohl, p. 234)
It can be argued the generation of 1914 was more concerned with social issues than historians have given them credit for but the collective shock of their early life was too much to overcome. To put it another way:
As a group, they were never able to free themselves from their war experience, a pervasive shared belief that they were living through an apocalypse out of whose smoke and flames would be born a new world in which the wrongs could be set right finally and for eternity. They never gained the insight that living society is a process of continuous rather than intermittent, revolutionary change and that even in times when a revolution is inevitable, change itself is not dependent upon a complete repudiation of the past.
In our time, danger lies in the fact that their mistakes seem to be still with us. Is history being repeated? Is the growth of “populism” in Europe and the US a repeat of the 1930s? Too many parts of this story resonate a little too clearly to definitively say no. Instead of “populism,” why not call it by its real name, “fascism?”
Perhaps the most eloquent statement was left to us by Thomas Mann, the German author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 then fled to Switzerland when Hitler came to power via a rigged election. Writing in 1944 and looking back on the moment of brilliance between the wars, he wrote:
“Yes, it was strange, wonderful, a time worth living in and in every way a time worth retelling. The fact that it ended so badly, that a storm of blood, hatred, and misery swallowed it all up…. cannot dull the bright memories… But we who are still living for the moment in this new, evil, yet by no means hopeless age… now understand more about the inner shortcomings of the cultural bliss we then experienced…
We have discovered that good cannot be consummated by what is aesthetically bold and attractive, that culture which ‘is not interested in politics’ and excludes social questions from its sphere of vision comes quite close to barbarism, and that a person of intellect shoulders greater responsibilities than problems of beauty… Thomas Mann (cited in The Golden Twenties, Art and Literature in the Weimar Republic; Yale University Press, 1988 p. 248)