In 1918 the present writer stole an engine, together with its trustful engineer, and drove two hundred miles in it to keep from being A.W.O.L. He can still be tried for the offense, so the details must remain undisclosed. It is set down here only to bear witness to the fact that in those days we were red-blooded—Children! Don’t bring those parachutes into the house! All right, we’ll drop that approach altogether.
We who are now between forty and forty-five were born mostly at home in gaslight or in the country by oil lamps. Mewling and burping unscientifically in our nurses’ arms we were unaware of being the Great Inheritors—unaware that, as we took over the remnants of the crumbled Spanish Empire, the robe of primacy was being wrapped around our little shoulders. About ten million of us were born with the Empire, and in our first Buster Brown collars we were treated to a new kind of circuit parade, a Wild West Show on water—the Fleet was being sent on a trip to show the world. At the turn of the previous century—in 1800—it had likewise been bracing to be an American, but that was from ignorance, for beyond our own shore we were a small potato indeed. This time, though, there was no doubt of it—when even our nursery books showed the last sinking turrets of Cervera’s fleet we were incorrigibly a great nation.
We were the great believers. Edmund Wilson has remarked that the force of the disillusion in A Farewell to Arms derives from Hemingway’s original hope and belief. Without that he could not have written of the war: “…finally only the names of places had dignity… Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” Hemingway felt that way in 1918. In 1899 when he was born there was faith and hope such as few modern nations have known.
It is important just when a generation first sees the light—and by a generation I mean that reaction against the fathers which seems to occur about three times in a century. It is distinguished by a set of ideas, inherited in moderated form from the madmen and the outlaws of the generation before; if it is a real generation it has its own leaders and spokesmen, and it draws into its orbit those born just before it and just after, whose ideas are less clear-cut and defiant. A strongly individual generation sprouts most readily from a time of stress and emergency—tensity, communicated from parent to child, seems to leave a pattern on the heart. The generation which reached maturity around 1800 was born spiritually at Valley Forge. Its milk was the illiterate letters, the verbal messages, the casualty reports written during the desperate seven-year retreat from Massachusetts to the Carolinas—and the return back to the Virginia town; its toys were the flintlock in the corner, the epaulettes of a Hessian grenadier; its first legend the print of Washington on the schoolroom wall. It grew up to be the hard-boiled generation of Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster, Fulton and Eli Whitney, Lewis and Clark. Its few authors, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, struggled to give America a past, a breathing record of those who had known its forests and fields and towns, a special service for its dead.
They were tougher and rougher than their fathers; they were adrift in a land more remote from the mainstream and all their doubt clothed them in desperation. They revived the duel, long moribund in England. They had a mess on their hands—Washington had died with more apprehension for the republic than he had felt at the lowest ebb of the revolution, and the forces of the time gave life a restless stamp. In retrospect the men seem all of one piece. When the last of them, old General Winfield Scott, watched a new tragedy begin at Bull Run there could have been few men alive to whom he could speak the language of his broken heart.
In haste let me add that my generation is very much alive. One of us recently married Hedy Lamarr!
We were born to power and intense nationalism. We did not have to stand up in a movie house and recite a child’s pledge to the flag to be aware of it. We were told, individually and as a unit, that we were a race that could potentially lick ten others of any genus. This is not a nostalgic article for it has a point to make—but we began life in post-Fauntleroy suits (often a sailor’s uniform as a taunt to Spain). Jingo was the lingo—we saw plays named Paul Revere and Secret Service and raced toy boats called the Columbia and the Reliance after the cup defenders. We carved our own swords whistling, Way Down in Colon Town, where we would presently engage in battle with lesser breeds. We sang Tease Me, Coax Me, Kiss Me Good Night, Dear Love, and You Talk in Your Sleep Don’t Mention My Name (which, due to the malice of some false friends, was Fitzboomski all through the Russo-Japanese war). We made “buckboards” out of velocipede wheels and didn’t get a page in Life about it, and we printed our own photographs in fading brown and blue. The mechanical age was coming fast but many of the things we played with we made ourselves.
That America passed away somewhere between 1910 and 1920; and the fact gives my generation its uniqueness—we are at once prewar and postwar. We were well-grown in the tense Spring of 1917, but for the most part not married and settled. The peace found us almost intact—less than five percent of my college class were killed in the war, and the colleges had a high average compared to the country as a whole. Men of our age in Europe simply do not exist. I have looked for them often, but they are twenty-five years dead.
So we inherited two worlds—the one of hope to which we had been bred; the one of disillusion which we had discovered early for ourselves. And that first world was growing as remote as another country, however close in time. My father wrote the old-fashioned “s” in his youthful letters and as a boy during the Civil War was an integral part of the Confederate spy system between Washington and Richmond. In moments of supreme exasperation he said, “Confound it!” I live without madness in a world of scientific miracles where curses or Promethean cries are bolder—and more ineffectual. I do not “accept” that world, as for instance my daughter does. But I function in it with familiarity, and to a growing extent my generation is beginning to run it.
What are these men who, about the time of their majority, found themselves singing, “We’re in the army now.” Their first discovery of 1919 was that nobody cared. Cut out the war talk—every so often life was doomed to be a cockeyed and disorderly business. Forget quickly.
All right then. Hank McGraw, who had been a major in France, came back to Princeton and captained a winning football team—I never saw him play without wondering what he thought about it all. Tommy Hitchcock, who had escaped from Germany by jumping from a train, went up to Harvard—perhaps to find out why. The best musician I ever knew was so confused that he walked out to put shirts on girls in the Society Islands! Men of fifty had the gall to tell us that when their cellars were exhausted they would drink no more—but they had fixed it so we could start with rotgut right now. Most of us took a drink by that time but honestly it wasn’t our invention—though both moonshine and heavy necking, which had spread up from the Deep South and out of Chicago as early as 1915, were put upon our bill.
The truth was that we found the youth younger than ourselves, the sheiks and the flappers, rather disturbing. We had settled down to work. George Gershwin was picking out tunes between other peoples’ auditions in Tin Pan Alley and Ernest Hemingway was reporting the massacres in Smyrna. Ben Hecht and Charlie Mac-Arthur were watching the Chicago underworld in bud. Dempsey, scarred in reverse by the war, was becoming the brave of his day, while Tunney bided his time. Donald Peattie was coming into his inheritance of the woods and what he found there. George Antheil’s music and Paul Nelson’s suspended house were a little way off, but Vincent Youmans already had charmed his audience with “O me, O my, O you.” Merian Cooper would fly a little longer as a soldier of fortune before settling down to make Chang and Grass. Denny Holden wasn’t through with war either—in his plane last summer perished a gallant and lively jack-of-many-trades whose life was a hundred stories.
The late Tom Wolfe left the Norfolk shipyards and went to college for more education. His end was so tragic that I am glad I knew him in carefree and fortunate times. He had that flair for the extravagant and fantastic which has been an American characteristic from Irving and Poe to Dashiell Hammett. He was six feet eight inches tall and I was with him one night on Lake Geneva when he found to his amazement that not only could he reach the street wires over his head but that when he pulled them he caused a blackout of Montreux. To the inquiring mind this is something of a discovery, not a thing that happens every day. I had a hard time getting Tom away from there quickly. Windows opened, voices called, there were running footsteps, and still Tom played at his blackout with the casualness of a conductor ringing up fares. We drove over the French border that night.
Wolfe was a grievous loss. With Hemingway, Dos Passos, Wilder and Faulkner he was one of a group of talents for fiction such as rarely appear in a single hatching. Each of these authors created a world quite his own and lived in it convincingly. Decimated Europe had nothing to set beside the work of these young men.
The poets of my time set a more precarious course, or so I believe, for the novel had become elastic enough to say almost anything. But some of the critics, Wilson, Mumford, Seldes among others, have had powerful influence upon the taste and interests of the past two decades. The playwrights, Sherwood and Behrman, Barry and Stallings, Hecht and MacArthur, have been so successful that they are now their own angels—contemplating a production, they call for the private sucker list, and find their own names at the top. And that art which stockholders, producers and public have kept in its perennial infancy owes a great debt to those two directors, Frank Capra and King Vidor, who have fought themselves free of producer’s control.
All in all it was a husky generation. Match me Tommy Hitchcock or Bill Tilden for sheer power of survival as champions. Outside of a few Eastern cities there was a vacant lot in every block and I played humbly on the same teams with future Minnesota linemen, a national golf medalist, Dudley Mudge, and a national amateur champion, Harrison Johnston.
Later, pursued from hideout to hideout by the truant officers, I came in early contact with a few incipient men of letters. I was at prep school in New Jersey with Pulitzer Prizeman Herbert Agar and novelists Cyril Hume and Edward Hope Coffey. Hope and I were destined to follow a similar pattern—to write librettos at Princeton, “drool” for the college comic and, later, college novels. But I remember him best when he was center and I was quarterback on the second team at school. We were both fifteen—and awful. There were a couple of one-hundred-eighty-pound tackles (one of them now headmaster for his sins) who liked to practice taking me out, and Hope gave me no protection—no protection at all—and I would have paid well for protection. We were the laziest and lowest-ranking boys in school.
In college I was luckier. I knew the future presidents of many banks and oil companies, the Governor of Tennessee, and among the intellectuals encountered John Peale Bishop, warbird Elliott Springs, Judge John Biggs and Hamilton Fish Armstrong. Of course I had no idea who they were, and neither did they, or I could have started an autographed tablecloth. Things were stirring: Richard Cleveland, Henry Strater and David Bruce led a revolt against the “social system.” Spence and Pumpelly and Charlie Taft did the same at Yale.
Next on my list I find Al Capone, born in 1899—but he saw the light in Naples. Anyhow, it’s a good place to stop.
Those I have mentioned are only a platoon in an army of five million. Are they representative of my generation—of those who have one foot planted before the war and one after it? They are at any rate the articulate and my claim is that they have not been “sheltered”—when any moppet assures me that we “lived in an ! Ivory Tower,” my blood boils and I weep into my paraldehyde. The Jungle and The Octopus were on our shelves before John Steinbeck ate the grape of wrath. In 1920 the present writer recommended the immediate machine-gunning of all men in a position to marry. The revolution wasn’t just around the corner—it was under my hat. But it is a fact that the capacity of this generation to believe has run very thin. The war, the peace, the boom, the Depression, the shadow of the new war scarcely correspond to the idea of manifest destiny. Many men of my age are inclined to paraphrase Sir Edward Grey of 1914—“The lamps are going out all over the world; we shall not see them lit again in our time.”
It should be said that Steinbeck and Dr. Hutchins, Peter Arno and the late Irving Thalberg, Caldwell and O’Hara, Saroyan and Odets, Colonel Lindbergh and District Attorney Dewey were all too young to play on our team. Their experiences, achievements, and certainties are not of our world. We are closer in time to the hulk in a veteran’s hospital—for these younger men did not dance the Grizzly Bear and the Bunny Hug when one was risking ostracism, or march a thousand miles to Beautiful Katie. But they swim, one and all, in our orbit; as the painter Picasso says: “You do something first and then somebody comes along and does it pretty.” Easy with that space gun! You oughtn’t to point things! By and large I grant them a grace we do not have, and for all we know the Messiah may be among them. But we are something else again.
Well—many are dead, and some I have quarreled with and don’t see anymore. But I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer. It is a generation staunch by inheritance, sophisticated by fact—and rather deeply wise. More than that what I feel about them is summed up in a line of Willa Сather’s: “We possess together the precious, the incommunicable past.”
Published in Esquire magazine (October 1968).
Re-published in Esquire magazine (October 1973).