EDITOR'S NOTE: They were the "flaming youth" of the 1920's, and here they look back at the years directly following World War I and take us through an era of jazz, petting parties, flappers, sterling silver flasks and raccoon coats.
In those years of panic during and immediately after the war, age became a sort of caste system, so that all people of the same number of years were automatically antagonistic to all others. Perhaps it was the civil effect of draft laws and perhaps it was because the days were so full around that time that each additional year of age seemed like an added century of emotional experience. Even the knitting of gray wool socks and the packing of Red Cross boxes was regulated by ages. The lowest of all these strata, the boys and girls who were just too young to go to France, blossomed out shortly afterwards as the Younger Generation. Even so late as a year ago, people's attitudes and animosities toward a generation prematurely forced to maturity furnished an astounding amount of newspaper copy.
The jazz and the petting parties with which that generation "tapered off" have become the custom of the country, and the world has become interested in more mature crimes. Now that we have recovered our equilibrium we see again the superior attraction of the ax murder as opposed to the mythical checked corset, and the newest generation of young people is being born full-grown, parroting forth the ideas of President Coolidge or H. L. Mencken in the rhythmic meters of Lloyd Mayer.
What has become of the youth which for so many years bore the blame for everything except the Prohibition Amendment, now that they are turning thirty and receiving the portions of responsibility doled out as we pass that landmark? For by that time, one has either earned the right to take chances or established himself as indispensable in some routine.
As a matter of fact, the increasing importance of the youngest war generation is a constant surprise. If this, in some measure, is due to the inevitable vacancies left as others move on, it is also the result of a sort of debonair desperation — a necessity for forcing the moments of life into an adequacy to the emotions of ten years ago. The men who at twenty-one led companies of two hundred must, it seems to us, feel an eternal let-down from a time when necessity and idealism were one single thing and no compromise was ever necessary. That willingness to face issues, a relic of ten years ago, is perhaps the explanation of some of the unrest and dissatisfaction of today. With millions of young people ready to "face things" with so much personal feeling. I can think of nothing short of another national crisis which would furnish strong enough material to unify and direct such valiant insistence upon essentials.
Success was the goal for this generation and to a startling extent they have attained it, and now we venture to say that, if intimately approached, nine in ten would confess that success is only a decoration they wished to wear; what they really wanted is something deeper and richer than that. An habituation to enormous effort during the years of the war left a necessity for trials and tests on them.
It was not only the war. The war was merely a heightening and hurrying forward of the inevitable reaction against the false premises doled out to their children by the florid and for the most fatuous mothers of the nineties and the early nineteen hundreds, parents who didn't experience the struggles and upheavals of the 'sixties and 'seventies and had no inkling of the cataclysmic changes the next decade would bring. Children were safe in the world, and producing them apparently ended the mother's responsibility. With the streets free from automobiles and morals free from movies and, in a large portion of America, corners already free from saloons, what did it matter what these children thought as they lay awake on warm summer nights straining to catch the cries of newsboys about the attempted assassination of Roosevelt and the victory of Johnson at Reno? It was a romantic time to be a child, to be old enough to feel the excitement being stored up around them and to be young enough to feel safe. Formed in such a period of pregnant placidity, left free to wonder and dream in a changing age with little or no pressure exerted upon them by life, it is not amazing that when time, having brought everything else out of the hat, produced his pièce de résistance, the war, these children realized too soon that they had seen the magician's whole repertoire. This was the last piece of wizardry they believed in, and now, nearing middle age and the period when they are to be the important people of the world, they still hope wistfully that things will again have the magic of the theater. The teapot dome, and Mrs. Snyder, and the unspeakable Formbes do not quite fill the gap.
It is not altogether the prosperity of the country and the consequent softness of life which have made them unstable, for almost invariably they are tremendously energetic; there has never been a time when so many positions of importance have been occupied by such young men or when the pages of newspapers and anthologies have borne the names of so many people under thirty. It is a great emotional disappointment resulting from the fact that life moved in poetic gestures when they were younger and has now settled back into buffoonery. And with the current insistence upon youth as the finest and richest time in the life of man, it is small wonder that sensitive young people are haunted and harassed by a sense of unfilled destiny and grope about between the ages of twenty-five and forty with a baffled feeling of frustration. The philosophy with which most of the adolescents were equipped implied that life was a truncated affair ceasing abruptly with the twenty-first birthday, and it is hardly of enough stamina to serve an age in which so many have tasted the essence of life — which is death — just as a balloon is biggest when it bursts. From those inflated years to being concerned over whether the most oil or gold was stolen from the Government is a difficult adjustment, but perhaps the cynicism with which the war generation approaches general affairs will eventually deal to a more intelligent attitude — even in the dim future to actual social interest.
Perhaps it is that we are still feeling the relaxation of the post-war years, but surely some of this irony and dissatisfaction with things supposedly solid and secure proceeds from the fact that more young people in this era were intense enough or clever enough or sensitive or shrewd enough to get what they wanted before they were mature enough to want the thing they acquired as an end and not merely as a proof of themselves. Perhaps we worked too much over man as the individual, so that his capabilities are far superior to the problems of life, and now we have endless youth of a responsible age floundering about in a morass of unused powers and feeling very bitter and mock heroic like all people who think the element of chance in their lives should have been on a bigger scale. Outside of war, men of the hour haven't had a romantic opportunity near home since the last gold rush, and a great proportion of young men feel that their mental agility or physical prowess can never be really measured in situations of their own making. This has perhaps been true of all times, but it is more pronounced now that emergencies have, faced with the tremendous superiority of modern youth, lost their dignity as acts of God and been definitely relegated to the category of human inefficiency, if they are recognized at all.
We wonder if that is because a whole generation accustomed itself to a basic feeling that there are two ways to be; dead and alive, preferably alive and probably dead. So that now the nuances and gradations of society in general seem of the same importance as the overtones of society in particular; sauce and trimmings make better eating than the meat. And we predict a frightful pandemonium to eat it in unless indeed every generation has gone through the same difficulties of adjustment. It may be that this one is simply more expressive. Oddly enough, we have but one set of contemporaries. It has always surprised us that whether there is a war or not, we will always be of the war generation and we will always have unclarified ways of reacting, privy only to ourselves.
Publication Date: Summer 1971 Liberty Reprint Issue