Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An Echo of Ernest and his Pals

Ernest Hemingway as an American Red Cross volunteer during World War I, Milan, Italy. [Public Domain] Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Greetings All:

First off, a bit of housekeeping:  I mentioned at the end of my last post that I would be submitting for your comments and consideration a candidate to replace Columbus.  Fret not, that post is coming.  However, I got inspired by something I read in the paper and led me to this post.  The above photo is none other than the heavy weight champ of 20th Century American literature, Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway led an extraordinary life and I believe that he was his favorite character.  He experienced a great many personal and professional triumphs.  He also had plenty of dark episodes.  One of those episodes centered around his service as an ambulance driver in Italy during "The Great War," or as we now refer to it, WWI. 

That war, "The War to End All Wars" (it didn't) tore Europe apart, killing or wounding 37 million people.  (  Those who survived it did so with significant scars.  Hemingway was one of those survivors.  After the war, Hemingway made his way to Paris and hung out with other expats, including Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  One of the places that they hung out was Harry's New York Bar.  I'll reference as Harry's for the remainder of this post. 

Harry's Bar in Paris, public domain, photo attributed to

Twenty years ago, I spent a semester studying (well, studying is a bit of stretch, although I was enrolled) law in London.  During our break, my friend and I made our way to France and into Paris.  Come to think of it, it might very well have been in October that I was there.  Like any self-respecting tourists, we sought out Harry's.  Truth be told, it was a disappointment.  Not so much a disappointment to prevent us from drinking through a good chunk of our limited funds.  As I recall, I was certain that the table we sat at with a couple of other Americans was the exact table where Hemingway, et al hung out.

It was while Hemingway was in Paris that the expression, "lost generation" was uttered.  I thought it had been said at Harry's.  I checked into it and learned its origin.  Kate O'Connor, writing for the University of Oxford's Great Writers Inspire:

"The term was coined from something Gertrude Stein witnessed the owner of a garage saying to his young employee, which Hemingway later used as an epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926): "You are all a lost generation." This accusation referred to the lack of purpose or drive resulting from the horrific disillusionment felt by those who grew up and lived through the war, and were then in their twenties and thirties. Having seen pointless death on such a huge scale, many lost faith in traditional values like courage, patriotism, and masculinity. Some in turn became aimless, reckless, and focused on material wealth, unable to believe in abstract ideals."

Lost Generation at by Kate O'Connor, licensed as Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (2.0 UK).

So you might be wondering how this history/lit lesson ties into what I read in the paper today.  Go with me on this, I'm getting there and we'll circle back in a second.  In my local paper, I read a story from the Associated Press by Phillip Elllott entitled, 15% of U.S. young people are idle  Idle is defined as someone neither employed nor in school.  This is the story that got my attention.  There are a number of matters in this report that give one pause.  I do not know what sounds worse- 15 percent of those 16 to 24 or 6 million, either way it's a really big number.

The report showed a particularly troubling stat- over 100,000 young people are idle in the largest cities in America.

Here is the link to the article.  You will likely not enjoy reading it but I think it is important enough to deal with whatever discomfort it brings:
Now, here's the tie-in with Hemingway:  Mark Edwards, the executive director of a group working to address this matter issued this quote:  "The tendency is to see them (idle youth) as lost souls and see then as (sic) unsavable  They are not."  Lost souls, lost generation.  It reminds me of the old saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
It raises a question about what does it mean to be lost.  Does it mean not knowing the way?  Is it having the knowledge to find one's way and not choosing it?  Is it choosing to purposefully stay where one is, appearing lost to others when that is not the case? 

There is another option- to find one's way on their own terms.  Let's return to our literary friends hanging out at Harry's a few years' back.  They certainly made their own way.   It involved a lot of partying and some really good writing.  If you judge how their lives ended up (and ended) one could conclude they were lost in that most tragic sense, finding a path to happiness.  It's easy to believe they did not really try to look for it.  Then again, maybe they looked harder for it than we will ever know.

For the 6 million young people identified in the report, they will have to answer their own question about where they wish to go.  For some, if not many, their options may be limited.  I want to be careful in not casting too harsh a glare of light on them.  I had a ton of opportunities that many others did not have.  I can also say with the aid of several decades that I did not apply myself even close to my abilities when I was their age. 

And then there is the question of just what is defined as "idle?"  I did not delve that deep into the report, so I cannot speak to what is meant by not working.  Perhaps some of these young people are caring for an ailing grandparent.  Or others are toiling at a minimum wage and/or (ahem) cash-under-the-table job while writing a book or inventing the next gadget.  (I am typing this on a computer that is the legacy of one who was idle back in the 70s.)  I have to think that some are veterans of the past dozen years of war who are still coming to grips with what they saw, heard, felt and did.  I am sure there are others who are idle not just because of a preference for video games on mom's basement couch.

From a larger standpoint, policy issues arise.  Should there be a 21st Century WPA and put these young people to work?  Do we need to offer public service alternatives besides the military with GI Bill-type education options?  (I'll vote "yes" to both, just give me another post to figure out how to pay for them.)  At what point do mom & dad have the right/duty/moral obligation to tell their twenty-something to find themselves after they've found a job and start paying rent?

These are all questions that I cannot answer in this (or any) blog post.  I raise them for your consideration and please let me know what your thoughts are on this subject.  The 6 million young people in this report are idle.  That may or may not make them lost.  I do see them as an echo of  Ernest and his pals.  That echo may be hearty laugh, a cry of despair or a little of both. 

If you would like to learn more about Opportunity Nation, here is the link to their website:

Be well my friends,

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