Every year, I roll out the literary canon. You know the literature teachers think you should read, but you don’t want to, and most of us didn’t. The first question that every student asks regardless of the work is “Why do we have to read this?” followed by “This happened so long ago, it doesn’t matter today.” As I pondered these questions, I remembered that I too had asked the same questions when I was in their shoes. As I listened to the stories about Tiger Woods, Jesse James, and Ben Roethlisberger, I find that two of the novels that I teach should be placed in the swag bag of every rookie in all the major sports, every aspiring diva, and every future thespian. The first book is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; I’ll discuss the other at a later date. Pens and paper, boys and girls, it’s time to take notes; there may be a quiz later.
For those who have never read The Great Gatsby, I’ll give you a few details. It was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald who lived a life similar to Gatsby’s during the 1920’s. He lived the American Dream, married a beautiful socialite, lived hard and died of a heart attack at age 44. The characters in The Great Gatsby are loosely based on people he personally knew, including his wife and himself, as well as, acquaintances they met in their travels throughout the continental United States and Europe. The novel takes place in New York City in the summer of 1922 during the Jazz Age. Prohibition was in full effect; gangsters were everywhere; and hedonism ruled America. The narrator, Nick Carraway moves to New York to become a bonds salesman. During this summer, he becomes drawn into the lives of his cousin Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom, Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker, Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, and of course Jay Gatsby, the for whom the novel is named. So, you are now thinking to yourself…what does this have to do with sports and/or entertainment? Indulge me a little longer, and you will see.
Writer Gertrude Stein labeled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s generation “The Lost Generation.” According to James M. Keller in his article “Americans in Paris,”
“You are all a lost generation,” Gertrude Stein remarked to Ernest Hemingway, who then turned around and used that sentence as an epigraph to close his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. Later, in his posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway elaborated that Stein had not invented the locution “Lost Generation” but rather merely adopted it after a garage proprietor had used the words to scold an employee who showed insufficient enthusiasm in repairing the ignition in her Model-T Ford [. . .] the phrase lingered in the language as a descriptor for the brigade of American artists who spent time in Europe during the 1920s, most prominently in Paris. It is particularly applied to writers—Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, and their ilk—who, having made it through the World War I years, found the City of Light to be financially affordable, intellectually stimulating, and far enough from home that oats could be sown wildly without long-lasting effect. Some suggested that the appellation “Lost Generation” conveyed the idea that these literary Americans abroad were left to chart their own paths without the compasses of the preceding generation, since the values and expectations that had shaped their upbringings—the rules that governed their lives—had changed fundamentally through the Great War’s horror.Basically, Stein felt that these young men (and women) had somehow “lost” a central part of themselves. Because of World War I, Stein saw these young men as losing part of the maturation process. Some were asked to be leaders of men when they were teenagers themselves. They saw their friends dying on the battlefield for reasons they may not have truly understood. When they should have been discovering themselves, they were being asked to survive and make adult, life and death decisions without the resources to make these choices. When they came home, they were restless, rootless, and directionless. Many of them partied too hard, drank too hard, and lived life too fast. No one prepared them for life after the War and making themselves a part of society. They gave us great literature, beautiful paintings, and great music. Yet, Hemingway married four times, drank too much, and ultimately committed suicide. Fitzgerald’s hard-living and his wife’s nervous breakdowns, led to financial ruin and an early death. Even Picasso who lived to be 91, married twice, had 4 children by three different women, and had multiple mistresses.
Not that there is a direct comparison, because many of today’s entertainers and athletes never have had to fight a war. Yet, there is a bit of a lost generation to them. They like the “lost generation” of the 20’s are living hedonistically.
This hedonism is glorified every week on any number of reality shows, the newspapers, and police blotters. They party like there is no tomorrow. The biggest difference is that these young men and women have money. They have money and no moral compass. They are asked to lead grown men on the grid iron, the hardwood, around the bases and on the ice, barely out of high school. They are asked to play mini-adults for our entertainment on the movie screen. They are asked to over sexualize themselves in the videos we watch. They are given a Fort Knox bank account with little preparation into how to maintain it. They spend small fortunes on clothes, alcohol, drugs, and women, not unlike the men of the lost generation. At ages far too young, they are asked to support their families and friends. They become overwhelmed. They have an emptiness that they throw money at, but money can’t fulfill it, girls can’t fulfill, drugs and alcohol can’t fulfill it. They begin to think they are untouchable, invincible. Then, they crash and burn. Be it financially ruined (John Daly/Antoine Walker/Lenny Dykstra), jailed (Travis Henry/Ryan Leaf/Plaxico Burress), publically humiliated (Tiger Woods/Roger Clemens/Barry Bonds) or dead (Heath Ledger, Chris Henry, Steve McNair). There have been those who came back from the brink to be successful and rebuild their lives. For every success, however, you had those who were so desperately lost that they couldn’t find their way no matter how hard they tried (Corey Haim/Michael Jackson). They could not fill that emptiness inside. They often don’t consider the consequences of their actions until it’s too late. Like the 1920’s, the party is going to eventually come to an end. The reality then, the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression, and WWII. Let’s hope it doesn’t take something equally devastating to save this generation.
Next time, The Tom Buchanans…
“He wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, [. . .] His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.” F. Scott Fitzgerald