Leavitt, David. "The New Lost Generation".
Dancing and Smoking: In 1971 the author was ten years old. His elder brother and sister studied at Stanford University, California, and his father lectured there. Spontaneous dancing entertainments were held at the Tresidder Plaza where brightly dressed young people were enjoying themselves. Marijuana was freely distributed and smoked. The author did not care for the smoking but was fascinated by the complicated dance. He always stood outside of the circle of the dancers because he did not know the steps. He tried to learn them but he was too young to stay long enough to be able to do so and participate in the dance.
Demonstrating Once: In 1975 the author was fourteen. It was his first and only time that he saw the President. The author did not think of President Ford highly because his mother disliked him. She however hated him less than his predecessor Nixon. The author’s sister was a member a radical students’ community which opposed the President’s policies. The author accompanied her to a demonstration on the campus when the President visited. The protesters shouted rhythmically that they would join their hands and triumph. The author was not aware of what was going on but he liked the chant and joined it. He was intoxicated by the atmosphere, and only his sister stopped him by poking him and reminding him that he does not even know what he is shouting. Later Ford fell in obscurity, while his wife founded Betty Ford’s Centre treating drug and alcohol problems.
Demonstrating Now: In 1980 the author was in his first year at Yale University, Connecticut. Once he happened to come across a meagre group of only five demonstrators who protested against President Carter’s policy on conscription. At the age of eighteen the author feared the conscription, too, but the the protest of the fellow students seemed to him ridiculous and naïve. He was witnessing the last pitiful remnants of what used to be a great thing. He wondered both at the inconsequential act of the five students and at the fact that there used to be times when people actually did believe in demonstrating.
The Mood of the Generation: The author’s generation defies definition. It is a generation which missed the rebellious sixties because it was too young to take part in the revolution as yet. When they became old enough to participate, the rebellion had already dissolved, and disillusion emerged instead. The revolutionaries were sobered and the youthful energy of the new generation was not needed any more. The author’s generation was born both too late and too soon. It belongs in part to the sixties, in part to the eighties and sits uncomfortably somewhere in between. There are some privileges to it, for instance being the first generation which is younger than the television or the first generation which is not directly afflicted by the reality of the Vietnam War. Theirs should have been a perfect world. There are however violent fights of the author’s parents and divorces of his friends’ parents. The author spends long hours watching TV and sometimes wishes to become part of the perfect world of the screen.
The Movement: When they were of the author’s age, his elder siblings were involved with the Movement. They were wandering across the country, their desire was to get to know the world and to support revolutionary changes. The author does not have such wishes. All that he wants is comfort, stability and certainty. His idea is that of a quiet life, including a nice partner, a comfortable flat and a satisfying job. He lives in a safe but at the same time sterile world.
Not Wearing a Costume: The author recalls seeing an independent American film called Liquid Sky (1983). It deals with a subculture of bizarrely dressed young people who spend their time in extravagant clubs in Lower Manhattan. Margaret, the protagonist, claims that there is no sense in pursuing anything. She explains that everyone wears a costume and that there is no point in pretending that you do not wear one. Her own costume looks like that of a prostitute, including a stiff bra and a red leather skirt. Margaret believes that there is no way of showing who you are by the means of your outfit, you can only show what you are not. According to her there is no tomorrow and no culture. In the film she ends up eaten up by her new extraterrestrial lover. The author, though a promising young man, used to peep into a similarly decadent world during his university studies. At the weekends he used to attend wild and ecstatic parties, the last desperate resort of those who have no hopes and no future.
The Nuclear Threat: The author belongs to a post-nuclear generation which simply accepts the nuclear threat as everybody’s cliché, though it does not feel the threat as acute and real. The older generation fears the bomb much more than the younger one. The author’s generation approaches the nuclear threat in a matter-of-fact way. The author recalls a recent case of university students who initiated a petition demanding poison to be deposited at the school’s first-aid station because they preferred to commit suicide rather than to die of radiation exposure in case of a nuclear catastrophe.
An Estranged Generation: In 1983 the author was twenty-two, a fresh university graduate living and working in Manhattan. He had a regular office job and commuted to his work-place by subway. He suffered under a sense of not belonging to the crowd of fellow subway travellers. He felt guilty for not being very hard-working or ambitious and not working long hours like the other people in the office.
A Pretending Generation: The generation of those young people who used to dance at Stanford is now married with children and both men and women work hard in their white-collar jobs. The author’s generation still stands outside of the circle of these dancers and tries to imitate their moves. They study at universities and apply for office jobs, too, the difference is that they do not pretend that they do not wear a costume. Whereas the sixties was the age of naïve hopes and the eighties are a decade of ironic hopelessness, the seventies bred a generation of sceptic pretenders standing uncertainly somewhere in between.
A Characterless Generation: David Letterman, a popular night-time comedian, best represents the attitude of the author’s generation. His humour perfectly balances self-irony and grave seriousness. The author’s generation is both self-depreciative and self-appreciative, it is ready to admit its poor qualities but it is selfish in self-defence. They trust no ideals but themselves and money. They have a need for certainty and stability, too, but they saw the failures of their parents, who sought these values in marriages, and of their elder siblings, who sought them in a commune life. If the author’s generation is called characterless, it is because they chose to be so.
A Lonely Generation: The author recalls the impact of a TV sitcom called The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977) which featured a strong and independent woman protagonist. Her resourcefulness and cheerfulness was motivating for some of the author’s friends, in difficult situations they thought of what Mary would do in their shoes and acted accordingly. The opening title sequence of the sitcom shows Mary still as a young woman. Her youthful optimism and hopeful expectations are symbolized by her throwing her tam o’shanter into the air in the final freeze frame shot of the title sequence. This mood contrasts to the content of the later episodes in which Mary is nearing forty and still does not have the sought-for husband or a well-paid job. Her loneliness epitomizes the feelings of the author’s generation.
The Present Day: The author finds himself in his oppressively quiet New York flat. He watches reruns of the most popular programmes of his childhood at night-time. There are the science-fiction series of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, as well as Mary. The author is astonished to learn in the news that Mary Tyler Moore embarked on a treatment at Betty Ford’s Centre. He arrives at the conclusion that Mary taught them to do the right thing, to be patient, friendly and hopeful. He is looking forward to a planned weekend with his friends and imagines what they will do. He concludes the essay with an anticipated image of their leaving back home from a party in a cab and not noticing that the sun is just rising, resembling Mary’s tam o’shanter thrown into the air.
‘The New Lost Generation’ is an autobiographical essay, the author speaks for himself and on behalf of his generation. The tone is highly personal and so are the sentiments presented. The author recalls various incidents from his childhood and early youth and tries to relate them to a larger experience shared by all the members of his generation. The individual incidents are relatively inconsequential on their own but as a whole they serve to illustrate the author’s point. Some of the experiences recalled are of symbolical resonance, like trying in vain to learn the steps of the dancers.
Besides personal remembrances, the essay captures the changing general moods of the society from the sixties until the early eighties. There are also many references to popular culture. Leavitt wrote the essay shortly before reaching the age of twenty-four. He observes his life experience so far from a critical perspective, the mode of the essay is contemplative and melancholic. Despite the apparently resigned attitude throughout the essay, its conclusion seems to offer a new hope both for the author and the reader by drawing a link between Mary’s cheerful gesture of throwing her hat into the air and the appearance of the sun when it is just rising.
AuthorLeavitt, David. (b. 1961).
Full Title"The New Lost Generation".
First PublishedIn the Esquire, 1985.