Monday, July 12, 2010

The Jazz Age: America in The 1920s by Edmund Lindop and Margaret J. Goldstein.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald

It was the best of times and the worst of times, depending on your situation, but it is certainly one of the most vivid and colorfully portrayed decades in American history. Bookended by the panic of 1920 and the Crash of 1929, American saw its most feverish boom--the "Coolidge Prosperity"--which resulted in an unprecedented expansion in industry, technology, and consumerism. Women went from confinement by corsets and home chores to full voting citizenship, baring backs, arms, and legs in flapper costumes, smoking, drinking, and holding down jobs in the big cities; the "bold, new woman" of the 20th century was being born and women's lives would never be the same. Although Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan still ruled the South, millions of African Americans found new independence, prosperity, and expression in the booming economy of the North, as exemplified in the Harlem Renaissance.

All of this fed the burgeoning technology that the early decades of the century had promised. Movie houses showed up in almost every small town; radio spread from a local curiosity to a coast-to-coast mass media over the decade, and the recording industry had Americans everywhere jazzing and dancing the Charleston and Black Bottom to the music of Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Ellington, and Whiteman and singin' the blues with Bessie Smith, as jazz became our national art form. Theatre bloomed, from vaudeville and the Ziegfield Follies to the musicals of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, and Ira and George Gershwin, as the musical moved from the stage to the screens of the new talkie films.

By mid-decade almost everyone had ridden in a car, and the family garage was a regular part of the landscape. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo and Gertrude Ederle outraced men across the English Channel, while national magazines and newspapers documented it all at the speed of teletype and cable. Harding's return to "normalcy" ended in the Teapot Dome corruption scandal, and Prohibition, begun with the decade in January, 1920, made selling alcoholic beverages illegal, while perversely, more people began drinking than ever, with New York boasting over 30,000 speakeasies. National crime syndicates were born to support the trade, as the nation learned the limits of social legislation and ultimately moved by the decade's close to end the "Noble Experiment."

What a decade it was, and the burst of electronic technology ensured that many of the sights and sounds of that ebullient period were preserved for history. Edmund Lindop's America In The 1920s (20th-Century America) (Twenty-First Century Books, 2010) tells the story, from the politics to the literature, technology, music and mores of the era. Lindop's text features multiple quotes, a myriad of period photographs of everyone from Billy Sunday and "Silent Cal" to Mae West and Josephine Baker. Text boxes offer profiles of significant personalities, from Al Capone to Babe Ruth, from Walter Chrysler to Louis Armstrong, from Dorothy Parker to Margaret Sanger along the way, while other boxes termed "Turning Points" summarize significant events such as the Mississippi flood of 1927 and Florida land bust which began the unraveling of the financial boom which had floated the "Roaring Twenties." The country went into a new decade a far different place from the one which had entered it with such post-war high hopes.

Ample appendices--a timeline, notes and bibliography, reference sources such as books, films, and web sites, a short list of seminal novels and movies, and an extensive index--make this book and the others in its The Decades of Twentieth-Century America series very useful go-to sources for those cross-curricular "decade studies" which have become a staple of high school research.

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  • I'm sorry: Prohibition ended when?

    By Blogger comatus, at 10:36 PM  

  • Gertrude EDerle

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:53 AM  

  • Um, "Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan" didn't just "rule the south" but both were prominent as far north as Indiana. Big cities offered some new opportunities for Blacks and other minorities, but contained racial animosity that would be shocking to modern sensibilities. Speaking of bad stereotypes, how about a moratorium on the "North enlightened; South barefoot and stupid" meme and just say "America pre-1920s racist; post-1920s marginally less racist".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:43 AM  

  • The Progressive movement bookended the 20's. 19th Ammendment in 1919 (prohibition) wasn't repealed until 1932. FDRs New Deal after 1932 deepened and extended the Great Depression for 8 more years.

    From the right, American protectionism started with raised tarrifs in 1924, and endied the decade with Smoot-Hawley in 1930, which almost overnight reduced international trade by 68%, dooming many economies besides our own. Perhaps as a reaction to the Great War, American Isolationism was a basic tenet of governing politics. Both of these items presaged the next global war.

    The 20's should have been the decade where we learned that government intervention into free market activity always has unintended, negative consequences. I guess we weren't listening.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:40 AM  

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