Memoranda Of A Decade


According to the critic and author Malcolm Cowley, the historical period we think of as the nineteen twenties began with the Armistice and continued through 1930. Between the time when the “lost generation” returned home from Europe and the grim year when the country slid toward economic depression, America went on a spree— escapist, irresponsible, creative, and vivid. The essence of this volatile decade is captured in a new anthology of writings of the Twenties, from which volume most of the following excerpts are taken. (The book is still untitled, although a special college textbook edition is to be called Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age .) The publisher is Charles Scribner’s Sons, and the editors are Mr. Cowley and his son, Robert, formerly an editor of this magazine and now on the staff of The Reporter .

Malcolm Cowley describes how the decade began:

When we first heard of the Armistice we felt a sense of relief too deep to express, and we all got drunk. We had come through, we were still alive, and nobody at all would be killed tomorrow. The composite fatherland for which we had fought and in which some of us still believed—France, Italy, the Allies, our English homeland, democracy, the self-determination of small nations—had triumphed. We danced in the streets, embraced old women and pretty girls, swore blood brotherhood with soldiers in little bars, drank with our elbows locked in theirs, reeled through the streets with bottles of champagne, fell asleep somewhere. On the next day, after we got over our hangovers, we didn’t know what to do, so we got drunk. But slowly, as the days went by, the intoxication passed, and the tears of joy: it appeared that our composite fatherland was dissolving into quarreling statesmen and oil and steel magnates. Our own nation had passed the Prohibition Amendment as if to publish a bill of separation between itself and ourselves; it wasn’t our country any longer. Nevertheless we returned to it: there was nowhere else to go. We returned to New York, appropriately—to the homeland of the uprooted, where everyone you met came from another town and tried to forget it; where nobody seemed to have parents, or a past more distant than last night’s swell party, or a future beyond the swell party this evening and the disillusioned book he would write tomorrow.

—Exile’s Return


To this generation, the easygoing Warren G. Harding promised a return to “normalcy.” At his inauguration he said: … We must strive for normalcy to reach stability … I would like to acclaim an era of good feeling amid dependable prosperity and all the blessings which attend. …

We would not have an America living within and for herself alone, but we would have her self-reliant, independent and even nobler, stronger and richer. Believing in our higher standards, reared through constitutional liberty and maintained opportunity, we invite the world to the same heights. But pride in things wrought is no reflex of a completed task. Common welfare is the goal of our national endeavor. Wealth is not inimical to welfare, it ought to be its friendliest agency.

Three days later, H. L. Mencken, the acidic editor and critic, commented on this speech, coining a new word — Gamalielese: … I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. … This is what [the audience] got in the inaugural address of the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding. And this is what it will get for four long years— unless God sends a miracle and the corruptible puts on incorruption. … Almost I long for the sweeter song, the rubber-stamps of more familiar design, the gentler and more seemly bosh of the late Woodrow.

—Baltimore Evening Sun

But Mencken was far from typical. Millions of Americans swallowed Harding’s stale platitudes, and were only vaguely disappointed to find them devoid of sustenance. One of the millions was George Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis’ mid-western real-estate salesman, a typical “tired business man,” whose name promptly entered the language: … The most important thing [Babbitt] dictated that morning was the fortnightly form-letter, to be mimeographed and sent out to a thousand “prospects.” It was diligently imitative of the best literary models of the day; of heart-to-heart-talk advertisements, “sales-pulling” letters, discourses on the “development of will-power,” and hand-shaking house-organs, as richly poured forth by the new school of Poets of Business. He had painfully written out a first draft, and he intoned it now like a poet delicate and distrait: Say, Old Man!