Modern America 1917 To 1941


Few periods in the history of this country can match the impact of the years between 1917 and 1941. In less than a generation America experienced the first large-scale dispatch of U.S. soldiers abroad (some 50,000 would not return), the transition of the United States from country to city, the emergence of Manhattan as the world’s financial center, the flowering of the consumer culture, the flocking of women to the polls, a revolution in morals, the most devastating depression the nation has ever known, the unionization of factory labor, the shift of allegiance of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic party, the birth of the welfare state, and the entry into a global war that would usher in the nuclear age.

The 10 books I recommend are aimed at giving readers a comprehensive view of these years from the perspective of the historian, but anyone seriously interested in understanding this era should also bear in mind that these are the halcyon days of American literature—of William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, of Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, of Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets.

Over Here: The First World War and American Society

by David M. Kennedy (1980; Oxford). Kennedy explains how America mobilized its resources to fight an overseas war, but he does much more than that. He examines the aspirations of intellectuals, women, blacks, and workingmen and how they fared, and he investigates how the United States measured itself against the Old World, a confrontation that reached a climax with Woodrow Wilson’s voyage to Versailles. It is a melancholy tale, but it is one well worth reading.

The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

by William H. Chafe (1991; Oxford). The appearance of Chafe’s The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920–1970 in 1972 was a pioneering event in the new field of women’s history. Not content to rest on the acclaim that work received, Chafe revised it so substantially that he brought it out under a different title, in part because he had concluded that the experience of women is so diverse that one must write about “women,” not “woman.” In such chapters as “From Feminists to Flappers,” he explores the experience of women from the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 through the struggles over the ERA to the unresolved situation today, “with the best of times continuing to coexist with the worst of times.”

Sinclair Lewis: An American Life

by Mark Schorer (1961; University of Minnesota; out of print). This biography offers a fair-minded, but unsparing, look at the man who was America’s first Nobel laureate in literature. Schorer relates Lewis’s enormous success in the 1920s, when Main Street (1920) opened a decade of criticism of American mores and Babbitt added a word to the lexicon, and his decline into alcoholic stupor, a broken marriage, and hack writing in the 1930s. Even then, though, in an age when many feared that the virus of totalitarianism could cross the ocean, Lewis’s ironically titled It Can’t Happen Here created a sensation.

Walter Lippmann and the American Century

by Ronald Steel (1980; Transaction). Walter Lippmann was the most influential journalist and the most important public intellectual of the twentieth century in the United States, and Steel, in this gracefully written book, does him full justice. It could not have been easy to devote some 600 pages to the life of a philosopher and syndicated columnist and retain the reader’s interest throughout, but Steel has written a page-turner. In addition to contributing to political theory, Lippmann advised Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, and Steel is especially effective in showing how Lippmann first admired, and then came to abhor, Lyndon Johnson.

When Harlem Was in Vogue

by David Levering Lewis (1981; Penguin). Lewis’s book opens with a riveting account of proud black soldiers returning from the Western Front and ends with the Harlem riot of 1935. In between, the reader encounters not only prominent black leaders from W. E. B. Du Bois to Marcus Garvey but luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langsten Hughes and Countee Cullen, and a cast of far less known but compelling figures, like Pig Foot Mary.

The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945