- Historic Sites
The Restless Decade
All the old rules seemed to be vanishing in the Twenties. In exchange came a strange new world both gaudy and sad
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
The decade of the nineteen twenties was at one and the same time the gaudiest, the saddest, and the most misinterpreted era in modern American history.
It was gaudy because it was lull of restless vitality burgeoning in a field where all of the old rules seemed lo be gone, and it was sad because it was an empty place between two eras, with old familiar certainties and hopes drifting oft like mist and new ones not yet formulated. It was misunderstood because so many of its popular interpreters became so fascinated by the tilings that floated about on the froth that they could not see anything else.
Most of the tag lines that have been al lathed to it are wrong. It was, we are assured, the period when everybody did fantastic things. Everybody detested Prohibition, patronized bootleggers, made atrocious gin in the bathtub and worse beer in the basement, and, inspired by the products of these activities, danced the Charleston. Everybody bought stocks on margin or Florida lots on binder danses and confidently expected to become rich before old age set in. Everybody JKH his moral standards away in moth balls, so that neither the scandalous doings in Washington nor the murderous forays of the Chicago gangsters seemed very disturbing. Everybody, in short, was ofl on a prolonged spree, and the characteristic figure of the era was the Flapper, the girl who bobbed her hair and wore short skirts with nothing in particular beneath them and put in her time piling in ami out of open cars populated by collegians in coonskin coats.
It makes an entertaining picture—it made one at the time, in a way, for the people who were in it—but it is at best only a partial picture.
The first thing to remember is that the word “everybody” is much too inclusive. There were a great many people in the United States in the nineteen twenties, and most of them were serious, hard-working people who did their best to earn a living, bring up (licit children, live decently by the best light they had, and lay away a few dollars for their old age. Most of them never saw the inside of a speakeasy, most never really tried to make gin or beer at home, and anyone over the age of twenty-six who danced the Charleston regretted it immediately—it was an exercise in all-out acrobatics rather than a dance, and only the young could manage it. Acceptante of the Prohibition law was so widespread that repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was not voted, or ever seriously considered, until after the decade had ended. Certainly the vast majority bought neither stocks, bonds, nor Florida real estate and never had the faintest notion that with a little luck they could soon stroll down Easy Street. They were just as deeply disturbed by Teapot Dome and Al Caponc as anyone would be today, and if these and other phenomena helped to destroy confidence in public leadership, it ought to be added that the kind of leadership that was given to the American people in those years was pretty poor.
Nevertheless, the decide did liavc its own peculiar character—because it was a time of unending change.
It was a hollow time between wars. The 1914-18 war, which had been ever so much more cataclysmic than anybody had imagined any war could be, was over, but it had left smouldering wreckage all over the landscape; and if the next war was not yet visible, there was ominous heat lightning all along the hori/on to warn that there had been no real break in the weather. The certainties the adult American was used to, in 1920—the basic assumptions about world society which he had always taken for granted—were obviously either gone forever or rapidly going. Europe, which had always seemed to be the very center of stability, had collapsed. Uf the great empires which had maintained order and set standards, some had vanished without trace and the survivors were mortally injured; Europe was a center of disorder, with monstrous doctrines cither being followed or vigorously preached; and the one certainty was that things would get worse before they ever got better.
There was an immense, all-pervading disillusionment. The nation’s highest ideals had been appealed to during the war, so that to win the war seemed the holiest of causes; the war had been won, but it was hard to see that anything worth winning had been gained; the idealism had been used up, and people had an uneasy feeling that they had been had. The Prohibition act contributed to the letdown. Here was a social experiment which, as President Herbert Hoover correctly said, had been adopted with the noblest of motives, but nothing was working out as had been anticipated, and the problems the law was supposed to solve seemed to have been made worse; the majority was not yet ready to discard the law, but it was beginning to see that something somewhere was awfully wrong with it.
So lots of people became materialists. The light of faith was flickering low; the average citixen had his own, private faith in the relationship between himself and his Maker, but his faith in the world itself and in the values on which it operated was not robust. It was easier, indeed it was almost necessary, to center one’s attention on the material things that were going on in this country.
A great deal was going on, and it was immensely stimulating. The world was in the act of shifting gears —not without grating—starting to move with bewildering speed, and if the destination was wholly unclear, the speed itself wax exhilarating.