The Restless Decade

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The age of the automobile was arriving. In i()uo the average American did not own an automobile and did not suppose that he ever would; by iygo the automobile was a necessity of daily life, and the incalculable (hange it was going to inflict on America—change for city, town, and countryside, for ways of living and habits of thought—was already visible. At the same time the era ol mass production was coming into full effect, and mankind (most especially in America) was beginning to lay its hands on the fabulous capacity to solve any problem on earth so long as the problem was purely material. This of course was most unsettling, because it brought with it the uneasy awareness that the real problem was going to be man himself and not his ability to reshape his environment, and no one was ready to tell people what they ought to do about themselves. But it was a miraculous age. The instruments, skills, and techniques—airplanes, electronics, automation—that would (hange the world forever were appearing. Albert Einstein, who was known to the few Americans who had ever heard of him as an oddball professor type who thought that space was curved, had already published the formula that was to lead to the atomic age.

It was an exciting decade; in many ways a good time to be alive. If the spirit of the nineteen twenties look on a materialistic cast, nobody can be blamed. It was good simply to look at the surface and enjoy it.

The surface contained elements of sheer fantasy. Along with everything else, the age of mass communications was here, in exuberant, uninhibited blossoming, and the public ear could be reached as never before. In some ways those were the years of the sportswriter, the press agent, and the newspaper columnist —not the purveyor of gossip, but the man who found amusement and a large audience by discussing the items that floated about on the froth. It was the time of the big headline and the loud-speaker, which were reserved lor the purely spectacular.

So the most famous people in America were a strange assortment—movie stars, gangsters, Channel swimmers, professional athletes, imaginative amateur murderers, and eccentrics of high and low degree. Mcfme H)^o, moving-picture actors and actresses were outsiders; now they were at the top of the ladder, living in the limelight as no one ever did before or since. Before 1920 prize righting had been disreputable, outlawed in most states, tolerated in a few: now the heavyweight champion was a hero, an ideal for American youth, a man whose performances could command a box-office sale of a million dollars or more. Once in the mid-1 wentics the author of a quiz program played a sly trick: by posing two innocent questions he showed that although every adult American could name and identify the star halfback at the University of Illinois, no one outside of the academic profession knew the name of that university’s president.

As Westbrook Pegler said, this was the Era of Wonderful Nonsense. Publicity was the thing, and it had no standards of value except pure sensation. An American girl swam the English Channel, nonstop; the mayor of Chicago ran for re-election with the promise that he would hit the King of England on the nose if chance allowed; the President of the United States, asked how such nations as England and France could ever repay their enormous war debts without coming to utter ruin, replied drily: “They hired the money, didn’t they?” A countrywoman who tended pigs was carried into court on a stretcher to testify in an earthshaking murder trial, and for a few days everybody in the country (well, a lot of people, if not quite everybody) was talking about the Pig Woman … and all of these things were of equal weight, they made the headlines for a few days, and then life went on as before.

Stock prices went up and up, Florida real-estate prices did likewise; supposedly realistic analysts said that this was only natural because “everybody” was in the market, and the happy theory that everybody in the United States had plenty of money overlooked the fact that fanners and wage earners were being caught in a terrible squeeze in which their bitterest protests went unheeded. A conservative senator announced that congressmen who protested about this situation were simply “sons of the wild jackass” whose cries need not be noticed, and one of the country’s best-known economists said that inflated stock prices need worry no one because the nation had readied a new, permanently high plateau in which all of the old standards could be ignored.