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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
If all of this was exciting it was not really satisfying, and people knew it. They were hungry for something they were not getting—an appeal to idealism, lo the belief that the greatest values cannot be expressed in cash or set forth in headlines. The amazing response to Charles A. Lindbergh’s (light proves the point.
Lindbergh Hew from New York to Paris in 1927. The Atlantic had been Mown before, it was obviously going to be flown again—two or three highly publicized expeditions were poised at New York, getting ready, while the nation waited—but what he did seemed like nothing anyone had ever imagined before. He was young, boyish, unspoiled, the kind of youth people had stopped believing in, a young man nobody had heard of before, and he came to New York, waited for a good weather report, and then took oft, unaided by any of the elaborate devices that would make such a flight routine nowadays. When he landed in Paris it seemed as if mankind had somehow triumphed over something that greatly needed to be beaten. After he had vanished into the over-ocean midnight, and before any word of him had come back, people waited in an agony of suspense, and when it was announced that he had indeed landed in Paris, unharmed and on schedule, there was literally rejoicing in the streets.
It was odd, and revealing. After years in which it seemed as if everybody who got any kind of fame was on the make, here was a young man who apparently had done something great for nothing. Linclbergh became the hero of the decade. We have not felt quite that way about anybody since; he lifted up the heart, and all of a sudden it was possible to believe in something once more. The response to what he did was a perfect symbol of what everybody had been lacking.
It seemed like a miracle … but at last the glitter laded, and like everything else, this bright deed was buried under a spate of words. There were too many words in those years. Everybody listened, and nobody got much out of it. Much of the talk came from men who were not qualified to address a large audience. At the beginning of the decade, radio had been nothing much more than a useful device by which a sinking ship could call for help; in a very few years it was central to the mass-communications business, and the man who spoke into the microphone was suddenly a power in the land. E. B. White summed it up by remarking that man’s “words leap across rivers and mountains, but his thoughts are still only six inches long.”
It was a time for long lhoughts, but long thoughts were not often being thought, and when they were it was hard to find an audience for them. The world was passing across one of the significant watersheds in human history and the crest of the pass seemed to be situated right in the United States, but it was hard to think about anything except that, for the moment, the path led upward. The people of the nineteen twenties really behaved about the way the people of all other decades have behaved. They did a great deal of hard work, doing some of it extraordinarily well, when you stop to think about it; they carried their own individual loads of worry and aspiration and frustration along with them; and if they did some foolish things, they precisely resembled, in the doing of them, both their ancestors and their descendants.
Yet the essential point about the Twenties, the thing that makes us think of the decade as a separate era, was its curious transitional character, which was not like anything ever seen before—or since. The Twenties were years that no one who lived through them can ever forget, and they were also a time nobody in his senses would care to repeat, but you do have Io say one thing for them: when the great catastrophe came, one decade alter the Twenties had ended, the generation the Twenties had raised proved to be strong enough to stand the shock.