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.
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.
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.