Book Reviews -- Pretty Bubbles in the Air: America in 1919 by William D. Miller

Article excerpt

Pretty Bubbles in the Air: America in 1919. William D Miller. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991. $29.95 cloth.

This commendable book delves uncompromisingly into the core of what has been troubling America all along. In comparison, John Dos Passos' critical novel 1919 (1932) renders a mild picture of American life. The closest portrait to the one done by Miller is the opening section of The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), in which James D. Farrell ably captures in some 30 pages America's war mania and the savage vulgarity of Chicago's V-Day celebration.

The year 1919 was not only a breaking point in American life, it was the watershed year of the current century for European history. In America, it marked the end of an epoch of social reform and opened a decade of social anarchy under the mask of "normalcy." In Europe, the Paris peace conference of the same year set the stage for World War II and the turmoil of present-day events in Eastern Europe. It can be safely said that 1919 was a tragic year.

Miller's book is a stunning example of how historiography can be made alive by focusing on a single crucial year. The method of presentation is both panoramic and journalistic in that the author provides a cross section of 1919's events. The book's title is an ironic comment on the disparity between the surface structure of pleasure-seeking and material success and the deep structure of lynching, scapegoating, and paranoia. Millers' concern has been "to get as close to the action of the time as I can, to breathe the air and stride along with it." Largely documenting his history of 1919, Miller uses the New York Times as a controlling force for social history as well as the Washington Post and magazines such as McClure's and the Saturday Evening Post. Standard histories and biographical reminiscences provide additional sources. For better readability, Miller abandons cumbersome foot or endnotes in favor of incorporating his numerous citations in the body of the text and adding to the Prologue and each of the 22 chapters a bibliography of Sources and Further Reading.

Miller's thought-provoking study successfully captures the idea climate of 1919, from politics both at home and abroad to music and sport to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that galloped across Europe. Two popular songs ("Pretty Bubbles in the Air" and Caruso's "Over There") provide the key to the practice of displacement that Americans used in dealing with problems at home and abroad. Therefore, Miller's central theme is the madness of the American system, in which a backwoods mentality, hypocrisy, and arrogance combine to create a state of paranoia. …