Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars

By Joel Dinerstein | Go to book overview

1
THE TEMPO OF LIFE IS
OUT OF CONTROL …
AND THEN RIGHTED

In the early 1920s Henry Ford called for Americans to forsake jazz dances and bring back the European dances of the nineteenth century (for example, the waltz, quadrille, schottische, and square dance). Ford imagined that he could separate the private, residential sphere from the public, industrial one: that engagement with machine aesthetics and power in the latter might mean a desire for old-fashioned relaxation in the former. As radical as Ford was in bringing modernity into American mass production and mass consumption, his conservative, anti modern ideas did not resonate outside of upper-class white elites, and in retrospect they can be considered cranky and reactionary (akin to his antiSemitism). 1 Chronicler Mark Sullivan astutely perceived that Ford's dance activism was literally out of step with the times and his own products. “The very fiber of America seem[s] to have been attuned to a new tempo, to which the Model T was more adapted than the graceful sweep of the quadrille.” 2

In his 1931 study of the phenomenon of this new American tempo, The Tempo of Modern Life, the historian James Truslow Adams wrote that the average American now experienced “more sensations and of a more varied sort” than preindustrial human beings. Drawing on industrial research, Adams suggested that because sensory inputs had increased in volume and pace, Americans now reacted and processed changes more quickly. Americans made “a far greater number of adjustments to the universe” every day, resulting in a “speeding-up process in human life.” This was his definition of “modern life, ” and this information barrage and subsequent adaptation remain primary indices of modernity. Adams speculated that the “mental life” of Americans had increased to four times

-29-

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