Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART THREE
The 1920s

In the popular mind, and in most textbooks, the 1920s have been stereotyped as a frivolous Jazz Age for upper-class young people, as a time of alienation and expatriation for intellectuals, and as a dull sink of Babbittry for the average citizen. Above all, so it goes, the decade was barren of constructive activity in public affairs. Only a few penny-ante scandals enlivened the tedium of the rule of undertalented politicians who gave platitudinous speeches and allowed businessmen to run the government. There were no significant advances in any field, with the possible exception of the gradual rise in the standard of living, and even the era's economic record soon proved flawed. The energies of the American people had apparently gone into imaginative escapes from their public responsibilities. They recoiled from responsibilities because they were tired of the exertions of progressivism and war. The moral of this story is that the modern world is a dangerous, changing place -- the 1920s, after all, ended with a financial panic and depression -- and a society that does not devote steady attention and its best brains to the analysis of social developments and the correction of emerging maladjustments will rue the day it turned to individual pleasures.

Scholars invariably work against such stereotypes, assuming that revision and the challenging of all accepted truths are among their moral obligations. Serious scholarly work on the 1920s did not really begin in any significant volume until the 1950s, but in the past twenty years there has accumulated a body of historical writing that undermines the stereotype in important ways. Although the reading public may not have given close attention to much of this scholarship, the literature has affected the writing of textbooks and, presumably, classroom teaching. It should now be clear to all interested students of history, for example, that the 1920s were not devoid of real social progress; in a number of areas -- including technology, business organization, conservation, social work, psychology, political science, and so on -- American society improved its fund of knowledge and many of its institutions. More important, we can now see clearly that the qualities of frivolity, escapism, euphoria, and hedonism have been much overstressed; and we are more aware of the era's intense social and political conflicts. These are important conceptual alterations. For while no one denies that there were flappers and bathtub gin, a sports craze, hysteria over a transoceanic airplane flight, and a deplorable apathy toward public affairs, these evidences of a carefree society seem less and less characteristic of this deeply troubled decade.

But despite interpretive shifts such as these, and the hint of more to come, the

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