The Growth of American Thought

By Merle Curti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVII Prosperity, Disillusionment, Criticism

The vast repetitive operations are dulling the human mind.

-- HERBERT HOOVER, 1920

Never was our heritage of civilization and culture so secure, and never was it half so rich.

-- WILL DURANT, 1926

The ideal of internationalism figured less in the intellectual life of the 'twenties than it had during the war. Domestic reform similarly occupied a less prominent place in the minds of most Americans than it had in the first decade and a half of the century. In the discussions of public affairs great emphasis was put on the idea that capitalism in its big-business form had brought a new and permanent era of widespread and ever-increasing prosperity. Much publicity was also given to the idea that the United States, being immensely superior to the rest of the world, might well let Europe and Asia work out their own salvation.

Many who did not share in the new prosperity had doubts about the beneficence of large-scale business organization. Others, especially the so-called intelligentsia, expressed cynical disillusionment with the whole American way of life, middle-class respectability, acquisitiveness, commercialism, the genteel tradition in letters, and the assumption of national superiority. Many among the younger generation tended to share the intellectuals' revolt against Victorian manners and morals and noisily insisted on the right to defy conventions and enjoy life. Thus the 'twenties, in spite of the prevailing complacency, were not without contradiction and confusion.

Writers of the nineteen-twenties frequently ascribed to the war many of the tendencies which, on the surface at least, characterized

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