Twenties-Something

Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, by Ann Douglas, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 606 pages, $25.00

Growing up in New York City in the 1950s and '60s, I had no doubt that my home town was simultaneously a part of and apart from the rest of the country: Manhattan represented both a distillation of American culture and a challenge to that culture. It was a site of diversity, a tough town, and, most of all, a place of promise.

Ann Douglas, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University (ground zero of New York literary culture) is smitten with the lure and danger of Manhattan--not the Gotham of a dilapidated present, but the city in a decade of possibilities. In Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, Douglas examines the decade she believes presents the American psyche in its most revealing moment, the period when America gained cultural and economic leadership of the West. With America's emancipation from foreign influences, celebration of its multiracial heritage, and overthrowing of matriarchy, the '20s represented a sea-change in American self-identity.

The Roaring '20s--particularly in New York, Douglas's focus--represent the end of Victorian gentility, the conclusion of the 19th-century feminization of American culture (the topic of her previous research). In the place of "feminized" culture, she argues, came a rough, individualistic masculinity that focused on a quest for excitement: an era of masculine figures, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, and independent and resourceful women such as Dorothy Parker and Zora Neale Hurston.

Douglas, borrowing the words of Raymond Chandler, labels the 1920s an age of "terrible honesty." American writers, artists, and thinkers were determined to shatter the preconceptions of a stable social order through their embrace of the primitive, the wild, the sexual, and the violent. If, as Hemingway believed, American culture had been excessively feminine, they were having none of it. They called for the overthrowing of the "Titaness," Douglas's image of the Victorian matriarchal figures who served as cultural monitors.

Douglas's masculinist cultural model is impressive and illuminating, but it sorely lacks a political dimension. The '20s were a political as well as a cultural watershed. Although the decade today is largely forgotten or derided, it represented the possibilities of a powerful, modern nation embracing an ideology of small government--a dramatic interlude of individualism after the interventionism of Woodrow Wilson and the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt.

While the reputations of Presidents Warren Harding and "Silent" Calvin Coolidge have taken a beating from historians and the media over the years, they serve as exemplars of a commitment to a limited state that rejects both economic and moral intrusion. Harding's widely known flouting of Prohibition laws in the White House might be particularly cheering, were it not for the fact that he had supported the Volstead Act while in the Senate (albeit for political reasons and not enthusiastically). One can hardly imagine Clinton inhaling as openly as Harding imbibed.

The general public cynicism toward and evasion of Prohibition laws, enacted under the prim glower of Woodrow Wilson, proved to be the first open taste of popular rebellion against the belief that government knows best how citizens should run their private lives. Were it not for the crisis of the Depression and the resultant election of the expansive Franklin Roosevelt, modest expectations of government might be the rule, not the exception.

A society that embraces the idea of individualism, after all, has little need or love for a government that protects citizens from real or imagined risks. Both Harding and Coolidge are politicians whose personas are tied to masculine images: the clubby, hale fellow and the silent, unemotional male--dramatic contrasts with the softer, more cerebral Wilson (and his wife, who had enormous control over government operations in the aftermath of his stroke).

Additionally, to understand fully the '20s, we must recognize that dramatic changes in media profoundly affected American culture. Two innovations at the start of the decade (one entrepreneurial, one technological) fundamentally changed the ways that Americans came to share each others' lives and to understand each other. The invention of the tabloid newspaper--starting with the New York Daily News in 1919--created a jazzier manner of reportage that appealed to a broader spectrum of the citizenry. Such a medium expanded the knowledgeable public, allowing for a wider collective focus and popular discourse.

Along with the creation of the tabloid newspaper came the development and expansion of commercial radio broadcasting--another mass medium largely outside government control. As the decade progressed, radio quickly spread across the nation, knitting the American citizenry into a public community. For the first time, people were able to hear events in "real time," as part of a single audience--listeners who shared attention.

These were significant achievements in the process of edging toward a nation that could be shaped by events that were created or directed by a national media. The '20s were an age of sensation, a time of crazes. To think of the 1920s is to recall the series of "Trials of the Century" that shook and fascinated the republic: the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Leopold and Loeb case, and, of course, the Scopes "Monkey" trial. One cannot think of a set of trials from previous decades that so transfixed the American public and entered into our cultural history. From the '20s forward, however, public attention could be and is swayed by sensational cases--such as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Rosenberg spy trial, the Manson family murders, and today's O.J. Simpson trial--that resonate with the public mood, feeding a cultural logic of spectacle.

The impact of the Teapot Dome "scandal" on American political life, leading to what Will Rogers termed "the Great Morality Panic of 1924," similarly reveals a sensationalist streak that still reverberates in contemporary political discourse. Add to this the enshrinement of national cultural heroes: Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Red Grange, and, not least, Charles Lindbergh, and one recognizes a nation increasingly becoming self-conscious. Because of the new media, America has become a culture of heroes and villains, but perhaps more significantly a culture of familiar strangers, public figures whom we know without ever having met. These relationships simultaneously connect us to our culture and allow us to feel we have the right and privilege to intrude into their privacy.

A word of caution: Cultural segments do not change in parallel sequence without resistance. In Terrible Honesty, Douglas wavers between telling a story of New York and a story of America, a story of literature and a story of politics. Ostensibly, her topic is the literary culture in New York, but in desiring to construct a narrative about dramatic national transformations, she slips into a review of American life. Once she crosses the Hudson, however, she loses the descriptive detail that would prove (or disprove) the case for the country as a whole. While Douglas's masculinizing model is a plausible explanation for much of what was going on during the '20s, care is warranted in extending that analysis to the country as a whole. Broad brushes can make messy painting.

Indeed, to a greater extent than Douglas has attempted, understanding the 1920s involves coming to terms with the battles over Prohibition and over women's suffrage as focuses of the struggle for gender dominance. Simultaneously, women became fully incorporated into the body politic and the government took on the role of deciding which beverages free men and women should ingest. The two constitutional amendments that began the decade are plainly victories for the matriarchal political ideology that Douglas suggests is soon to be routed.

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