The Jazz Age:

Notes from "American Literature Between the Wars" (939-950) Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2 (1994)

Backgrounds:

  • 1918- American Entry into World War One (The Great War)
  • 1918- Bolshevik Revolution in Russia
    • formation of Communist Internationale dedicated to the demise of capitalism
  • 1918- Worldwide Flu Epidemic
    • killed 675,00 Americans; 20-40 million worldwide
  • 1919- Red Scare in America
    • nativism- intolerance of immigrants leads to Immigration Act of 1924
    • Violent labor unrest- strikes led by radical groups including Wobblies in Northwest and American Communist Party
    • FBI created to combat internal enemies of the government
  • 1919- 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, is ratified... and then ignored
    • stimulates bootlegging industry: gangsters and organized crime
  • 1920- 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote
    • the culmination of seventy years of activism

Impact of Modern Times on American Culture

  • World War One:
    • America entered the war late and tipped the balance in favor of the allies, ending the bloody stalemate on the Western Front which had consumed the lives of millions of soldiers.
    • Even though America lost only a relatively small number of soldiers in combat, involvement with the brutal actualities of modern war disabused many Americans who fought of their illusions about heroism in industrial war.
    • American writers and artists, like intellectuals in Europe, were rocked by the breakdown of a great civilization. The enlightened vision of a rational social order valuing human rights as fundamental and universal had been blown to smithereens. Worse, intellectuals felt helpless: they felt that life was determined by forces too powerful for individuals to overcome.
    • The Zeitgeist: fear, disorientation, and .... liberation.
  • Urbanization, Industrialization and Immigration:
    • America emerged from the war with its economy intact and quickly became the world's manufacturing leader: economic boom.
    • New technologies transformed American life: telephones, electricity, phonograph, motion pictures, radio.
    • A mass popular culture emerged that was highly commercial and manipulative, yet irresistible. Talented writers were drawn to Hollywood, and in turn, film techniques influenced literary form (flashbacks, pans, intercutting, close-ups, etc.)
    • Henry Ford's assembly line technique of production mass-produced cars which made them cheap enough for most Americans to purchase. The automobile transformed the economy and literally reshaped the city. Jobs: auto plants, steel mills, highways, gas stations, fast food, motels. The highway system also made it possible for people to commute to work from neighborhoods beyond city lines: invention of the suburbs.
  • Culture Wars:
    • Affluence generated by the economic boom and explosion of mass popular culture brought issues of personal freedom, social permissiveness, the pursuit of pleasure and diversity to the fore of public debate.
    • Traditional small town, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant values (work ethic, social conformity, duty, respectability) vs. Jazz Age rebellion (immigrants, minorities, youth, women, artists)
    • Sexual Revolution of 1920's: the New Woman: The wide awake, yet innocent Gibson Girl of the Gilded Age gives way to the free-wheeling, independent 'flapper' of the 1920's. Women enter new areas of the workforce. Not only domestic service and factory jobs, but also primary and secondary teaching jobs as well as clerical and sales positions come to be dominated by women. Even positions in academia, the law, medicine, and journalism are opened to women.
    • The Great Migration: The lure of factory jobs pulls millions of African Americans from the rural South to the big cities of the North.
  • Intellectual Currents: New Ascendancy of Science:
    • Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity...Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle ...Bohr's Quantum Mechanics
    • "materialism"- the only true answers to any authentic questions must be verifiable by the senses. vs. "idealism" doubted- truth is transcendent and exists in an ideal realm accessible by pure, rational thought or by faith.
    • The universal notions of honor, duty, courage, love and beauty inherited from the Greeks via the Renaissance are called into question.
    • "determinism"- forces larger and more powerful than individual will determine identity
    • Freud's theory of the unconscious: repressed primal impulses within the psyche manipulate our choices
    • Marx's theory of history: the class (environment) into which we are born determines our identity. Culture itself is a tool of the ruling class.