The Jazz Age:
Notes from "American
Literature Between the Wars" (939-950) Norton Anthology of
American Literature, Volume 2 (1994)
- 1918- American Entry into
World War One (The Great War)
- 1918- Bolshevik Revolution in
- formation of Communist Internationale dedicated to the demise of
- 1918- Worldwide Flu Epidemic
- killed 675,00 Americans;
20-40 million worldwide
- 1919- Red Scare in America
- nativism- intolerance of
immigrants leads to the 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
- 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
- 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.
Industrialization and Immigration:
- America emerged from the war
with its economy intact, its budget in surplus, 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,
air shots etc.)
- Henry Ford's assembly line
technique of mass production made cars cheap enough
for most Americans to purchase. The automobile transformed the economy
and literally reshaped the city. Jobs: auto plants, steel mills,
highways, bridges, 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 the 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) were challenged by 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 gave 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) supplants "idealism" (truth is transcendent and
exists in an ideal realm accessible by pure, rational thought or by
faith) as the dominant mode.in philosophy.
- The universal notions of
honor, duty, courage, love and beauty inherited from the Greeks via the
Renaissance are called into question by Modernism.
forces larger and more powerful than individual will determine identity
- Freud's theory of the
unconscious: repressed primal impulses within the psyche manipulate our
- 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.