Shifting Perspectives on the 1920s

By Henry F. May

Scanning, copy-ed., and mark-up by Sam Turner, 10-97

To comment on the 1920's today is to put oneself in the position of a Civil War historian writing in the 1890's. The period is over and major changes have taken place. The younger historian himself belongs to a generation which barely remembers the great days. From the point of view of the veterans, still full of heroic memories, such a historian obviously has no right to talkÄhe was not there. Yet historians are led by their training to hope that one kind of truthÄnot the only kind and perhaps not always the most important kindÄemerges from the calm study of the records.

Calm study of this decade is not easy. Like the Civil War itself, the cultural battles of the twenties have been fought again and again. Successive writers have found it necessary either to condemn or to praise the decade, though what they have seen in it to condemn or praise has differed. Perhaps this fact offers us our best starting point. If we can trace the shifting and changing picture of the decade through the last thirty years, and still better, if we can understand the emotions that have attached themselves to one version or another, we may be closer to knowing what the decade really meant. In the process, we can hardly help learning something of the intellectua1 history of the intervening period.

It is immediately apparent, as one turns through the literature about the twenties, that most of the striking contributions have not come from men we usually think of as historians, but rather from Journalists' literary critics, and social scientists. This is perhaps not Surprising, since most of the excitement has centered in areas outside the historian's traditional domain. Historians today, of course, claim a territory stretching far beyond past politics; but this is a recent expansion, and all of us enter such herds as literature and Science only with caution. Caution is necessary, but it must not prevent exploration. If the best insights into a period come from economists or anthropologists, or literary critics, we must try to understand and even to assess them, hoping that our inevitable mistakes will be made in a good cause.

At least three pictures of the twenties had formed before the decade was over. For different reasons, spokesmen of business, so. cial science, and literary revolt all wanted to get clear away from the past, to discard history. For this reason, all three groups were constantly discussing their own historical role. Perhaps the dominant current version was that proclaimed by the businessmen, the picture of the period usually conveyed by the phrase New Era itself. Out of the postwar upheaval was emerging, in this view, a new civilization. Its origin was technology, its efficient causes high wages and diffusion of ownership, its leadership enlightened private management. This picture of the period was far more than a matter of political speeches and Saturday Evening Post editorials. It was buttressed by academic argument and attested by foreign observers. To its believers, we must remember, It was not a picture of conservatism but of innovation, even, as Thomas Nixon Carver strikingly asserted, of revolution. 1

It is not surprising that this interpretation of the period gained the allegiance of many of its first historians. Preston W. Slosson, surveying his own time for the History of American Life series, came to a typical New Era conclusion on the basis of a typical New Era criterion: "Often in history the acid test of wealth has been applied to a favored class, alone in all nations and all ages the United States of the 1920's was beginning to apply that test to a whole people." 2 James C. Malin found, with no apparent anguish, that political democracy was being replaced by self-government in industry. 3 No serious dissent was expressed in Charles A. Beard s great synthesis, published in 1927. Beard deplored the politics and other obsolete folkways surviving in the postwar era. But he found the center of current development, and the climax of his whole vast story, in the achievements of the machine age. Continuous invention was the hope of the future. Standardization had made possible not only better living for all but a more generous support for the life of the mind. Those who feared the machine were lumped together by Beard as "artists of a classical bent and . . . spectators of a soulful temper." 4 Lesser and more conventional historians usually struck the same note; and the textbooks of the period, if they ventured beyond Versailles, emerged into a few pages of peace and prosperity. 5

Sociologists of the period, full of the elan of their new subject, exultant over the apparent defeat of religious obscurantism, were as optimistic as the businessmen and the historians, though for different reasons. Their New Era lay in the future rather than the present; its motivating force was not technology alone but the guiding social intelligence. This picture of the decade as a transitional age emerges most clearly from the sociological periodicals of the early twenties, where one finds at least four important assumptions. First, the scientific study of society is just coming into its own. Second, social scientists are now able to abandon sentiment, impressionism, and introspection and seek accurate information, especially quantitative information. Third, this new knowledge should be, and increasingly will be, the guide for practical statesmanship, replacing custom and tradition. Fourth, Utopia is consequently just around the corner. The present may look chaotic, but the new elite will be able to lead us fairly quickly out of the fog of dissolving tradition and toward the end of controversy and the reign of universal efficiency. 6 To condense is always unfair, and it would be incorrect to assume that all social scientists in the twenties saw their role or their period this simply. Yet it is easy enough to find all these beliefs stated very positively in textbooks and even learned articles, with both the behaviorist dogmatism and the authoritarian implications full-blown Part of the confidence of these prophets rested on real and imlportant achievement by social scientists in the period, but those who had actually contributed the most new knowledge were sometimes less dogmatic than their colleagues. In Middletown, for instance, the social science interpretation of the twenties is buried in a mass of scrupulously collected facts, but it is there. At certain points i describing the decline of labor unionism or the standardization of leisure the authors seem to be deploring changes that have taken place since 1890. Yet in their conclusion they trace the tensions of Middletown to the lag of habits and institutions behind technological progress. Individual child-training, religion, and the use of patriotic symbols represent the past, while the future is repre,ented by whatever is thoroughly secular and collective, particularly in the community's work life. The town has tended to meet its crises by invoking tradition in defense of established institutions. Their whole investigation, the Lynds conclude, suggests instead "the possible utility of a deeper-cutting procedure that would involve a re- examination of the institutions themselves." 7

The typical economic thought of the twenties, while it avoided Utopian extremes, shared with the other social sciences an unlimited confidence in the present possibilities of fact-finding and saw in the collection and use of statistics much of the promise and meaning of the era. In his brilliant concluding summary of Recent Economic Trends, Professor Wesley C. Mitchell, for in tance, found the rnain explanation for the progress of 1922-1928 in the new application of intelligence to business, government, anci tradeunion administration. 8

The third contemporary interpretation of the period, that offered by its literary intellectuals, differed sharply from the other two Completely repudiating the optimism of the businessmen, it agreed | with the social scientists only in its occasional praise of the liberated intelligence. For the most part, as we are all continually reminded, the writers and artists of the twenties saw their age as one of decline.

Harold Stearns and his colleagues of 1922, who, with their many Successors, left an enduring picture of a barren, neurotic, Babbittridden society. These critics have drawn a lot of patriotic fire, and indeed some of them are sitting ducks. They were often, though not always, facile, unoriginal, and ignorant. They seldom made clear the standards by which they found American society so lacking. Yet their lament is never altogether absurd or capricious. If one studies the civilization they saw around them through its press, one hardly finds it a model of ripeness or serenity. The fact remains, for historians to deal with, that American civilization in the twenties presented to many of its most sensitive and some of its gifted members only an ugly and hostile face.

A more thoughtful and sadder group of writers than most of the young Babbitt-beaters traced their own real malaise not to the inadequacies of America but to the breakdown of the entire Western civilization. The New Humanists had long been deploring the decline of literary and moral discipline. At the opposite extreme in taste the up-to- date followers of Spengler agreed that decay impended. Joseph Wood Krutch in 1929 described the failure first of religion and then of the religion of science to give life meaning: "Both our practical morality and our emotional lives are adjusted to a world which no longer exists.... There impends for the human spirit either extinction or a readjustment more stupendous than any made before." 9

Many accepted this statement of the alternatives, and chose according to their natures. Walter Lippmann, who had played some part in the confident prewar attack on tradition and custom, chose the duty of reconstruction and published, in 1929, his earnest attempt to find a naturalist basis for traditional moral standards. 10 On the other hand, T. S. Eliot painted a savage and devastating picture of present civilization and left it to live in the world which Krutch thought no longer existent. As Eliot assumed the stature of a Contemporary classic, his description of the Waste Land, the world of Sweeney and Prufrock, and also his path away from it, Seriously influenced later conceptions of the period.

With the depression, the twenties shot into the past with extraordinary suddenness. The conflicting pictures of the decade, rosy and deep black, changed sharply, though none disappeared. Of them all, it was the New Era point of view, the interpretation of the decade as the birth of a new and humane capitalism, that under. standably suffered most. Ironically, the most plausible and heavily documented version of this description, and one of the most in. fluential later, appeared only in 1932 when Adolf A. Berle, Jr., and Gardiner C. Means described the separation of management from ownership. 11 At the time, however, the economic order of the twenties was collapsing, and its harassed defenders rt treated temporarily into the Republican last ditch.

The other optimistic vision of the decade, that of the social I scientists, depended less directly on prosperity and in the thirties survived somewhat better, though it became difficult to see the preceding period as the triumphant application of social inter. ligence. It is a startling example of the prestige of the social science point of view in 1929 that a president should commission a group of social scientists to make a complete and semi-official portrait of a whole civilization. The fact that Recent Social Trends was not completed and published until 1932 probably accounts in part for its excellence; it is the most informative document of the twenties which we have and also a monument of the chastened social science of the thirties. The committee that wrote this survey still helieved, as its chairman, Wesley Mitchell, had earlier, that much of the meaning of the twenties lay in the harnessing of social intelligence to collective tasks. Consciously and subtly, the various authors documented the contradiction between the period's individualistic slogans and its actual movement toward social and even, governmental control. l2 Yet they were conscious throughout that all this had ended in depression.

Like the authors of Middletown, the committee found its synthetic principle in the doctrine that change proceeds at different rates in different areas. Again like the Lynds, it assumed that society's principal objective should be "the attainment of a situation in which economic, governmental, moral and cultural arrangements should not lag too far behind the advance of basic changes," and basic here means primarily technological. l3 Occasionally Recent Social Trends displays, as for instance in its chapters on the child and on education, a surviving trace of the easy authoritarianism of the preceding decade's social theorists, and occasional chapters refer in the early optimistic manner to the hope of solving all social problems through the new psychological knowledge. l4 But in most of this great work, and particularly in its brilliant introduction, the authors left behind the social-science utopianism of the early twenties. It would take an increasingly powerful effort of social intelligence to bring us into equilibrium. Moreover, this effort must be a subtle one; the committee took pains to state that it was "not unmindful of the fact that there are important elements in human life not easily stated in terms of efficiency, mechanization, institutions, rates of change or adaptations to change." 15 Therefore, what was called for was not a ruthless rejection of tradition but a re-examination leading to a restatement in terms of modern life. Recent Social Trends is in places a work of art as well as of social science, and it is one of the few books about the twenties that point the way toward a comprehensive understanding of the period.

The view of the previous decade presented in the thirties by most historians was far less subtle and complete. Instead of either a New Era, a liberation, or a slow scientific adaptation, the twenties became a deplorable interlude of reaction. This view, stated sometimes with qualifications and sometimes very baldly, has continued to dominate academic historical writing from the thirties almost until the present

Most of the historians who were publishing in the thirties had received their training in the Progressive Era. Many had been deeply influenced by Frederick Jackson Turner, and had tended to look for their synthesis not to the decline^of Europe but to the expansion of America. Though the Turner doctrine can be turned to pessimistic uses, Turner himself in the twenties prophesied that social intelligence would find a substitute for the disappearing force of free land. 16 As this suggests, the outlook of John Dewey pervaded much of historical writing as it did the work of-social scientists. Yet historians still tended to give most of their attention to poltics For these reasons, and because they shared the opinion of their readers, historians usually found the meaning of American history in the nineteenth-century growth of political and Social democracy and the twentieth-century effort to adapt it to new conditions.

As we have seen, many of the historians actually writing in the twenties had not found their own period an interruption of this beneficent adaptation. The interruption had come in 1929 and then, after an interval of confusion and paralysis, Franklin D. Roosevelt had appealed for support partly in terms of the progressive view of history. Roosevelt himself justified his program by pointing to the end of free land 17 and claimed the progressive succession from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, his cousin and his former chief. Few historians were disposed to deny his claim, and accepting it made the twenties an unfortunate interregnum, sometimes covered by a chapter called "The Age of the Golden Calf," or "Political Decadence," or even "A Mad Decade." 18

This does not mean that an emphasis on the political conservatism of the decade, or a hostile criticism of the Harding-Coolidge policies, is in itself a distortion. Yet stubborn standpattism was only one ~ ingredient in a varied picture. It is not history to make the I twenties, as some of the briefer historical treatments do, merely a contrasting background for the New Deal. Sometimes even prosperityÄan important fact despite the exceptionsÄis be I 1-i ttled almost out of existence, the prophets of abundance are I denied credit for good intentions, the approach of the depression becomes something that nearly anybody could have foreseen, and the decade's many advances in science, social science, medicine, and_ even government are left out. 19

Whiie they deplored the businessmen and politicians of the twenties' the progressive historians of the thirties and later tended also to belittle the period's literary achievement. This negative judgment was sustained by a powerful writer, Vernon L. Parrington, himself a thorough and fervent exponent of the progressive interpretation of American history. In Parrington's last, fragmentary volume, published in 1930, he read the younger authors of the twenties out of the American tradition as "a group of youthful poseurs at the mercy of undigested reactions to Nietzsche, Butler, Dadaism, Vorticism, Socialism; overbalanced by changes in American critical and creative standards, and in love with copious vocabularies and callow emotions." "With the cynicism that came with postwar days," said Professor Parrington, "the democratic liberalism of 1917 was thrown away like an empty whiskey-flask." 20

Though Parrington did not live to explain this rejection or treat it at length, he obviously believed that the liberal whisky was still there and still potent, and so, in the thirties and often since, have many of his readers. Some historians, understandably impressed by Parrington's great architectural achievement, willingly and specifically took over his literary judgments; others doubtless arrived at similar opinions

independently. 21 For whatever reason, by the thirties the most widespread historical picture of the twenties was that of a sudden and temporary repudiation of the progressive tradition by reactionary politicians and also by frivolous or decadent litterateurs.

Some of the historians writing in the thirties, and far more of the literary critics, found their historical principle not in American progressivism but in Marxism. John Chamberlain demonstrated to his own temporary satisfaction the futility of the preceding Progressive Era, and Lewis Corey and others depicted the resultant triumph of monopoly capitalism, characterized by a false prosperity and leading inevitably to the depression and (before 1935) the disguised fascism of the New Deal. 22 At their worst, and in most of their specifically historical writing, the Marxist writers seem now unbelievably crude and schematic. But the Marxist version of the twenties came not only from the pamphleteers but also from gifted literary artists. For many of the generation that grew up in the thirties the concept of the previous decade was strongly: influenced by the work of John Dos Passos. His brilliant sketches of Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford, Thorstein Veblen, and other giants, the postwar violence, the defeat of hopes, and the gradual inevitable corruption of the "big money" form a picture that is hard to forgetÄ that Dos Passos himself in sackcloth and ashes is entirely unable to wipe out. Among the many critics and literary historians who were then Marxists, most of them dull and fashion-ridden, were a few writers of insight. It is still suggestive to see the literary rebellion of the twenties, through the 1935 eyes of Granville Hicks, as a ret fiection of the insecurity of the middle class. 23 Most of the rebellious writers had come from this class, and even from a particular segment of it that had lost prestige, and many of them had been self-conscious and worried about this origin. ~

Sometimes, despite their basic differences, the Marxist writers agreed in part in the thirties with the progressive historians. Often, however, the literary Marxists made a different combination. Starting in the twenties as rebels in the name of art, they had found their esthetic distaste for capitalism confirmed bv prophecies of its inevitable doom. The resultant mixture of individualist rebellion and socialist revolution was unstable and short-lived, but in the thirties powerful. Edmund Wilson describes the representative mood, and the resultant attitude toward the twenties: "To the writers and artists of my generation who had grown up in the shadow of the Big Business era and had always resented its barbarism, its crowding-out of everything they cared about, these depression years were not depressing but stimulating. One couldn't help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud." 24

One other and opposite group of writers in the thirties contributed to the previous decade's bad press. This was the varied group stemming from T. S. Eliot's neo-classical essays and I. A. Richards' effort at a scientific criticism that came to be known as "the New Critics." This school of writers could almost be defined as a counter revolution against the individualist rebellion of the twenties, in which some of them, not surprisingly, had themselves played a part. Some of the New Critics called for a revival of the Catholic, or Anglo-Catholic, or humanist, or southern tradition; others hoped to find a new credo in literature itself. They agreed only in valuing such qualities as complexity, tension, and intellectual strictness. In the thirties, despite the noise made by opposite groups, it was the New Critics who were moving quietly toward a position of dominance in criticism and in the college teaching of literature, a position they clearly hold today.

Like their enemies, the Marxists and progressives, the New Critics found little to praise in the twenties. To begin with, they stoutly rejected any tendency to measure the progress of civilization in terms of technology or standard of living. Thus they saw both the business civilization of the New Era and the opposing humanitarian progressivisrm as two variants of the same shallow materialism. 25 To them the social science Utopias forecast in the twenties were merely a repulsive climax to current tendencies. Allen Tate, for instance, associated social science not only with innocent barbarism but with the current triumph of the total state: "What we thought was to be a conditioning process in favor of a state planned by Teachers College of Columbia University will be a conditioning equally useful for Plato's tyrant state.... The point of view that I am sketching here looks upon the rise of the social sciences and their Influence in education, from Comtism to Deweyism, as a powerful aid to the coming of the slave society." Looking back at the prvious period, Tate remembered sadly "How many young innocent menÄmyself among themÄthought, in 1924, that laboratory Jargon meant laboratory demonstration." 26

Most of the New Critics rejected the rebellious literature of the twenties as completely as they did the business civilizations of the era. Exceptions had to be made, of course, for the more careful and rigorous poetsÄMarianne Moore, Eliot, sometimes Ezra Pound The abler of the New Critics realized, as some moralists did not, that the writers of the twenties expressed, rather than caused, the disintegration of tradition which they deplored. Some of them were able to admire men like Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane who bravely tried to give literary form to moral and intellectual disorder. But the general direction of the literature of the decade was, they agreed, disintegration. 27

Progressives, Marxists, and neo-classicists all found the twenties deplorable, yet in writers from all these camps, and in others who wrote in the thirties, a note of nostalgia often broke through the sermon. Frivolous, antisocial, and decadent as the literature of the twenties seemed, it had to be conceded the somewhat contradictory qualities of freshness and excitement. And nostalgia, in the thirties, extended beyond the previous decade's literature to its manners and customs. In 1931 Frederick L. Allen performed a remarkable feat of impressionist recall of the period just over, and in 1935 Mark Sullivan brought back vividly its clothes and songs and sensations.28 Already in the work of these two excellent reporters, and later in the versions of a number of minor and more sentimental merchants of nostalgia, the twenties appeared strange, fantastic, and appealing. They appealed with particular strength to those who did not remember them; it was the peculiar feat of these reporters to fill the new generation with nostalgia for scenes they had not seen. For the college student of the next decade, if the twenties was one half the betrayal of progress, the other half was the jazz age. Irresponsibility, to the solemn and uneasy thirties, was both deplorable and attractive. This paradoxical attitude toward the twenties continued and the paradox sharpened in the next period. In the dramatic and tragic days of World War II, few found much to admire in the age of Ford and Coolidge. James Burnham, combining Berle and Means's data on the separation of ownership and control with an apocalyptic vision of the rise of the total state, made the New Era into the beginning of the "Managerial Revolution." 29 To the F. D. R. liberals, who already blamed the twenties for abandoning progressivism, the period's major crime was now its rejection of the Wilsonian international program. Teachers worried whether the earlier postwar disillusion, which they had helped to propagate, would make it impossible to revive a fighting spiritÄa worry which proved unnecessary and perhaps a little conceited. Editorial writers wondered whether the country would again fail in its responsibilities after the war. Above all, those who responded most generously to the call for the defense of Western culture feared that the literary rebels of the twenties had done great, even disastrous, damage to the nation's morale.

Even before the war broke out, Walter Lippmann was concerned about the lack of fighting convictions among civilized men and blamed, in part, the rejection of tradition in which he had long ago taken part. Archibald MacLeish blamed both the artists and the scholars of the previous period for their different kinds of detach- ment. Van Wyck Brooks, looking back at the writers who had answered his own summons for a new literature, found that they differed from all previous writers in one striking way: they had Ceased to be "voices of the people." (30) "How could a world," he wondered, "that was sapped by these negative feelings resist the triumphant advance of evil." 31

This high estimate of the power and responsibility of literature seemed to be shared by Bernard DeVoto, though he took writers to task for making literature the measure of life. Writers of the "Age of Ignominy" had condemned their period partly out of sheer ignorance. In his eagerness to demonstrate this DeVoto revived, earlier than many, some of the New Era interpretation of the twenties. "What truly was bankrupt was not American civilization but the literary way of thinking about it." Actually, "The nation that came out of the war into the 1920's was . . . the most cheerful and energetic society in the world." 32 A true picture of it would have emphasized its achievements in education, medicine, humanitarian improvement, and the writing of local history.

MacLeish, Brooks, DeVoto, and others condemned the writers of the twenties for damaging the nation's fighting morale, and strangely enough, Charles and Mary Beard, writing in 1942 of the American Spirit, made the same charges from an isolationist point of view. For the Beards, American cynicism had come from Europe: "In the tempers and moods fostered by foreign criticisms and by American weakness displayed in reactions to the impacts, multitudes of young men and women were brought to such a plight that they derided the whole American scene." 33

All these works, including in part that of the Beards (which was not one of the major productions of these great historians), were wartime pamphlets rather than history. None of them offered a halfway satisfactory explanation of the alienation they discussed' which was certainly a more important phenomenon than the inadequacy of a few individuals. Yet one thing the wartime writers said was true and worth saying, that in the twenties a deep chasm had opened between the views of life of most writers and their fellow citizens. Perhaps the importance of this fact could not be emotionally grasped until the years when DeVoto heard Ezra Pound on the Italian radio.

Yet, even in wartime, and for some perhaps especially in wartime, the freedom and creativity and even the irresponsibility of the previous generation of writers had a paradoxical attraction. Alfred Kazin's admirable and by no means uncritical chapters on the period, which appeared in 1942, were called "The Great Liberation (1918-1929).34 And the paradox seemed to reach its most acute form in DeVoto himself. In the same short volume the literature of the twenties was "debilitated, capricious, querulous, and irrelevant" and yet the decade was "one of the great periods of American literature, and probably the most colorful, vigorous, and exciting period." It was a literature that was "not . . . functional in American life," but "idle, dilettante, flippant, and intellectually sterile," and yet one which had "achieved something like a charter of liberties for American writers." 35

In the nineteen-fifties, as in other periods, it is dangerous to equate the latest insights with truth. Yet it is hard not to conclude that now, in the second postwar period, some writers are converging from various directions toward a better understanding of the twenties. For one thing, the decade is longer past and it is no longer acutely necessary to break with its viewpoint. Fairly recently the twenties have come to be a fair field for the dissertation and the monograph, which bring at least a different kind of knowledge. One survivor of the period says that instead of being revived, it is being excavated like a ruin, and another complains that he and his friends are already being preserved in complete bibliographies while y et, as far as they can tell, alive. 35 Disapproval and nostalgia, of course, remain. Editorials worry about the effect on Europe of the vogue there of the literature of the twenties Professor Howard Mumford Jones has continued something like DeVoto's charges in more analytic tones, accusing the postwar writers both of brilliance and of-detachment amounting to solipsism. 37 The choice of Scott Fitzgerald for revival and in some quarters canonization indicates the perverse attraction which self destruction seems to hold for our period. Budd Schulberg's novel specifically contrasts a romantic and defeated alcoholic writer of the twenties with a crass, earnest young radical of the thirties to the latter's obvious disadvantage. 38

In general, however, literary opinion seems to have gone beyond both nostalgia and reproof into a more mature and solidly based apt preciation of the achievements of this era now so safely in the past. To many, the apparent sterility of the present literary scene furnishes a depressing contrast. Whatever else they rejected, writers of the twenties took their writing seriously, and, as Cowley has pointed out, publishers made it possible for them to do so. 39 Professor Frederick J. Hoffman in the most thorough of many recent accounts finds the period's literature full of daring, variety, and technical brilliance. This estimate by now represents more than a cult; it is an accepted consensus. 40

One achievement of the twenties which has received only a little specific comment is nevertheless widely recognized today. The period of alienation and exile gave rise, curiously enough, to a thorough, rich, and continuing inquiry into the whole American past. The sources of this inward turn are as complicated as the decade itself. Many of the major historians who wrote then, in- cluding Parrington, Beard, Carl Becker, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., belong to the group that always found its major synthesis in the course of democratic progress. But others turned to the past with Van Wyck Brooks, partly in a spirit of cultural nationalism, to destroy the English and Anglophile genteel tradition and re- place it with something native. Still others went first through a phase of violent rejection of American culture and then, finding Europe essentially unavailable as a substitute, returned to look desperately for roots at home. By the forties and fifties it was possible to see the lines converging in a cultural history which, at its best, could be critical, conscious of irony and failure, and yet, in a meaningful and necessary way, patriotic. 41

With the literature and historical research of the twenties, its economic achievement, once overvalued and then rated too low, has again turned the corner into a rising market. In the years of the Marshall Plan, when American capitalism was called on to shoulder an immense burden, it was hard to think of it as a failure and a mistake. And in the still rising prosperity of the Eisenhower period, far more widespread and soundly based than that under Coolidge but inevitably reminiscent, a reassessment of the earlier period was natural enough.

Part of the reassessment arose from the increasing complexity of economics and the development of a new economic history. Beginning about 1940, a number of economists and historians had demanded that American economic history separate itself from the political framework and give more attention to such matters as real wages and volume of production, and somewhat less to labor organization and the political struggles between farmers and mechants. 42 Even earlier, the business historians had been asking for a more analytic and less emotional approach to the history of management. 43 By the forties, it was impossible for an informed historian to duplicate the sweeping judgments about the boom and crash that had been easy ten years earlier. In 1947 George Soule, in his detailed economic history of the twenties, concluded perhaps rather to his own surprise that the rich grew richer without the poor growing poorer, that new amenities became available on a scale impossible to ignore, and that no measures then available would certainly have prevented the crash. 44 Most of the more recent economic history textbooks seem either to suggest a similar assessment or to avoid passing judgment altogether. Even the economic foreign policy of the twenties, ]ong a favorite target of liberal historians, has been presented by Herbert Feis as a well-intentioned though ineffective forerunner of Point Four. 45 In 1955 John K. Galbraith, even in a book on the "Great Crash," took historians mildly to task for underrating what was good in the Coolidge era, and unfairly blaming Coolidge himself for a failure of prophecy. 46

Such opposite kinds of writers as Peter Drucker, Frederick L. Allen, and the editors of Fortune have argued, without special reference to the twenties, that American capitalism since about the turn of the century has been evolving into a new kind of democratic and humane economic order. 47 Most recently David M. Potter concludes that we have always been the "People of Plenty" and that this fact, more than the frontier or political freedom, has shaped our mores. 48 Professor Potter, more sophisticated than earlier prophets of abundance, has learned from the social scientists that a country has to pay for production in competitive strain, and perhaps later for security in loss of mobility. Yet his perspective, like that deriving from our whole political and economic climate, shifts the meaning of the earlier prosperity era. If productivity holds much of the meaning of American history, it is the depression and not the twenties that marks the interruption in a steady development. The New Era represents at worst a promising try at a new economy, a chapter in a book with a happy ending.

There is much in this reassessment that is invigorating, especially in a period when the leftist cliches are the tiredest of all. Yet several cautions are in order. Historians must remember, first, that the early 1880's and the 1920's and the 1950's are different and separated periods of prosperity, no matter how similar; second, that the depressions, even if in the long run temporary interruptions, did not look that way to their victims; and third, that even complete economic success does not, either now or for the twenties, refute all criticisms of American culture.

There is little danger that we will altogether forget this last caution. While some contemporary writers present a view of our recent history that emphasizes economic success, to another group such success is not so much false as irrelevant. The anti-optimists today are not rebels but traditionalists, a group that can be lumped together as anti-materialist conservatives. Some of these derive from and continue the new criticism, others reflect the revival of theology, and still others rely partly on new scientific theory. All have been led or forced, during the recent era of world catastrophe, to place their trust not in secular progress but primarily in moral and religious tradition, and from this standpoint the twenties are difficult to rehabilitate.

Joseph Wood Krutch has devoted a volume to repudiating the mechanistic determinism he voiced so powerfully in 1930, and Walter Lippmann has even more specifically repudiated his early relativism. In 1955 Lippmann concluded that the whole debacle in international politics, starting in 1917 and continuing through and after Versailles, resulted primarily from "the growing incapacity of the large majority of ehe democratic peoples to believe in intangible realities',, specifically in a transcendent, universally valid, natural law. 49

Many powerful contemporary writers agree with Lippmann not only in his diagnosis of the trouble but in his fixing the responsibility for breakdown in the 1920's. Some of these, however, find in the decade enough just men to save it from complete condemnation. Russell Kirk, for instance, resurrects the New Humanists and marvels that "these years of vulgarity and presumption" produced the coming of an age of American conservatism in a group of thinkers who struggled against "the vertiginous social current of the Harding and Coolidge and Hoover years."50 (It marks perhaps the high point in this reassessment to make Coolidge, rather than Freud or Einstein, a symbol of vertigo.) A more subtle conservative and anti- materialist finds in the literary rebels the saving remnant. In his curious, dogmatic, but occasionally suggestive Yankees and God, Chard Powers Smith suggests that the young iconoclasts of the twenties were really the last, or next-to-the-last, wave of Puritanism, despite their use of the term Puritan as the ultimate of abuse. 51 This apparently bizarre thesis is really neither absurd nor entirely original. Perry Miller in 1950 gave the rebels of the twenties a similarly respectable pedigree when he compared them to the tran- scendentalists. Both of these movements spoke for the spirit against the rule of things, and both, said Professor Miller, belonged in a series of "revolts by the youth of America against American phi- listinism."52 One can go a very little further and agree with Mr. Smith that both are basically Protestant; it is not hard to recognize in the young intellectuals of the twenties together with their icon- oclasm a tortured uneasiness, a conscious responsibility for the faults of the era that are suggestive of a long heritage.

In the 1950's, then, the familiar division continued. Spokesmen of the New Era rehabilitated the twenties by using one set of standards while anti-materialists blamed or praised them according to another. At the same time, however, a number of scholars of varying views were reaching toward an understanding of such paradoxes by treating the twenties as a period of profound social change. Most of these students derived their insights to some extent from the sociologists, and it is interesting that some of the gloomiest insights stem today from this once exuberant science. David Riesman's strikingly influential vision of the shift from innerdirection to other-direction is not strictly dated by its creator, but it often seems to be a description of the end of the genteel tradition and the birth of the New Era, the defeat of Wilsonian moralism and the victory of the Babbitts. 53 In different terms and with a more clearly stated value judgment, C. Wright Mills has documented the rise of a regimented, rootless, and docile new middle class to the arbitral position in American society. 54 The increase of the whitecollar salariat and its implications extended before and after the twenties but went especially fast in that period, as the authors of Recent Social Trends, among others, pointed out. Samuel Lubell and others have seen another social change in the twenties, the beginning of the coming-of-age of the new immigration. 55 Drawing together Lubell's interpretation and Mills, Richard Hofstadter emphasizes the "Status Revolution" as a main event of the yeriod about the turn of the century. 56 The Protestant upper middle class, long a semi-aristocracy with a monopoly on advanced education, had declined, and so had the independent farmers. In their places other groups had grown and gained some powerÄthe new middle class, the ethnic minorities, and labor. All these processes of change had, bv the twenties, proceeded a long way, and all were continuing and accelerating, with the partial exception of the rise of labor. Surely this social upheaval, impossible to see clearly until our own time, has considerable meaning for the intellectual history of the twenties as for its politics, for the collapse, that is, of a long-frayed moral and literary tradition.

The nearest we can come to summarizing or explaining the shifting opinions of the twenties may well be to see the period in some such terms as these, and to see it as a disintegration. There is certainly nothing original about such a conclusion, but perhaps we are now in a position to give disintegration a fuller and more various meaning. The twenties were a period in which common values and! -; common beliefs were replaced by separate and conflicting loyalties. One or another of the standards arising from the age itself has been used by each of its historians ever since. This is what has made their Judgments so conflicting, so emotional, so severally valid and col- lectively confusing. It is equally true and equally partial to talk about the rising standard of living and the falling standard of political morality, the freshness and individuality of literature and the menace of conformity, the exuberance of manufacturers or Social scientists and the despair of traditional philosophers. Some- how, we must learn to write history that includes all these, and the first step is to understand the decade when the fragmentation first became deep and obvious.

At least two recent writers are useful to those who want to look at the twenties from this point of view. One is Lionel Trilling, who deplores and analyzes the split between liberalism and the imagination, between the values we take for granted as socially desirable and those that have now the power to move us in art, between colt lective welfare and individual dignity.57 What is lacking, says Trilling, and what has been lacking specifically since the twenties, is a view of the world, in his word a faith though not necessarily a religion, that will give meaning both to society and to art, to progress and to tragedy. Professor Henry Nash Smith in a recent address has sketched, somewhat similarly, two diametrically opposite points of view which, he says, have divided our culture-since 1910. 58 One he calls the realistic-progressive view and the other the counter-enlightenment; one takes for its standards measurable welfare and humanitarian progress and equality; the other values only the individual imagination, nourished on tradition, holding out desperately against a mechanized culture, and accepting if necessary alienation and despair as the price of its survival.

The conflict of values tha culminated, for it certainly did not begin, in the twenties was more than two sided, and neither of these two critics has completely explored it. But they have indicated the right starting point. The way to understand our recent cultural history is to understand why and how its exponents fail to agree.

How can historians proceed further along this path? First, it hardly needs saying that to understand the twenties better we must make use of techniques drawn from various fields. The most importent developments in the decade did not take place in the realms of politics, or economics, or literature, or science alone, but m all these areas and the relation, or lack of relation, among them If one uses one kind of sources one will inevitably emerge with one I point of view, which will be inadequate to understand the others

Second, it seems clear that one cannot say much about the twenties I as a disintegration or revolution without giving more attention to the old regime, the presumed prewar agreement. There seems to have been a greater degree of unity in American culture before 1917 or perhaps 1910, but a description of it is not easy and a casual reference to the genteel tradition or the cultural inheritance will not suffice. Immediately prewar America must be newly explored. We must look not so much at its articulate political or philosophical beliefs and more at its inarticulate assumptionsÄassumptions in such areas as morality, politics, class and race relations, popular art and literature, and family life. In short, we must concentrate on what Tocqueville would have called its manners. VVe are now, perhaps, in a position at least to undertake this recapture in an impartial mood. In 1956 we do not need to lament or rejoice at the destruction of the America of 1914; it is nearly as far off as Greece or Rome, and as inevitably a part of us.

Third, we must try to look at the succeeding disintegration, the revolution of the twenties, with a similar absence of passion. The literary scoffers who have been so thoroughly scolded were not, after all, the only rebels. The prophets of mechanization and welfare the Fords and Edisons who scorned history and tradition, were equally revolutionary. Most revolutionary of all, perhaps, were the prophets of psychology and social science, with their brand new societies full of brand new human beings

Finally, if we can really look back on this revolutionary decade from a perspective which has the advantage of thirty years of continuing revolution, we may be able to see which of the separate movemeets of the twenties has lasted best, and whether any of them are beginning to come together. Are there really in this decade of novelty beginnings as well as ends? Is it possible by now really to glimpse what so many have announced: the beginnings of a new period of American history and even of a new civilization?


1Thoman N. Carver, The Present Economic Revolution in the United States (Boston, 1926), is perhaps the most effective single presentation of this common version of the period.

2Preston W. Slosson, The Great Crusade and After (New York, 1930), 729.

3James C. Malin, The United States after the World War (Boston, 1930), 530-43. Like some of the social scientists discussed below, Malin thought that "It is possible that in the long run the changes even extended effective governmenta regulative powers, although critics of the new policies held the opposite view" (p. 540).

4 Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (2 vole., New York, 1927), II, 729.

5 Paul L. Haworth, The United States in Our Own Times, 1865-1920 (New York, 1920), called his last chapter "A Golden Age in History," and left both title and contents nearly unchanged in his editions of 1924, 1925, and 1931. More temperately, Samuel E. Forman, Our Republic (Rev. ed., New York, 1929), 881, balanced "stupendous productivity" against such blemishes as technological unemployment and concluded that the country was "sound at the core."

6 For optimism about the prospects of social science, see for instance Emory S.Bogardus' preface to Elmer S. Nelson, Charles E. Martin, and William H. George, Outlines of the Social Sciences (Los Angeles, 1923), xvii-xx. For a strong statement about the role of social scientists in correcting all existing abuses, see John Candler Cobb, "The Social Sciences," American Journal of Sociology (Chicago), XXXI (May, 1926), 721. An unusually strong statement of the necessity for the well-informed to controle society is that by the historian of the social sciences, Harry Elmer Barnes, "History and Socia1 Inielligence," Journal of Social Forces (Chapel Hill), II (November, 1923), 151-64.

7 Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd, Middletown (New York, 1929), 502.

8 President's Conference on Unemployment, Recent Economic Changes (New York, 1929), 862.

9 Joseph W. Krutch, The Modern Temper (New York, 1929), 26.

10 Waiter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (New York, 1929).

11 Adolf A. Berle, Jr., and Gardiner C. Means, The Modern Corporation and Private Property (New York, 1932).

12 President's Research Committee on Social Trends, Recent Social Trends (2 vol., New York, 1933). This is a main theme of Chapters 23 to 29, II, 1168-1541.

13 Ibid., I, lxxiv.

14 Ibid., II,1185.

15 Ibid., I, lxxv

16 See his statement of 1924, quoted in Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge, 1950), 258-59.

17 See his famous Commonwealth Club Address, Samuel I. Rosenman (ed.), The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (13 vols., New York, 1938-1950), I, 742-56.

18 The first two of these occur in Dwight L. Dumond, Roosevelt to Roosevelt (New York, 1937), the general title of which indicates its outspoken loyalties; that last in James Truslow Adams, The March of Democraoy (2 vols., New York, 1933). Adams' best-selling Epic of America (Boston, 1931) contains one of the most complete indictments of all aspects of the culture of the twenties. The above generiations about American historians do not, however, apply fully to Adams, whose ideas are somewhat atypical. His dislike of the decade's culture was expressed early in his Our Business Civilization (New York, 1929), which repeats many of the criticism made by the literary anti-conformists.

19 Fred A. Shannon, America's Economic Growth (Rev. ed., New York, 1940) describes the economic policies of the period thus: "It was in this atmosphere of rapacity and high-pressured seduction that governments reverted to laissez fair policy, contorted to mean government assistance to business" (p. 585), and refers to) the "fools' paradise" and the "years of paper prosperity" of the period (pp. sperity" of the period (pp. 701, 727). A later judgment is that of Henry B. Parkes, Recent America (New York, 1946), that "There was probably more materialism, more illiberality, and more cynicism than ever before in American history" (p. 464). One can think at least of close contenders to Some of these titles. I

20 Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (3 vole., New York, 1927- 1930), Vol. III, The Beginning of Critical Realism in America, 385-86, 412.

21 An example is Louis M. Hacker, American Problems of Today (New York, 1938) which quotes and cites Parrington's judgments liberally (e.g., p. 165). A historian who states his admiration of Parrington very strongly in our own time is Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind (New Haven, 1950), 445.

22 Lewis Corey, The Decline of Amencan Capitalism (New York, 1934), and The Crisis of lhe Middle Class (New York, 1935). An example of Marxist interpretation at its simplest is Bruce Minton and John Stewart, The Fat Years and the Lean (New York, 1940).

23 Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition (New York, 1935), 215.

24 Edmund Wilson, "The Literary Consequences of the Crash" (first published In 1932), in Wilson, The Shores of Light (New York, 1952), 409. he Shores of Light (New York, 1952), 409.

25 This radical separation of material and spiritual values may be found in Eliot's essays in the early twenties and is strongly stated in John Crowe Ransom, "Flux and Blur in Contemporary Art," Sewanee Review (Sewanee, Tenn.), XXXVII (July, 1929), 353-66. It was in the thirties, however, that the New Critic movement drew together as a school. As early as 1931, Max Eastman acutely pointed out that this radical dualism was a curious attitude in those who wanted to restore the unity of Western cultural tradition. Eastman, The Literary Mind (New York, 1931).

26Allen Tate, Reason in Madness (New York, 1935), 7, 11.

27A good sample of the attitude of the New Critics toward the twenties, conveying both the acuteness and the dogmatism of the movement, is Richard P. Blackmur "Notes on E. E. Cummings' Language," published in Hound and Horn (Portland, Me.), in 1931, and reprinted in Morton D. Zabel's very helpful anthology,, Literary Opinion in America (New York, 1937; rev. ea., 1951), 296-314. A typical verdict from an atypical critic is that of Yvor Winters: "During the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the chief poetic talent of the United States took certain new directions, directions that appear to me in the main regrettable. The writers between Robinson and Frost, on the one hand, and Alien Tate and Howard Baker on the other, who remained relatively traditional in manner were with few exceptions minor or negligible; the more interesting writers . . . were misguided." Winters, Primitivims and Decadence (New York, 1937), 15. A little later Randall Jarrell acutely suggested, from a New Critic point of view, the similarity between tile period's rebels and its dominant tendencies: "How much the modernist poets disliked their society, and how much they resembled it! How often they contradicted its letter and duplicated It,, spirit! They rushed, side by side with their society, to the limits of all tendencies." Jarrell, "The End of the Line" (first published in 1942), in Zabel, Literary Opinion in America (rev. ed.), 742-48.

28 Frederick L. Allen, Only Yesterday (New York, 1931), Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925 (6 vols., New York, 1926-1935), Vol. VI, The Twenties. A later sensational and amusing treatment of some aspects of the decade is Laurence Greene, The Era of Wonderful Nonsense (Indianapolis, 1939).

29 James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution (New York, 1941).

30 Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (New York, 1937); Archibald MacLeish, The Irresponsibles (New York, 1940), Van Wyck Brooks, The Opinions of Oliver Allston (New York, 1941). "Allston" condemns the rebellious poets and novelists of the twenties and, even more vigorously, their opponents the New Critics (as "coterie a writers," pp 241 ff.). He rejects the "excuses" characteristic of the postwar authors and insists that the trouble is not relativity, mechanization, etc., but the emotional inadequacy of the writers themselves (pp. 249-50).

31Brooks, Opinions of Allston, 205. The opinions quoted are those of "Alston," Brooks's thinly disguised fictional counterpart.

32 Bernard DeVoto, The Literary Fallacy (Boston, 1944), 123, 162.

33 Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The American Spint (New York, 1942), 474. For the Beards, as for many other cultural historians, "The American Philosophy" is that of John Dewey (p. 665). This version of American intellectual history seems to need considerable qualification.

34 Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (New York, 1942), 187.

35 DeVoro, Literary Fallaciy, 13, 15, 165-66, 169.

36 Malcolm Cowley, The Literary Situation (New York, 1954), 3; Edmund Wilson, "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed," Princeton University Library Chronicle (Princeton), V (February, 1944), 51-61.

37 Howard M. Jones, The Bright Medusa (Urbana, III., 1952). Jones analyzes with considerable success both the attraction of the twenties and what he sees as their characteristic fault.

38 Budd Schulberg, The Disenchanted (New York, 195O). As some reviewers pointed out, Schulberg is not sure whether he more admires or pities his major char acter, clearly modeled on Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald revival reached its greatest extent with the discussions arising out of Arthur Mizener's biography, The Far Side of Paradsse (New York, 1950).

39Malcolm. Cowley, "How Writers Lived," Robert E. Spiller et al., Literary History of the United States (Rev. ed., New York, 1953), 1263-72.

40Frederick J. Hoffman, The Twenties: American Wrsting in the Postwar Decade (New York, 19;5). Another estimate that emphasizes the same qualities is John K. Hutchens in his preface to his anthology, The Twenties (Philadelphia, 1952), 11-34. A critical but high estimate from the point of view of a present-day novelist is that of James A. Michener, "The Conscience of the Contemporary Novel, Lewis Mumford et al., The Arts in Renewal (Philadelphia, 1951), 107-40.

41 For a helpful analysis of the development of American literary studies, see Howard M. Jones, The Theory of American Literature (Ithaca, 1948). A contemporary document which brings out the various approaches of the twenties to the American past is Norman Foerster (ed.), The Reinterpretation of American Literature (New York, 1928). An extreme example of the tendency today to credit the twenties with a major accomplishment in this respect is Malcolm Cowley's dictum that Perhaps the greatest creative work of the last three decades in this country has not been any novel or poem or drama of our time . . . perhaps it has been the critical rediscovery and reinterpretation of Melville's Moby Dick and its promotion step by Step to the position of national epic." Cowley, "The Literary Situation: 1953," Perspecitives USA (New York), No. 5 (Fall, 1953), 5-13. This promotion began in the twenties and owes much to the outlook of that decade.

42 Amost valuable account of the beginnings of this movement is Herbert Heaton, Recent Developments in Economic History," American Historical Review (New York), XLVII (July, 1942), 727-46. But note that the results seem barely yet apparet to Mr. Heaton in a review of four economic histories in Mississippi Valley Historical Review (Cedar Rapids), XXXVIII (December, 1951), 556-61.

43 Norman S. B. Gras, Business and Capitalism (New York, 1939), states the point view of the business historians. The genesis and progress of the movement are excellently described in Henrietta M. Larson's introduction to her Guide to Business History (Cambridge, 1948), 3-37.

44 George Soule, Prosperity Decade (New York 1947), especially p. 335.

45 Herbert Feis, The Diplomacy of the Dollar: First Era, 1919-1932 (Baltimore, 1950). I have not mentioned among the recent optimistic historians of the twentles Professor Frederic L. Paxson, whose detailed volume on the period is, by the authors design as lacking in interpretative comment as it is possible for a hook to be. Paxson's occasional generalizations however indicate that he did not regard the twenties as an interruption in the readjustment of the federal government to the facts of a changing life, and even that a new pattern was developing in American society, a pattern which meant for many Americans a more open future." Frederic L. Paxson, American Democracy and the World War (3 vole., Boston and Berkeley 1936 1948), Vol III, Postwar Years: Normalcy, 1918-1923, introduction, 2.

46 John K. Galbraith, The Great Crash, 1929 (Boston, 1955), 608.

47 Peter F. Drucker, The New Society (New York, 1949); The Editors of Fortune U.S.A.: The Permanent Revolution (New York, 1951); Frederick L. Allen, The Big Change (New York, 1952). In the last two of these it is not altogether clear whether the twenties are a part of the fortunate development or a break in it.

48 David M. Potter People of Plenty (Chicago, 1954).

49 Joseph W. Krutch, The Measure of Man (New York, 1953); Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy (Boston, 1955), 55.

50 Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Chicago, 1953), 362-63.

51 Chard Powers Smith, Yankees and God (New York, 1954), 451-59.

52Perry Miller, The Transcendentalists (Cambridge, 1950), 8, 14-15.

53 David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven, 1950).

54C. Wright Mills, White Collar (New York, 1951).

55 Samuel Lubell, The Future of American Politics (New York, 1953), 34-41.

56Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York, 1955), 131-72.

57Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (Pocket ed., New York, 1950 [first published, 1948]), especially pp. 97-106, 245-87.

58 Henry Nash Smith, "The Reconstruction of Literary Values In the United States, 1900- 1950" (unpublished manuscript, 1952).