In the 1910s, Modernism arrived in America.
In the 1920s, the culture war began between Moderns in the cities who repudiated traditional religious and moral values in favor of self-expression and cultural liberation and Victorians in the small towns and countryside who clung to them. Prohibition was the first big flash point in the culture war.
A century ago, Sinclair Lewis published Main Street which was a scathing satire of rural and small-town America. Main Street was the opening shot in the culture war which has raged down to our own times and created the stereotype of the American Heartland as a cultural desert inhabited by boobs and philistines like George Babbitt. Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 for his second novel Babbitt. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio began the tradition of portraying rural and small-town America as being full of grotesque rubes like those in the movie Deliverance. Main Street, Babbitt and Winesburg, Ohio were all expressions of modernist contempt for the values of the bourgeois.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Yet, even as small-town America was being romanticized, it was losing its central role in American life and fading before the implacable onslaught of urbanization, standardization, and the Tin Lizzie. America was being homogenized by national advertising, chain stores, and mass circulation magazines – foreshadowing the rise of mass culture and the decline of regional variety. The 1920 census revealed that for the first time in the nation’s history, a majority of Americans were town dwellers. The number of Americans living in incorporated towns of more than 2,500 people exceeded (51.4 and 48.6 percent) those residing in rural areas. But the trend toward urbanization can be overemphasized. More than 31 million farmers – one in three Americans – toiled on the land in the 1920s, and 44 percent of the population was still counted as rural in 1930. Most lacked indoor plumbing and electricity.
Many Americans were alarmed by the wrenching social upheaval caused by the forces of modernism. Could liberty and equality be maintained in an era dominated by technology and industrial concentration? Rural and small-town America were not yet ready to surrender to urban domination, even though all the trends were running in favor of the urbanized majority. The story of the Twenties is one of constant struggle between city and countryside for control of the nation’s soul.
The countryside was the home of white, Protestant America, which saw itself as the repository of the old Puritan values of thrift, hard work, and self-denial. To these people, the industrial cities, swarming with recent, as yet unassimilated and heavily Catholic immigrants, represented a loss of community and neighborliness and embodied all that was sordid and ungodly about modernism. Almost a third of Chicago’s 2.7 million residents were foreign-born; more than a million were Catholic, and another 125,000 Jews. New Yorkers spoke more than thirty languages, and only one in seven worshipped in a Protestant church. Bigotry, religious fundamentalism, Prohibition, and the intolerant nativism that marked the era were all open manifestations of this struggle.
The virtues and defects of small-town America were being hotly debated. In 1919, Sherwood Anderson flipped over the flat rock of small-town life in his book of stories, Winesburg, Ohio, to reveal the grotesque secret lives Americans led behind the prim facades of their slumbering hamlets. A year later, Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling novel Main Street satirized Gopher Prairie, a thinly disguised portrait of Sauk Center, his hometown in Minnesota, where “dullness is made God.” The Chamber of Commerce boosters, the backslapping Rotarians, the lodge members in their comic regalia, and the women of the uplift societies – in fact, all middle-class America – were skewered for what Lewis saw as provincialism, moral poverty, and lack of spiritual values. The publication of Main Street ranks with that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as one of the few literary events with a profound political or social fallout, for it established a new way of looking at small-town America.
Lewis’s blast did not go unanswered. William Allen White, a well-known Kansas editor, made the opposite case in an article, “The Other Side of Main Street,” in the mass circulation magazine Collier’s. White described the small town as close to “the Utopia of the American dream.” It was prosperous and it was keeping pace with the city. There were rich and poor in the small towns, but “great wealth is as unusual as bitter poverty.” The greatest difference between the city and the small town, according to White, was the “collective neighborliness” of the latter. “Death, poverty, grief, tragedy visit the city and no friends hurry to heal the wounds,” he continued. “But good will in the American country town is institutionalized. In some organized way the town’s good will touches every family. Men feel the strength of it, take courage from it, give themselves to it … and they grow in stature by what they give.”
In many ways, the 1920s were the first decade of 20th century America. Electricity, flight and automobiles had existed before the 1920s, but became far more commonplace afterwards. Charles Lindbergh flew the first plane nonstop across the Atlantic. Radio and mass circulation magazines emerged in the 1920s. New York City became the hegemonic cultural capital of the United States.
Americans began to go to the movies in the 1920s. Women gained the right to vote and the “New Woman” emerged in the 1920s. Hollywood celebrities and sports stars became prominent in American culture. Consumer culture developed in the 1920s along with advertising and chain stores. Supermarkets, fast food restaurants, stop signs and traffic signals became common in the 1920s. The country became majority urban and the old Victorian cultural consensus broke down. “Moderns” were people who began to reject or drift away from the old cultural values in favor of self-expression and individual autonomy.