When did our age begin?
What distinguishes Modern America from Victorian America?
The transition between the two began in the 1910s, World War I was the rupture and was complete by the Roaring Twenties. The Lost Generation was the first Modern generation.
On one side of this divide, America was a predominantly rural nation. On the other side of the divide, it became a predominantly urban nation.
One one side of this divide, America was in the age of the dirt road and horse and buggy. The streets of New York City were polluted with horse shit. On the other side of the divide, it was in the age of paved roads, federal and state support for transportation and automobile exhaust.
On one side of this divide, America was still lit by candles and gas lamps. On the other side of this divide, electricity and lightbulbs had lit up the country up and created a vibrant nightlife.
On one side of this divide, America was divided into regional cultural capitals and Boston was the cultural capital of the United States. On the other side of this divide, New York became the cultural capital of the United States and other metropolitan areas became its satellites.
On one side of this divide, Great Britain was the world’s superpower and America was a regional power in the Western hemisphere with an isolationist outlook. On the other side of this divide, American power and influence increasingly began to creep into and dominate Western Europe.
On one side of this divide, virtually all blacks lived in the South and the North was lily White and was divided by ethnic, cultural and religious divisions between Anglos and hyphenated Americans. On the other side of this divide, blacks became more evenly distributed across the United States.
On one side of this divide, American culture maintained hierarchies in race, sex and gender. Victorian culture divided the sexes into separate spheres and races into superior and inferior races. On the other side of this divide, American culture became antiracist, sexually liberated and ultimately gender fluid. Women started voting and became the equals of men in the workplace and in sexuality.
On one side of this divide, America had a producer culture with a Victorian ethic that emphasized self-denial, thrift and hard work. On the other side of this divide, America developed a consumer culture that emphasized self-indulgence, consumption, immediate gratification and lifestyles.
On one side of this divide, America had a strong national identity and a moral and cultural consensus. America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation with liberal and republican principles. On the other side of this divide, America became modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist, national identity became abstract and deracinated and its moral and cultural consensus was lost.
On one side of this divide, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the American elite. On the other side, the WASP elite is challenged by Jews and hyphenated Americans and begins to lose ground to them.
On one side of this divide, Americans believe first and foremost in their duty to others whether it is to their spouses or children and grandchildren. The duty of a woman was to her husband and children. The duty of a man was to provide for his family. On the other side of this divide, Americans become self-absorbed and their duty is to themselves. Moderns believe in “being true to yourself” above all else.
On one side of this divide, religion and morality dominate American life. America was a Protestant country. On the other side of this divide, religion and morality and economic advancement begin to take a backseat to the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyles. Religion is transformed into a subcultural lifestyle.
On one side of this divide, liberalism is about the extension of rights in politics and laissez-faire in economics. On the other side of this divide, liberalism splinters and progressives adopt cultural liberalism which is an expressivist and aesthetic form of liberalism, which begins the culture war.
On one side of this divide, morality is the observance of religion and the construction of character, which is a composite of moral virtues that are practiced by men and women, i.e., courage, fortitude, thrift, temperance, etc. On the other side of the divide, morality becomes associated with the “transformation of consciousness” which is the identification and elimination of Freudian psychological repressions. It gradually becomes the laundry list of -isms and -phobias.
On one side of this divide, America’s national heroes tend to be military and political figures like General Robert E. Lee in the South or Abraham Lincoln in the North and cultural icons like the pioneers and Puritans. On the other side of the divide, America’s heroes become Hollywood celebrities, musicians and sports stars from the 1920s forwards.
On one side of this divide, women dress modestly and it is scandalous to find respectable women alone and drinking at bars. Smoking is taboo for women. Women try to stay out of the sunlight because pale skin is considered beautiful. On the other side of the divide, Modern women are smoking, cutting their hair short, drinking and listening to jazz at speakeasies, dressing less modestly, going out to experience nightlife and having sex with men they have no intention of marrying. Tanning becomes fashionable.
On one side of this divide, Americans practice their religious and moral code. On the other side of the divide, Americans begin to collect and savor aesthetic “experiences.”
On one side of this divide, Americans sharply divide the world into civilized and savage and privilege the former over the latter. On the other side of the divide, the primitive is exalted and the civilized is denigrated. Manners change dramatically. Art, music and especially literature change.
On one side of this divide, Americans were growing their own food or buying food from mom and pop stores. On the other side of the divide, there were parking lots, supermarkets and chain stores.
On one side of this divide, the definition of “progress” is the belief that Americans can and should become more morally virtuous as understood in the traditional sense, which is the belief that motivated Prohibition. There would be fewer alcoholics in a dry America. Progress is the great leaps forward in science and technology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the growth of material abundance and lifting millions of people out of poverty. On the other side of the divide, “progress” becomes liberation from traditional morality and culture, exalting the primitive, racial and sexual equality, etc.
On one side of this divide, Victorians values sincerity. On the other side of this divide, Moderns value irony and cynicism.
I’m getting far removed from where I wanted to go in this article. These are just some of the changes that come immediately to mind though that emerged around the time of the break between Victorian America and Modern America in the 1910s and 1920s. The world was changing in countless ways. Even our sense of humor was different in the 19th century.
Arguably, the biggest and most impactful change was the rise of the entertainment industry in Hollywood, the mass media and Jewish dominance in the creation of 20th century mass culture.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Some of the biggest names in the movie industry got their start as nickelodeon proprietors and investors: Adolph Zukor, Marcus Loew, Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry, Sam, and Jack Warner, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, and Louis B. Mayer. All were Jews, all had come to the United States from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe, and all had an idealized view of their adopted country that, when put into their films, proved so powerful it ultimately shaped the myths, values, and traditions of America itself. …
Fifteen producers were making movies in Hollywood by 1912 and the Los Angeles suburb was on its way to becoming the film capital of the world – and remained so even after the federal government went to court to break up the MPPC monopoly …
In the years following World War I, films grew more polished and the emphasis was on historical extravaganzas, melodramas, biblical epics, and swashbucklers starring the dashing Douglas Fairbanks. The war had destroyed the film industries of France and Italy, and American films dominated the world screen. Hollywood had also already assumed many of the features of its Golden Age: the star system, tight studio control of production that limited artistic creativity, the ownership of theaters by production companies, and domination of the studios by the money men. Movies were big business and Wall Street had the final say. Some seven hundred films were made every year and the industry was pulling in $2 billion in receipts annually. Forty million people went to the movies in 1922 and the audience more than doubled over the next eight years. There were over 22,500 movie theaters – half in towns with fewer than five thousand inhabitants – with a seating capacity of 18 million.”
The movie theater was usually the nicest building in town.
In Victorian America, culture had been intensely local. In Modern America, which emerged in the 1920s, film, radio and mass circulation magazines began to erode regional distinctions. America was becoming the audience of cultural elites based in New York City and Los Angeles. The automobile, the national highway system and suburban living also uprooted and eroded traditional American culture.
The Losters rebelled against their elders and embraced Modern values after World War I. It is understandable why anyone who fought in the trenches of France would hold the political and cultural establishment in contempt. Think of the fury over Vietnam or Iraq but on a far larger scale.
“The war was the unifying force that tied this group of writers together, and gave them a fund of common experiences and emotions. Born shortly before the turn of the century, they grew up in the good years before World War I when American seemed to have unlimited possibilities. Mostly Ivy League educated, they drove ambulances during the war, and were experimenting with literary modernism. Having come to maturity during a period of violent change, they had little in common with their elders, creating the first generational gap of the twentieth century …”
The war left these writers with an unbridled hatred of authority and of the “old men” who had bumbled into World War I, perpetrated its butcheries, and then bungled the peace. “If we only governed the world instead of the swagbellied old fogies that do,” wrote Dos Passos. With the “old swagbellies” still in power, the young turned away from all forms of public concern. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the 1920s is the dearth of new political talent. Until the Wall Street crash, talented young men and women devoted themselves almost entirely to the self-directed objectives of getting rich and becoming famous.
Universal contempt was expressed for the “big words” and lofty sentiments used by “Professor Wilson” to trumpet his war. Young men had been slaughtered, wrote Ezra Pound in High Selwyn Mauberley, “For an old bitch gone in the teeth / For a botched civilization.” Similar views were expressed in Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers; Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; What Price Glory”, a place by Lawrence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson; and later, from the German side, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Heroism, if at all possible in the American postwar novel, consisted of making a “separate peace” – a personal retreat into oneself. For Hemingway’s antiheroes, it took the form of preserving individual dignity and self-respect in the face of disaster. Instead of ranting or crying, Lieutenant Henry walked out into the rain after the death of his lover and child. In the same vein, Lady Brett Ashley decided not to be “a bitch” and let go of the young matador with whom she had an affair. Faulkner’s most successful characters – primarily blacks and women – proved the resilience of the human spirit. Three decades before Existentialism formally appeared as a philosophy, the writers of the 1920s had adopted the concept.”
War had been an ennobling experience for the older generations who thought it would reinvigorate their values. World War I though wasn’t the Civil War or the Spanish-American War.