Why is our world so screwed up?
In the early 20th century, we went through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and World War II. The Victorian culture of the 19th century died in this tumultuous crisis period and the Modern culture of the 20th century emerged from the wreckage.
The key changes to American culture took place during this period from World War I to World War II. Woodrow Wilson led one America into World War I and FDR led another America out of World War II. The country became liberal, modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist in this period. Since 1945, this “postwar consensus” has been basically working itself out to its logical conclusion.
The Lost Generation (born 1882 to 1900) is where the decisive break with the past happened. The Losters were the first Modern generation. They grew up in the Late Victorian era in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s. They were the Doughboys who were sent over to Europe by Woodrow Wilson to fight in the trenches of World War I. They came back home screwed up by that experience which discredited their elders. Young people rebelled against their parents and embraced Modern values in the Roaring Twenties in the United States and Britain, the Années folles in France and the Golden Twenties in Weimar Germany. This was a period of sweeping cultural change throughout the West in general.
The GI Generation (born 1901 to 1927) and Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945) absorbed the values of their parents the Losters. The GIs grew up in the Depression and were the soldiers who fought in World War II. The Silents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. The Losters entered middle age around the time that the Great Depression hit them in the 1930s and emerged from World War II as elders. Their adult lives had spanned two World Wars, the Roaring Twenties and the Depression. President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower were Losters as was General Douglas MacArthur.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Prosperity is just around the corner,” said Vice President Charles Curtis in a statement usually attributed to Hoover. But in the spring of 1930, the tide started running in the other direction. The economy slowly drifted downward, first into a slump, then into a recession, and finally into a full-fledged depression. Factories and businesses cut wages and followed up with layoffs and plant closings, which led to a decline in consumer spending, which created a vicious circle of more closings …
Women no longer had the filmy, diaphanous look associated with the flapper. Hemlines were dropping to the lower calf, breasts and waists reappeared, and the once mandatory bob seemed to grow out overnight …
And then the storm, which had so tauntingly veered away, roared back in full fury – this time from across the Atlantic and engulfing the American banking system …
American writers were already looking back upon the Twenties with regret for wasted time. Scott Fitzgerald captured the mood of this new era in his story “Babylon Revisted.” Like Fitzgerald, many American writers wanted to forget the Twenties and “jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element.
Most of the expatriates returned home when the money that had sustained them abroad ran out. Paris, Majorca, Capri, and the Riviera were empty of Americans. Harold Stearns, whose departure for Paris in 1922 had caused so much comment, returned unnoticed and rediscovered America. The former expatriates talked about Paris and how good it had been to sit in a sidewalk café sipping wine and letting the world go by, said Malcolm Cowley, “but nobody had time to listen, and soon, the exiles, too, were caught up in the new life, adopting political doctrines and … marching in demonstrations.”
One evening, Henry Mencken and his wife, Sara, accepted an invitation to visit the Fitzgeralds at the home they were renting outside Baltimore, where Zelda was being treated at the Sheppard Pratt Hospital for a nervous breakdown. Neither man had weathered the crash very well. Fitzgerald had published nothing except Saturday Evening Post stories since The Great Gatsby in 1925, and the magazine had not only reduced his fees as an economy measure but complained about the quality of his work. His book royalties had fallen to about $50 a year. He was working on what was to be his favorite among his novels, Tender Is The Night, based upon Zelda’s struggle with madness. At the same time, he tried to take care of his daughter, Scottie, and to deal with a mountain of debt, his notoriety as a drunk, and his despair over a schizophrenic wife. Mencken found that politics was not a laughing matter after 1929 and had stepped down as editor of the Mercury. It was no longer enough in the proletarian 1930s to merely carp at national absurdities; a positive faith was now required, and many of his followers had moved leftward toward a rather naive Marxism …”
As America entered the Great Depression in the 1930s, it had developed a liberal intelligentsia based in New York, which had become the cultural capital of the United States. This intelligentsia was modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist, but the dire circumstances of the Depression quickly became the all-consuming political challenge of the day followed by foreign policy.
In the 1930 midterm elections, the Democrats took over the House and nearly took over the Senate from the Republicans. In the 1932 presidential election, FDR won 42 states, the Democrats seized control of Congress and the parties realigned as the New Deal coalition took shape. Conservative liberalism went into the dustbin and remained there for over a generation until the memory of Hoovervilles faded.
After World War I, Americans tossed the Democrats out of power and the Progressive Era came to an end. In the Roaring Twenties, Republicans dominated because of economic prosperity. The Democrats were badly divided over cultural issues in 1924 and 1928. Americans tossed the Republicans out of power because of the Depression. In the 1930s and 1940s, economics and foreign policy kept the Democrats in power and papered over their divisions. After 1945, the Democrats began to divide over racial and cultural issues and finally the Republicans came back to power in the Nixon era due to backlash politics.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the drunk, and his wife Zelda, the tanned schizophrenic, are culturally our forebearers. Randolph Bourne, Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley and others from the 1920s belong in this category. William Dean Howells does not.
Note: Bourne died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. He was 32-years-old. His spirit lived on though in his generation.