Nathan Miller, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America
Nathan Miller’s New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America is an excellent, highly readable introduction to the 1920s. I highly recommend it.
I’ve had this book for years, but never bothered to read it until I reread Eric P. Kaufmann’s book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America. In that book, Kaufmann argued that the arrival of Modernism in the United States in the 1910s played a pivotal role in the racial, cultural and ethnic decline of Anglo-Protestant America. Seeing as how no one in our circles ever mentions Modernism as one of the leading causes of our decline, I became intrigued and decided that I would explore the subject further.
Gradually, I began to see that there was a vast cultural change that began in the 1910s and swept across urban America in the 1920s. For the the first time in American history, a majority of Americans lived in cities in the 1920s. There was the “New Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance. There was the “New Woman” who was now smoking and drinking in public, wearing short skirts with bobbed hair, working outside the home, voting for the first time, listening to jazz in speakeasies, going on “dates” and using birth control. There were men who understood themselves to be “Moderns” who lived in the “New Era” who were at odds with the backward, bigoted, repressive Americans in the small towns and countryside.
Just a decade before in Theodore Roosevelt’s time, there had been a broad cultural consensus in Victorian America. America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation with liberal and republican principles. There was universal agreement about national identity, morality and the importance of culture. As unrealistic as it sounds to our ears, it was hoped that the millions of Jewish and Catholic immigrants who had arrived in the Great Wave would convert to Protestantism. The Genteel Tradition of 19th century America was ascendant in the nation’s media and publishing houses.
World War I is best seen as the fiery end of 19th century America. The first decade and a half or so of the 20th century was culturally continuous with Victorian America. The war discredited the Victorian mainstream and provoked the youth rebellion of the Losters in the 1920s. The Modern mainstream emerged with the founding of The New Republic in 1914 and the “Little Magazines” it was associated with like The Masses (after Floyd Dell took over) and The Seven Arts in Greenwich Village around this time. Oswald Garrison Villard remade The Nation from a Genteel publication and young modernist editors gradually took over control of older Genteel institutions like The Atlantic. The New Yorker was founded in 1925. In the 1920s, Progressivism broke up over Prohibition and Left-Progressives became modernist liberals while Right-Progressives became reactionaries. New York became the cultural capital of the United States and came to be dominated by the New York avant-garde which from its inception was comprised of Jews and Anglos who were liberals, modernists and cosmopolitans.
Nathan Miller’s book is mostly concerned with the countless ways in which Modern America took shape in the 1920s. It was a decade of dizzying change compared to my lifetime:
- As Victorian culture broke down in the 1920s, women gained the right to vote and began to wear lipstick, sunglasses and cosmetics and dress in familiar Modern styles to attract men. They began “dating,” using birth control and having boyfriends. Zelda Fitzgerald popularized tanning in the 1920s. The New Era emphasized cultural liberation and expressive individualism.
- The automobile and car culture began its long term conquest of America as the states began building the modern highway system. The Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler) emerged in the 1920s along with parking lots, chain stores, fast food restaurants, stop signs and traffic lights. Just a decade before, America had still been in the age of the horse.
- The Northern and Western suburbs began to grow along with the spread of the automobile and the highway system. The “motel” (motor hotel) emerged in the 1920s.
- The lights literally came on as most American homes gained electric service for the first time. Americans began using vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, electric stoves and refrigerators. Women started going grocery shopping at supermarkets.
- Mass circulation magazines like Time were founded in the 1920s.
- The radio began to create mass culture in the 1920s. NBC and CBS were founded in the 1920s as radio stations. Americans started getting their news from the “mainstream media” instead of local newspapers. New York culture began its long term erosion of regional cultures.
- Charles Lindbergh became Time‘s first Man of the Year when he completed the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927. Commercial aviation began to spread in the 1920s. Hub cities developed around the new airports.
- Skyscrapers began to climb up the New York and Chicago skylines which began to take on their modern configuration.
- Los Angeles and Miami became boom towns. South Florida was developed in the 1920s.
- Spectator sports and Hollywood celebrities became popular in the 1920s. America’s national heroes became athletes and celebrities.
- American culture and financial power began to dominate Western Europe in the 1920s. Jazz spread to Europe. It is a myth that America was “isolationist.” American influence has grown in Europe from World War I down to the present day.
- For the first time in American history, young White Americans began to listen to black music on the radio and on phonographs. Listening to jazz became a way to rebel against your parents.
- Victorians had valued a producer culture that emphasized self-denial, thrift, hard work and the cultivation and practice of moral virtues in the household that forged the character of their children. In the 1920s, Modern culture began to emphasize consumption and immediate gratification. The advertising industry blossomed in the 1920s as it emerged from World War I propaganda.
- In the 1920s, America developed a consumer economy. Americans began to go into debt to buy all sorts of things on credit.
- In the 1920s, Americans began to get into the stock market which had previously been a playground for the rich. The Roaring Twenties famously ended in the Crash of 1929.
- In the 1920s, millions of Americans became hooked on watching Hollywood movies and imitating the lifestyles of famous Hollywood celebrities. This was particularly true of young women. Nearly every small town in the country had a movie theater. More Americans started watching movies and being influenced by mass culture than attending church.
- In the 1920s, more young Americans began to spend more of their lives in high school and going to college, which facilitated the emergence of a youth culture among the Losters.
- In the 1920s, the culture war emerged between Moderns who embraced the new values and Victorians who rejected them. Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken ridiculed all the backward boobs in flyover country. The Second Klan attracted millions of members. It was primarily concerned with enforcing Prohibition and responding to the sense of cultural and moral breakdown.
- Speaking of Prohibition, it was the first major flashpoint of the culture war which has raged between modernists and traditionalists down to the present day.
- America’s Protestant establishment increasingly began to splinter as mainline churches lost members to the Fundamentalists.
- Modernism was popularized by the advertising industry which embraced the modernist aesthetic to sell more products to consumers, glamorous Hollywood celebrities and the literature of the era. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and the Losters who decamped to Paris and the South of France in the 1920s were paid to shape the tastes of Americans back home. Vanity Fair, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, The Smart Set and other “smart magazines” that were dialed into the expatriates and French culture popularized the modernist aesthetic.
- In the 1920s, the Modern liberal intelligentsia based in New York emerged and “America’s philosopher” John Dewey popularized cosmopolitanism and Franz Boas, his colleague at Columbia University, popularized antiracism in the social sciences.
There were millions of American Protestants in the cities, small towns and rural areas who were highly disturbed by all these unsettling cultural changes and voted Republican. They were convinced that they were living through a time in which the cultural and moral foundations of society were crumbling beneath their feet. This is why they joined the Second Klan in the early 1920s.
They weren’t wrong. There really were countless young Losters who were migrating to the cities, reading Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald or H.L. Mencken, aping the lifestyles of Hollywood celebrities, embracing Nietzsche or Sigmund Freud’s ideas, listening to jazz on the radio, throwing off the restraints of religion, morality and custom and embracing Modernism or what Malcolm Cowley described as the Greenwich Village idea. They were starting to live self-centered, hedonistic lifestyles dedicated to the consumption and accumulation of “experiences” and material products. Those people were our ancestors and their culture triumphed over Victorian culture and created the world in which we live today. A century later, we are living at the tail end of the historical cycle which began with them.