As I have argued for several months now, Modernism arrived in the United States in the 1910s and went mainstream after World War I in the 1920s when young Losters rebelled against the Victorian values of their parents. The Losters were the first Modern generation.
The following excerpt comes from the chapter “The Children of Our Discontent” in Paula S. Fass’s book The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s:
“The perception of the changed nature of the youth problem generally forced two kinds of responses: pessimism and despair by “traditionalists,” who felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the resulting social disorder and used the image of youth to denounce the society for failing to preserve old structures and values; or an urgent call for reconstruction and reorganization by “progressives,” who saw the young as a positive force for needed change and as already charting the path to the future. …
Youth served the traditionalist sensibility as a device for social self-exposure, for uncovering the deeper wound of social disorder. Launching his attack on the young, the traditionalist found the rubble of a once stable society and the ruined strictures of a former world: sexual morality, family authority, school and church control, ideological direction. And the bomb that shattered them all came appropriately from the war.”
World War I discredited the Victorian mainstream.
The Modern mainstream began in the 1920s when mass circulation news magazines, the new radio networks and Hollywood movies began to build up an American mass culture. Gradually, the old Genteel institutions of the Victorian era fell under the control of new modernist editors.
“In the 1920s, the war provided traditionalists with the first and most persistent explanation for the postwar behavior of youth, as well as a starting point for an exploration of that behavior. At the beginning of the decade especially, the problems of youth, like so many others, were attributed to the war’s shattering effects, and the theme of war like the theme of youth carried an emotion-charged fuse. According to traditionalists, the war had awakening the young to the sad realities of life, and the imminence of death turned young men and women to pleasure-seeking. Having ripped the rosy veil from a self-confident civilization, the war permitted the young to see through the sham idealism of their elders. “Our youth have lost their illusions” became at once an explanation and a description as the war and the resulting peace made a mockery of the ideals for which so much youthful blood had been spilled. As the theme of war was linked with that of youth, the descriptions of youth became heavy with the effects of betrayal. John F. Carter, Jr., a self-proclaimed member of the “Wild Young People,” taunted readers of the Atlantic (long an arbiter of middle-class respectability, literary tastes, and civilized morality) with the observation that “the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined the world before passing it on to us.” “Now my generation is disillusioned, and, I think, to a certain extent, brutalized, by the cataclysm which their complacent folly engendered … We have been forced to live in an atmosphere of ‘tomorrow we die,’ and so, naturally, we drank and were merry.”
This was the big break between the Losters and their elders.
God was in the dock. Morality was in the dock. Tradition was in the dock. Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” destroyed the legitimacy of Victorian culture.
“More than a shell-shocked and war-weary hedonism worried those in the older generation who saw the world they knew falling around them. In the process of discovering life for themselves, the young were consciously and knowingly rejecting the conventions in manners and morals, according to traditionalists. They now called hypocrisies those same behaviors and beliefs that had stabilized the prewar world. For the young, the past was worse than irrelevant, it was pretentious, and they proceeded to strip manners of their gentility, language of its pomposities, and morality of its righteous deceptions. Searching for truth in all its naked crudeness, they denied their elders any moral authority, denouncing their conventions as cant. “How do they [the young] see us?” Mary Agnes Hamilton asked in the pages of the Atlantic: “The answer can be put in a word: as frauds.” The result, according to an Atlantic editorial, was that “the old and the young” were “as far apart in point of view, code, and standard, as if they belonged to different races.”
In much of the United States, particularly in the cities and suburbs of the North and West, these college educated, middle class young White people in the 1920s were our great-grandparents. Five generations ago from the Millennials. While the whole country was affected by this change (the young William Faulkner found his way to Greenwich Village from Mississippi where he met Sherwood Anderson before also following Fitzgerald and Hemingway to France in the 1920s), the new Modern values put down the deepest roots in the spawn of Northern urban middle class professionals.
“The young had come to represent the unhinging of the social order, and the journals of the twenties were filled with an image of youth out of control, of energy released from social restraints, and of raw forces unleashed. At the very beginning of the decade, in an editorial appropriately entitled “The Release of Youth,” the Nation wondered whether the youthful energies tapped by the war could be harnessed in peacetime to a social purpose, especially in the context of the profound social changes that had taken place. Those energies, which had once been drawn into socially necessary channels through work and childrearing, appeared now to threaten social order as adult enterprises were delayed and leisure time expanded.”
In our own times, these energies are even more decoupled from “socially necessary channels” such as work and childrearing. Consider this incredible statistic: 30 percent of women under the age of 25 now identify as LGBT compared to less than 5 percent over 60.
According to the World Values Survey, the United States is one of the most “traditional” Western nations although 82 percent of Americans have expressivist values:
“The dangers of unchanneled and potentially disruptive energies attendant upon an unprecedented new leisure and new social conditions were at the root of the denunciations of youth. Not surprisingly, traditionalists equated the unharnessed energies of youth with license, and sexual license above all became the most powerful bogeyman of the twenties. Youthful sexuality was at once the sign of social demoralization and a continuing threat to social order. Sexuality symbolized both disorder and rebellion: disorder because it meant energy unrestrained, and rebellion because it was the most obvious line of attack in the onslaught against the pretensions of prewar morality.”
In the 1920s, the birthrate and family size dropped. The divorce rate and marriage rate both went up. Sexual promiscuity doubled. The love-based male breadwinner marriage started to become unglued as the expectation of sexual fulfillment became a part of a “good marriage.”
“Behind all the descriptions of youth’s defiance, their attitudes, manners, fashions, amusements, and above all their morals, lurks this double-barreled threat of sexuality. As one young woman sharply put it in the solid, old-fashioned Forum, “This tremendous interest in the younger generation is nothing more nor less than a preoccupation with the nature of that generation’s sex life.” The traditionalist collapsed all the facets of the youth problem into this one issue of sexual license. Their frankness and devotion to reality and truth were equated with an uninhibited acceptance of sexuality. The rejection of genteel manners, which were for the young only “worn-out hypocrisies, unsuitable and worthless relics of an elaborate insincerity,” suggested that the young were stripping social relations of all previous controls and conventions. As they challenged former affections, the young grasped at a new sexual candor.
The peeling away of genteel manners was only the first line of attack. Clothing styles, especially as they affected women, considered liberating by the young, were demoralizing in the eyes of their elders. Bobbed hair (“the badge of flapperhood”), short skirts, silk stockings for everyday wear, cosmetics (once “confined to a class representing the victims of the social order rather than its makers”) were all outward signs of the escape from convention which made women appear cruder and purposefully solicitous of the rawer instincts in men. Smoking for women and drinking by both sexes were said to be prevalent among the young. Youth even had a language. It was slangy, coarse, often profane, and not infrequently lewd. Men and women openly talked and joked about sex to each other. The behavior of youth was defiant, raunchy, implicitly sexual.”
This was new and startling at the time.
The Victorian generations had segregated the sexes into separate spheres and regulated sexuality. Now, single young women were drinking and smoking cigarettes while listening to jazz at speakeasies and nightclubs. They were going on “dates” which was a new thing too. It was a new thing for young people to get together and drink in college which is another Loster custom.
“So too, traditionalists looked at youthful pastimes like jazz and dancing and saw rude passion, Negro lewdness, sensuous movement. In the early twenties, the Ladies’ Home Journal, the housewife’s companion and guide, seethed with rage against “Unspeakable Jazz” and launched an anti-jazz “crusade” which it believed to be “of as great importance today to the moral well-being of the United States as the prohibition crusade was in the worst days of the saloon.” Jazz and modern dancing were the sign of American decadence heralding the collapse of civilized life.”
Where is the lie?
How was jazz not a slippery slope? “Slumming” and miscegenation in jazz clubs also dates back to the 1920s. Jazz broke down racial barriers between the civilized and primitive.
“Anyone who says that ‘youths of both sexes can mingle in close embrace’ – with limbs intertwined and torso in contact – without suffering harm lies. Add to this position the wriggling movement and sensuous stimulation of the abominable jazz orchestra with its voodoo-born minors and its direct appeal to the sensory center, and if you can believe that youth is the same after this experience as before, then Gold help your child.”
These people never lived to see Cardi B’s WAP.
“Stirring his readers with this almost visceral description, John McMahon then informed parents of the dangers implicit in the fashion: “Insofar as jazz dancing relaxes morality and undermines the institution of the family, it is an element of tremendously evil potentiality.” New York, the corrupt Gotham, laying waste to the virtues of the Republic, came in for the lion’s share of denunciation, and there was the inevitable comparison to Rome in her final orgiastic plunge to destruction. The Ladies’ Home Journal urged the “legal prohibition” of jazz dancing. The call for legal action was characteristic of the frenzied response of traditionalists in this as in so many other social areas in the twenties. Impotent to stop what they saw as social disintegration, the traditionalists saw the law as the final barrier to chaos and the ultimate instrument of control.”
If negrofied jazz had been stopped instead of alcohol in the 1920s, imagine the musical house of horrors we would have been spared in our own times.
“While the behavior of all youth was cause for concern, a special apprehension was reserved for the manners and attitudes of young women. The American woman had been the special stabilizer of nineteenth-century society, and it was the change in female behavior which underlined the overall changes that had taken place. It was the new definition of equality that was most troubling, for it was apparently not the same thing that the old feminists had in mind. According to Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, “Feminism has become a term of opprobrium to the modern young woman,” who defined equality not as political rights or economic opportunities but as something more subtle and more threatening: freedom – the right to self-expression, self-determination, and personal satisfaction. To traditionalists this smacked of immorality, self-indulgence, and irresponsibility.”
This is the difference between the “feminism” of Victorian era women’s suffrage and modernist liberalism. The Victorian generations thought women’s suffrage would make society more moral!
“This was alarming for it meant not merely a granting of rights but an upheaval in social relationships and the destruction of formerly effective controls. According to Bromley, the New Woman of the twenties was not dissatisfied with the kitchen if it was freely chosen, but she refused to be consigned to a single role and she expected to be satisfied in each. Asking for more than merely to have a man choose her as a wife and the mother of his children, the New Woman expected to be satisfied “as a lover and a companion,” and she insisted on “more freedom and honesty within the marriage.” Married or not, she was likely to have a “pagan attitude toward love itself.”
All this appeared to portend the collapse of noble womanhood as it had been understood. Once released from previous controls and well-defined roles, women risked the danger of succumbing to impulse, of entering upon a path from which there was no return, of teetering on the edge of sexual promiscuity.”
Teetering on the edge?
What would you call the world of Zoomers on Tinder?
“Mr. Grundy” reminded readers of the Atlantic that “When lovely woman stoops to folly, she can always find someone to stoop with her but not always to lift her up again to the level where she belongs.” The right to freedom of choice, to broad social participation, and to sexual satisfaction seemed to threaten above all the stability of the home, once the keystone of the social order, for it undermined the imperatives to marriage.”
Seemed to threaten?
“The manners, habits, and styles of youth all seemed to describe a new attitude which rejected traditional roles and norms. Not everyone agreed that changes in manners and styles necessary reflected immorality among the young, but most admitted that the sexual attitudes of young women who considered “free love” not so much immoral as “impractical” had been profoundly altered. “A woman is no longer ashamed of passion,” declared one young woman in the Forum, but “she does not gratify it unless there is justification for it.” She implied, of course, that each woman would and should judge for herself when passion was justified, satisfaction taking precedence over social control. This was ominous, for it granted a latitude in personal behavior that undermined the very idea of morality. Moral strictures were never meant to correspond to desire or conduce to self-expression. The implicit faith in the rectitude of conventions kept society stable and uniform. But the manners, attitudes, and styles of the young all implied a rejection of traditional conventions. Thus everything about the young, no matter how seemingly minor, threatened the traditionalist. Language, manners, clothes, pasttimes, each undercut the uniform commitment to the traditional moral order. When he saw old conventions and styles questioned, the traditionalist assumed there was no morality and no order.”
Assumed there was no morality and no order?
If they assumed that was where we were going back then in the 1920s, where are we in 2020?
“It was this frantic fear of sexual promiscuity, of the upheaval in social relationships and the destruction of definitions and limitations, that characterized the reaction of the traditionalists to the youth of the twenties. Gazing at the young women of the period, the traditionalist saw the end of American civilization as he had known it. Its firm and robust outlines, best symbolized by the stable mother secure in her morality and content in her home, were pushed aside and replaced by the giddy flapper, rouged and clipped, careening in a drunken stupor to the lewd strains of a jazz quarter.”
It was the end.
In retrospect, the traditionalist was righter than he knew.