This can be highly confusing.
It makes perfect sense to me though. The memory that we have of the 1920s is the memory of the American elite. In nearly everything that I have written about the subject, the South has been invisible. The “Roaring Twenties” never existed in huge swathes of the country.
I find it helpful to think of the United States as two or three distinct countries in the period between the War Between the States and the Great Depression. There is what Robert M. Crunden calls the “Northern Nation” which is composed of the East and Midwest. The South and West are best understood as its colonies which provided raw materials for its industrial economy. Finally, there are satellite cities emerging in the South and West like Los Angeles and Miami which are Northern colonies.
In the Victorian-to-Modern transition we are describing, the Northern Nation which won the War Between the States is coming to an end. The Northern WASPs who have dominated the country for generations and who have set the tone of its Genteel culture are losing power. New York is becoming the cultural capital of America in the 1920s. The Modern mainstream news media and entertainment media are taking shape. The Victorian family, church and school are losing their grip on the younger generation.
We’re looking at the upper crust of the nation: elite intellectuals and artists and college educated, upper middle class professionals and their rebellious children mostly in Northern and Western cities and suburbs. This was the “Younger Generation” that was embracing Modernism. Needless to say, this wasn’t the 1920s of my folks back in rural Alabama and Georgia, but these people became our leaders. Most of our cultural problems today can ultimately be traced back to them and the moment when these rising young elites repudiated an older America in favor of a vague progressive vision of a future new one.
The following excerpt comes from Paula S. Fass’s book The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth In The 1920s:
“White, urban, middle-class college youth were, of course, only one segment of the youth population. Rural and working youths, blacks and immigrants, exposed to different institutional influences, may well have behaved and believed differently than the young people portrayed here, and need to be studied as an integral part of the same process of social reorganization, no less than the native middle classes. My choice is meant neither to ascribe exclusive significance nor to describe a universal pattern. …
In fact, however, it was not the substitution of one set of standards for another that was the most threatening to these observers, but the fact that for young people there were apparently no effective standards or controls at all. Once released from traditional restraints, their behavior appeared to be characterized only by licentiousness and self-gratification. Each individual seeking his own raw truth, did just as he pleased: “This sense of overwhelming fact,” Hamilton noted, “is at the root of modern license.” In Harper’s Magazine, Avis Carlson, a college professor of English, observed that morality was something from which the young were “rapidly emancipating themselves.” Morality, Carlson noted, “the right-and-wrong standard is based on authority,” but authority of any kind, whether of government, church, or family, was unacceptable to the young. According to Carlson, youth organized their behavior on the basis of personal expediency, with the veto of public opinion their one effective limitation. “They keep a shrewd weather-eye out for what they call ‘stuff you can’t get by with.’ ‘Getting by’ is almost the twentieth century equivalent of morality. Far less significant than the specific proposal (which was, of course, deeply moral), was Carlson’s urgent sense of the need for some universally accepted standard. That a member of the college community and a patron of the moral establishment should recommend in a journal like Harper’s a substitute for morality suggests just how far-reaching the repudiation of standards was believed to have gone among the young.”
As we saw in the previous article, the Victorian Protestant church lost control and ceased to be able to shape the behavior of youth. The Victorian family and school also lost control of youth. These institutions were no longer able to shape the “character” of youth as they had in the past.
Victorian religion and morality were tossed to the winds in favor of self-expression and the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyles. The Self took the place as the captain of conduct formerly held by God. Public opinion became the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. As Malcolm Cowley explained in Exile’s Return, the Greenwich Village idea was things like the primacy of self-expression, living in the moment, cultural liberation from all religious and moral norms and the idea of “psychological adjustment” which involved identifying and removing various psychological repressions in the mind which have made us maladjusted and unhappy in order to achieve the “transformation of consciousness.”
The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s book The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:
“Next to names like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry L. Mencken, those of Gene Stratton-Porter, Zane Grey, and Harold Bell Wright have stirred little interest among historians of American thought and culture in the period between World War I and the Depression. Yet during these years books by the latter appeared sixteen times on the national lists of best-sellers while the works of the first three never appeared at all. Grey’s westerns were among the top ten works of fiction every year from 1917 to 1924. Twice they were number one; twice number three. But even Grey may have been outsold in the postwar decade by an author who was not even taken seriously by the custodians of the rankings – Edgar Rice Burroughs, of the Tarzan sagas. Fitzgerald, by contrast, never ranked among the best-selling American authors of the 1920s; This Side of Paradise (1920) only found some fifty thousand buyers in the first few years after its publication, while the sale of Wright’s The -Re-Creation of Brian Kent (1920) approached a million copies. Mencken’s appeal was highly esoteric while Hemingway’s name did not make the top ten until 1940. Grey, Stratton-Porter, Wright, and Burroughs, moreover, conveyed an old-fashioned message quite at odds with that of the big names.”
This is very true.
The Second Klan and the Fundamentalists certainly had more supporters in the 1920s than F. Scott Fitzgerald and his ilk drinking gin on the French Riviera. Zane Grey had more readers than Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken. No one remembers Zane Grey though because the liberal intelligentsia in the 1920s was on the side of Mencken, Lewis, Fitzgerald, etc.
“As for popular thought in the 1920s, there has likewise been overemphasis on the revolutionary and bizarre. We have read (and with the aid of records, television, and motion pictures, heard and seen) so much about the flapper, the bootlegger, and the jazz band that our conception of the era is greatly distorted. The 1920s were more than these things, just as the 1960s have been more than the jet set, hippies, and Playboy. We have forgotten F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1931 admonition that the jazz age concept he coined applied only to the “upper tenth of [the] nation.” Perhaps even this was generous.
Allen has begun his chapter on intellectuals in the twenties with a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald that was destined to become standard equipment in most subsequent discussions of this topic. It appears in the final paragraph of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920): “here was a new generation … grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” Allen has not used the other omnipresent quotation, attributed to Gertrude Stein, about a “lost generation,” but his analysis supports this stereotype. Intellectuals in the twenties, Allen has written, found that certainty had departed life … nothing … was sure … there was no solid thing on which a man could lay hold and say, This is real; this will abide.” Fixed values had collapsed, and the highbrows were in revolt against the mainstream of American civilization. All they possessed, Allen contends, was a vague credo deifying individual freedom and deploring repression and conformity.”
Once again, two things can be true.
It can be true that Chicago was run by gangsters like Al Capone and that pleasure seeking, alienated intellectuals had departed philistine America for France in the 1920s, but also true this had nothing to do with my great-grandfather in Alabama who was Victorian to the core in his values.
“At the fringe of the American intellectual community stood a few really shaken minds for whom neither the old absolutism nor the new relativism and scientism sufficed as a basis for belief. Yet even these disillusioned few refused to exist with no values at all. Instead they began the American exploration of a point of view later labeled existentialism. Axiomatic to this position was confrontation with human futility and the absurdity of life. For this reason intellectuals’ conception of themselves as a lost generation was essential.”
This is a great way to put it. The people we are describing were basically becoming existentialists before the term formally emerged in philosophy.
“Sullivan begins with a portrait of the “stony disillusionment” with which he feels the American people reacted to World War I. Taking Ernest Hemingway as a case study, he quotes a passage from A Farewell to Arms (1929) that has been reiterated time and again as later historians have attempted to articulate their conception of the spirit of the postwar decade: “I was always embarrassed by the words ‘sacred,’ ‘glorious,’ and ‘sacrifice,’ and the expression ‘in vain’. We had heard them … and read them, on proclamations … for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.”
It is hard not to sympathize with Hemingway’s point of view on the pointless butchery of World War I. In fact, it is understandable why young Losters rebelled against their parents.
“A few pages later Sullivan dissects the alleged hedonism of the postwar decade. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s familiar lines appear:
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
It gives a lovely light.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most famous feminists, modernists, free lovers and poets of her age. Naturally, she was bisexual and a resident of Greenwich Village.
In Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley used this same phrase “burn my candle at both ends” in his book to describe the bohemian values of these people:
“The idea of living for the moment – It is stupid to pile up treasures that we can enjoy only in old age, when we have lost the capacity for enjoyment. Better to seize the moment as it comes, to dwell in it intensely, even at the cost of future suffering. Better to live extravagantly, gather June rosebuds, “burn my candle at both ends … It gives a lovely light.”
What could go wrong with “burning your candle at both ends”?
Well, if you burn your candle at both ends and live extravagantly and romanticize living in the moment and not for others, you are heedless of the future. This is a self-absorbed, hyper individualistic worldview. It is indifferent to the past and future generations and to other people in the present. When this mindset becomes dominant in the culture and everyone or at least most people start living this way, the culture will degenerate and our nation will decline … but, of course, I am getting ahead of myself here.
“In the first place the exiles were serious artists. They made a “religion of art” and, at the least, had this antidote to the lost sensation. Second, far from being amoral and valueless, they devoted a considerable part of their energies to a search for certainty. They felt lost, in other words, but wanted to be found. In one of the best, and apparently one of the most easily forgotten, things ever written about the intellectuals of the 1920s, Cowley has said: “the generation belonged to a period of transition from values already fixed to values that had yet to be created. Its members … were seceding from the old and yet could adhere to nothing new, they groped their way toward another scheme of life, as yet undefined; in the midst of their doubts and uneasy gestures of defiance they felt homesick for the certainties of childhood. …
It was not that they had no guidelines but rather that “they were open to every new influence that came along.” The central tenet of their faith was a belief in the value of experimentation in their lives and in their art. They rebelled, in other words, only to rebuild …
Probing further along this vein, Richard E. Langford and William E. Taylor in their edited The Twenties: Poetry and Prose (1966) identify the beginnings of existentialism, in form if not yet in name, in the so-called lost generation. “There was nothing lost,” writes Langford and Taylor, “about a generation of writers such as these … Behind the despair, beneath the whisper, lies the search for personal meaning.”
In other words, they seceded from the old Victorian values of their elders and embraced Modernism and pushed their way toward existentialism.