Roderick Nash, The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930
Roderick Nash has no time for the Lost Generation-Roaring Twenties stereotype that continues to dominate the American memory of the 1920s.
In The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930, he sets out to debunk the myth of the Jazz Age, alienated and nihilistic intellectuals revolting against Victorian norms, pink champagne and crossword puzzles, drunken flappers and ordinary Americans obsessed with the stock market. In its place, he substitutes what he calls the Nervous Generation. Americans were deeply unsettled by the changes of the 1920s and reacted to it in a wide variety of ways. Some Americans tenaciously clung to familiar ideas while others sought new values or tried to find new justifications for old values.
The 1920s was the decade of glamorous Hollywood celebrities and the Jazz Age, but it was also the decade of Prohibition. It was the only decade in American history in which the production and distribution of alcohol was illegal. It was the decade in which Modernism went mainstream, but it was also the decade that began with the Red Scare. It was the decade of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and H.L. Mencken, but also the Second Klan, Billy Sunday and Fundamentalism and the Boy Scouts. It was the decade of Al Capone, but also Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. Progressivism was out of fashion. The Republican Party and conservative liberalism dominated the White House and Congress in the 1920s. Warren Harding (the candidate of “normalcy”), Calvin Coolidge (the candidate of small town New England puritanism) and Herbert Hoover (the Quaker individualist from Iowa) dominated the decade.
In the 1920s, Boasian anthropology triumphed over race realism in the social sciences while Madison Grant and the eugenicist Harry Laughlin succeeded in persuading Congress to restrict immigration to preserve the Nordic race. The Immigration Acts of 1917, 1921 and 1924 were the highwater mark of immigration restriction in American history. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell (1927) that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” was the highwater mark of the eugenics movement. The Second Klan was the highwater mark of White Nationalism. Henry Ford naming the The International Jew: The World’s Problem in The Dearborn Independent was the highwater mark of anti-Semitism.
Roderick Nash is correct that the 1920s was a Janus-faced decade. It was a time of transition between the old values of Victorian America and the new values of Modern America. Irving Babbitt and the New Humanists squaring off with the Modernists over the basis of value is one example of this. Walter Lippmann’s attempt to justify traditional moral values on the basis of pragmatism, relativism and social science is another example. The Protestant churches losing control over young Losters is another example. The demise of genteel manners among the young is another example. Everything was in flux across the board which is reflected in both the existentialism of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s novels as well as the Fundamentalists doubling down on the literal truth of the Bible.
In retrospect, we can look back at the 1910s as the decade in which Modernism arrived in the United States and influenced a vanguard of young people who were concentrated in Chicago and New York City. The pragmatism of William James and John Dewey gained traction in high culture. There was only a hairline fracture in the cultural consensus of Victorian America. World War I demolished that consensus. Then in the 1920s, it widened into a crack between a significant number of Americans. It is important to emphasize though that the rift at this time was still relatively small, but elite values, beliefs and attitudes were changing. The overwhelming majority of Americans still clung to traditional Victorian values particularly in the rural South and West, but there were now more young Moderns in the Eastern cities.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world was the world of young, urban, college educated, upper middle class professionals in Eastern and Midwestern cities. He was writing for the top 5% to 10% of the country. Roderick Nash is correct that Zane Grey’s Westerns had a far larger downscale audience. America’s popular memory of the 1920s is the memory of its elite and the upper middle class. The decisive cultural shift that happened among liberal elites in this decade had a train of unforeseen consequences. Overall, I came away from The Nervous Generation with the impression that there is a lot of truth in the stereotype of the Lost Generation and the Roaring Twenties, but this was limited to only a swath of Americans. It just so happens that cultural elites are the most impactful swath of Americans.
Oscar Wilde was correct that “life imitates art” more than art imitates life. Aesthetics is not autonomous from religion, ethics or society. Art bleeds into reality. Young women began imitating Hollywood celebrities and adopted the flapper look from “smart magazines” like Vanity Fair. They began smoking as a result of commercial advertising. Jazz and the Charleston actually changed White sexuality by breaking down Victorian norms. The art of any age is a leading indicator of the values of a culture.
Human beings are impressionable, imitative and status-oriented. Change the art and you change the sensibility and values of a culture and ultimately its politics. The modernists who romanticized self-expression and glorified the primitive and experimentation in sex and drugs in order to heighten “experience” deregulated our culture and the result was the moral and cultural degeneration of the masses into their current pitiful state. History shows that bohemians were the first free lovers. When the modernists became the art establishment, cultural disaster was inevitable.
It is not like we weren’t warned.
There were plenty of smart people in the 1920s who saw where this was going. Everyone who is now demonized like Henry Ford and the Second Klan were on the right side of history. They were right and the complacent, milquetoast respectable conservatives of their time were wrong.
The following excerpt comes from Roderick Nash’s The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930:
“Sex was too delicate a matter to be addressed directly, but Ford conveyed his opinions through a discussion of music and dancing. Few aspects of the American 1920s worried him more than the evils of jazz. The new music clashed squarely with his ruralism and Bible Belt morality. In 1921 Ford struck out in anger at “the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent parlors and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons.” Organized Jewry, once again, was blamed for the musical degeneracy. “The mush, the slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes,” declared the Dearborn Independent, “are of Jewish origin.” The problem, obviously, was not only musical but sexual as well. The loosening of morals in the 1920s appalled Ford. He expressed his feeling in reference to jazz: “monkey talk, jungle squeals, grunts and squeaks and gasps suggestive of cave love are camouflaged by a few feverish notes.” What Ford could only bring himself to call “the thing” appeared also in song titles such as In Room 202 and Sugar Baby. Pointing to the Jewish origin of these tunes (Irving Berlin was a frequent target of attack), Ford called on his countrymen to crush the serpent in their midst.”
They didn’t listen.
The serpent wasn’t crushed in its infancy. It was allowed to grow and respectable conservatives attacked Ford and the Klan. As a result, we have since gone from jazz, which crawled out of the gutter of Storyville in the red light district of New Orleans, to Cardi B’s WAP over the last century.