This time I’ve got three books that I recommend reading in a specific order, from broad-spectrum overview to a discrete, specific event that happened in the summer of 1927. I think reading these books in that order, one after another, gives a very nuanced perspective of the 1920s in America, an era we tend to dress up under the banners of “hot jazz”, flappers, prohibition, and The Great Gatsby.
FYI The Great Gatsby is not one of the books in this triptych. Ha!
Words of caution: Our cultural romanticization of the 1920s hides a great deal of horror and tragedy that happened due to brutal classism and racism. Labor unions were under siege, big business reigned supreme with an iron fist and often bullets too, the KKK was at the height of its popularity, and viciously cruel murders of black people – individually and in groups – was common. None of these books gloss over that fact, and even the most light-hearted of the three is a sobering read in regards to the brutality that humans inflict upon each other in the name of pride, hate, and money.
New World Coming: The 1920s And The Making Of Modern America by Nathan Miller
Consider this a survey course textbook, albeit a well written and engaging one. A lot of people, events, social trends, and economies are discussed in a “fly over” kind of way, with very little time spent in deep analysis of the “why” behind the “what.” But then, that would be a different book. Miller does a great job of setting the stage for the 1920s by starting the book with a recap of WWI and what its aftermath meant for Americans, who were less directly affected by the war than Europeans but nonetheless had some firm buttresses of our mostly rural, isolationist tendencies rattled hard by the conflict.
He chunks up the decade by way of the presidencies and the politics around them, but this is not a political history. I learned more about Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover than I had ever known before, sure, but in a cultural context that made sense of their more grievous failures. Hoover, for instance, is vilified for his inability to turn the tide of the Great Depression, but a great deal of that vilification came out of the fact that the fair-minded Quaker had been the Great Humanitarian of the post-war years, literally saving millions of European and Russian lives almost singlehandedly. People had high expectations of him based on his previous triumphs, so their disappointment was particularly bitter and harsh. An engineer by trade and inclination, he trusted logical systems to work in a logical way, and thus was completely unprepared to fight back against the illogic of the US economy in free-fall.
Miller touches on the literary scene, the music scene, labor unions, manufacturing, and critical moments such as the Mississippi Flood of 1927 (we’ll be coming back to that a few times). Race riots, which were generally white people freaking out and violently attacking black communities, are described in detail and the senseless horror those events stick with me. At the other end of the spectrum, he gives some space to the Scopes “Monkey Trial” over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee, Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, and the full arc (and reasons for success) of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary career as the “voice of a generation.”
My take-away was a certain level of shock about how much has NOT changed in the last 100 years in America in regards to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and corruption. Of course, as a progressive I have my biases, but I think anyone reading this would be hard pressed not to make comparisons to the current national zeitgeist – how the War on Drugs mirrors Prohibition, how the Johnson Act of 1924 reflects the xenophobia of “immigrants stealing jobs and killing Americans!” that Trump’s election rode on, how violent hate crimes, antisemitism, and fear fuel elections now as much as they did then, and finally how the anti-labor, anti-environmental, and immoral business practices of large corporations corrupt politicians and ruin American lives. It’s all there.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Now that you’re all cozy with the general history of the 1920s, let’s dial it in a bit in the most delightful way possible. This is a downright fun book to read, despite its intimidating length. Five hundred pages on what amounts to a four month span of history? Yes indeed, and Bryson’s wonderful and witty way with words makes it worth every minute!
If Miller’s work hits home with some nasty parallels between “then and now”, Bryson’s work instead pulls the threads of history to make connections to aspects of modern culture that we don’t even much think about anymore: sport superstars, “trial(s) of the century,” celebrity culture, film noir, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Most of what we view as “modern culture” took root in very specific events that happened all at once in 1927, believe it or not.
After reading this book, you will believe it.
The reading does drag in some places, but I think that has less to do with how massive the book is than your own personal interests. I am not a sports fan and so the incredible run that Babe Ruth had that summer, setting the first long-term single season home run standard with 60 homers, means very little to me. Interesting, but not riveting.
Meanwhile, the stories of Lindbergh’s historic Atlantic flight and the tragedy of the Great Mississippi Flood were fascinating to me. Despite my long-standing interest in aviation history, I still learned a few things I did not know about that transatlantic flight, mostly in regards to the other aviators who were trying to set the record before Lindbergh. And, it was honestly the first time I had heard much about the Great Mississippi Flood in any detail, and was horrified by just how devastating it was.
Bryson does not spend too much time on the racial tensions and horrors of those years, but through his attention to the trial of possible anarchist terrorists Leopold and Loeb, which he explores in some length, sets off the jazzy fun of the other chapters with a look at the darker side of class warfare, the labor movement, and the miscarriage of justice in the name of upholding social standards of upper class white values.
This is by far the hardest and most unflinching look at the 1920s of the three books. Again, we’re dialing things down even further, this time to one single, yet massive, event of the 1920s and using it as a prism to view that era’s society, culture, and politics. I think it is a good read when you have a solid overview of the 1920s given by the other two books, because even though it’s mostly a regional tale, you come at it with a sense of the rippling effect it had across the country – you’ll understand Coolidge’s (lack of) reaction better, how the crisis “played” on the radio, and what it portended going into the Great Depression.
To quote the book’s blurb: “The river inundated the homes of nearly one million people, helped elect Huey Long governor and made Herbert Hoover president, drove hundreds of thousands of blacks north, and transformed American society and politics forever.”
This event makes the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, and the tragic aftermath of that, look like child’s play. In fact, there are more than a few parallels in the inability of people and the government to understand the seriousness of the event as it was first happening, the ineffective and belated government assistance offered, the racist policies and social mores that punished blacks for even existing during a natural cataclysm, and the weak (or non-existent) recovery assistance given to poor victims.
The first third of the book is a dry but necessary review of the “politics of the levies” along the Mississippi, and how that contributed to the disaster when it inevitably hit. Then the river starts swelling, and things get both ominous and interesting.
I think this is an important book to end with because, while not cheerful or optimistic in nature, it gives the reader a solid basis for understanding a lot about racism, classism, and politics as they run along the “seam” of the Mississippi and how that spills over nationally. The constant and life-threatening betrayal of whites to give any kind of relief to black victims, or even save their lives out of fear of losing “valued” low-cost labor (let them die before letting them leave, was the motto), gives vivid context to the racial tensions from the Civil War on up to modern times. The constant and life-threating betrayal of bankers and businessmen, who “owned” politicians, to help the poor (black and white) in the aftermath shows how entrenched the “good old boy” network is in the very warp and weft of society. In the end, it is definitely a story that hangs on how “business interests” always outweigh the value of human life.
Take away: Everything old is new again.
Sometimes in looking at past eras, it’s easy to hand wave over the similarities with “but everything was different then!” as way to disregard the lessons that we should have learned from them. The 1920s are close to us, though, despite being nearly a century in the past at this point because of how much we culturally identify with the art, music, and literature. The 1920s are familiar – one of the first eras to be truly captured on film, the movies of the 1920s started out silent and with barely coherent storylines, and ended with “talkies” and musicals and the advent of film noir.
We “get” the 1920s, we love that era based on a veneer of charm and out-sized personalities, music and fashion, King Tut and flappers. There is much to love, admittedly. These three books use our affection and nascent familiarity with that decade to decode it and translate the people and the times in a way that is achingly, sometimes horrifyingly, familiar.
As much fun as I had learning about the 1920s from these books, I’m even more grateful for how they opened my eyes to the cultural and political connections that our modern world has to those years. I encourage you to set aside your presumptions and really explore the “Roaring Twenties” in all their charm, glamor, tragedy, and horror.
Also published on Medium.