The Jazz Age: The American 1920s
|Digital History ID 3399|
Few decades have produced as many great works of art, music, or literature as the 1920s. At the decade's beginning, American culture stood in Europe's shadow. By the decade's end, Americans were leaders in the struggle to liberate the arts from older canons of taste, form, and style. It was during the 1920s that Eugene O'Neill, the country's most talented dramatist, wrote his greatest plays, and that authors William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe published their first novels.
American poets of the 1920s, such as Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wallace Stevens experimented with new styles of punctuation, rhyme, and form. Likewise, artists like Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Joseph Stella challenged the dominant realist tradition in American art and pioneered non-representational and expressionist art forms.
The 1920s marked America's entry into the world of serious music. It witnessed the founding of 50 symphony orchestras and three of the country's most prominent music conservatories--Julliard, Eastman, and Curtis Institution. This decade also produced America's first great classical composers, including Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, and saw George Gershwin create a new musical forms by integrating jazz into symphonic and orchestral music.
World War I had left many American intellectuals and artists disillusioned and alienated. Neither Wilsonian idealism nor Progressive reformism appealed to America's post-war writers and thinkers who believed that the crusade to end war and to make the world safe for democracy had been a senseless mistake. "Here was a new generation…" wrote the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920 in This Side of Paradise, "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…" (page 180)
During the 1920s, many of the nation's leading writers exposed the shallowness and narrow-mindedness of American life. The United States was a nation awash in materialism and devoid of spiritual vitality: "a wasteland," wrote the poet T.S. Eliot, "inhabited by hollow men." No author offered a more scathing attack on middle class boorishness and smugness than Sinclair Lewis, who in 1930 became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), he satirized the narrow-minded complacency and dullness of small town America, while in Elmer Gantry (1922), he exposed religious hypocrisy and bigotry.
As editor of Mercury magazine, H.L. Mencken wrote hundreds of essays mocking practically every aspect of American life. Calling the South a "gargantuan paradise of the fourth rate," and the middle class the "booboisie," Mencken directed his choicest barbs at reformers, whom he blamed for the bloodshed of World War I and the gangsters of the 1920s. "If I am convinced of anything," he snarled, "it is that Doing Good is in bad taste."
The writer Gertrude Stein defined an important group of American intellectuals when she told Ernest Hemingway in 1921, "You are all a lost generation." Stein was referring to the expatriate novelists and artists who had participated in the Great War, only to emerge from the conflict convinced that it was an exercise in futility. In their novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway pointed toward a philosophy now known as "existentialism," which maintains that life has no transcendent purpose and that each individual must salvage personal meaning from the void. Hemingway's fiction lionized toughness and "manly virtues" as a counterpoint to the softness of American life. In The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), he emphasized meaningless death and the importance of facing stoically the absurdities of the universe. In the conclusion of The Great Gatsby (1925), Fitzgerald gave pointed expression to an existentialist outlook: "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."