Digital History

The Jazz Age: The American 1920s

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Digital History ID 3398



"It was a characteristic of the Jazz Age," the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "that it had no interest in politics at all." What, then, were Americans interested in? Entertainment was Fitzgerald's answer. Parlor games like Mah Jong and crossword puzzles became enormously popular during the 1920s. Contract bridge became the most durable of the new pastimes, followed closely by photography. Americans hit golf balls, played tennis, and bowled. Dance crazes like the fox trot, the Charleston, and the jitterbug swept the country.

New kinds of pulp fiction found a wide audience. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes became a runaway best-seller. For readers who felt concerned about urbanization and industrialization, the adventures of a lone white man in Dark Africa revived the spirit of frontier individualism. Zane Grey's novels, such as Riders of the Purple Sage, enjoyed even greater popularity, using the tried but true formula of romance, action, and a moralistic struggle between good and evil, all put in a western setting. Between 1918 and 1934, Grey wrote 24 books and became the best-known writer of popular fiction in the country.

Other readers wanted to be titillated, as evidence by the boom in "confession magazines." Urban values, liberated women, and Hollywood films had all relaxed Victorian standards. Confession magazines rushed to fill the vacuum, purveying stories of romantic success and failure, divorce, fantasy, and adultery. Writers survived the censors' cut by placing moral tags at the end of their stories, advising readers to avoid similar mistakes in their own lives.

Readers too embarrassed to pick up a copy of True Romance could read more urbane magazines such as The New Yorker or Vanity Fair offering entertainment, amusement, and gossip to those with sophisticated tastes. They could also join The Book of the Month Club or the Literary Guild, both of which were founded during this decade.

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