The Roaring 20s
This may be the easiest, but worst developed, lecture I have. The argument is simple: “tired of reforming the nation and world, Americans turned inward to affluence, entertainment, and religious and racial fundamentalisms.” Of course, this doesn’t apply to the NAACP; it doesn’t apply to Jane Addams and her followers; it doesn’t apply to Ida B. Wells-Barnett; it doesn’t take into account further American financial investments throughout the world. There’s a whole bunch missing, and if anyone wants to help me reformulate the thesis, I’m all ears.
As the lecture moves now, I start with affluence: this was a period of growth, development, and consumer capitalism. I have great advertisements directed toward “fat men,” and we discuss the rise of fatness as a shifting historical category and how marketing worked to fatten people up and then slim them down (sound familiar!?!). Then I move into the critics of affluence – Gatsby and others. I read from Ezra Pound’s “The Garden” and consider how artists never seem to be happy. Then onto politics: the red scare; Al Capone; prohibition; and Republican hegemony. The final slide shows the 1928 presidential election and how it looks like America will be Republican forever. (oh how historical events change the world)
And finally: race and religion. It strikes me that in the 1910s and 1920s, white Americans were desperately trying to render who they were and who they were not. Many turned to Fundamentalism to express what they were (evangelical Christian) and what they were not (liberal socialists). Moreover, many white Americans could only articulate their identity through black and immigrant bodies. Whether Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, or the dance craze for “The Black Bottom,” being or becoming American somehow had to go through a black body. And immigration reform in the 1920s showed clear discomforts with what America was becoming. Madison Grant seemed to win, and laws that had held Asian immigrants at bay before now applied to central and eastern Europeans. The new Klan’s emphasis on racial and religious purity encapsulated so much of the era. I know white supremacy (and especially its sanctification) is a regular theme in U.S. history, but its technological, social, and political mobilization seemed particularly acute in the 1910s and 1920s.
The documents in Major Problems beautifully illustrate these themes, and I’m impressed by how Lisa Cobbs Hoffman used religion, race, and economics to uncover the feelings of the era. Whether laments on the “modern church” or discussions of the automobile in “Middletown, USA,” the documents show modernism battling fundamentalisms in a variety of forms. Now we just need to get a chapter from Matthew Sutton's book on Aimee Semple McPherson into the essay section to show the modernism of Christian fundamentalism.