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Lecture: The Twenties


  • To Be Modern
  • Jazz and the Charleston
  • Harlem Renaissance
  • Sacco and Vanzetti
  • The Scopes "Monkey" Trial
  • The Black Sox Scandal
  • Slideshow: A Celebration of Modernism movie
  • Radio: Amos 'n' Andy

  • Charlie Chaplin was a genius of cinema during the 20s and 30s. Here's a movie clip from his 1936 film, Modern Times, which parodies labor conditions of the 1920s.

    To Be Modern

    Document: Ad: Stout Women (Lane Bryant, 1924)

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    The 1920s were quite self-consciously "modern". Although a trend of novelty and abstraction in art and culture had begun in Europe and America prior to the Great War, the 20s saw the bulk of the change. One reason for this was the war itself.

    The extraordinary number of deaths in the war, and afterward as a result of the influenza epidemic, cost the U.S. and Europe a whole generation of young men. The surviving members of this Lost Generation felt adrift, and many people were examining society in light of the war. Several literary and scholarly works expressed the view that Western Civilization itself was coming to an end, as represented in the slaughter of millions using modern technology.

    Document: next to of course god america i (audio)

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    Human morality itself was being questioned, and gave the 20's an edge, a feeling of panic or anxiety that came out in the art, music, paintings, and styles of the time. Although it is also the "Roaring Twenties", a time of partying and fun, there was a sense of desperation beneath the surface.

    Modernity itself was also questioned. Traditionalists believed that a return to the values of former times might save the morals of the nation. Progressives believed that it was more important than ever to recognize society's wrongs and correct them. Some criticized what society had become, as you can see in this excerpt from Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt. As you read the document, think to yourself:

    Document: Babbitt (1922) (audio)

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    Jazz and the Charleston

    Jazz emerged from both black and white music traditions, including ragtime, shortly before 1920.

    Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) was one of the greatest jazz musicians ever, and was the popularizer of the jazz solo (in his case, with the trumpet). His style was unique, but would now be called swing jazz or New Orleans style jazz. Some of his best work was done in the 1920s, right after he left "King" Oliver's band to form his own group. The above selection, "S.O.L. Blues", was recorded in Chicago in 1927.

    At the age of 25, composer George Gershwin departed from writing popular music for Broadway shows and created a masterpiece called "Rhapsody in Blue". It was, as were his later concertos, a combination of symphony and jazz. It became popular after its opening in New York in 1924. This selection is a re-creation of that concert.

    "Dance Music"
    Lastly, the Charleston itself, which was all the rage for dancing and symbolized the new female independence. The music originated in a black review touring the U.S. in 1923, although the dance itself probably had its origins in Africa, and was well known among southern blacks as early as 1900.

    Harlem Renaissance

    "Josephine Baker" During the 1920s, society was led by the wealthy class. It's important to understand American class distinctions, because they are different from those in Europe. In Europe, the upper class (or aristocracy) were the holders of land, deriving from noble families going back centuries. By the 20th century, European aristocrats could be downright poor if they had only land but no cash or investments. In the U.S., there has never been an aristocratic class, because only in a few specific locations were there ever huge land holdings granted to individuals.

    In the U.S., there was instead a divided "middle" class. The upper middle class owned the means of production, and thus much of the wealth. The rest of the middle class made good livings for their families in the professions (medicine, law, scholarship, business). The middle classes both in Europe and America relied on money, the control of cash resources.

    The lower class, or working class, existed in both places. These were people who sold their manual labor in order to provide for their families. These class divisions are roughly the same as exist today.

    The upper middle class is the U.S. is rarely of interest historically; they spent a lot of money and built beautiful mansions and engaged in conspicuous consumption. But during the 20s, their spending began to focus on partying and pleasure in areas outside their own mansions. Young rich people ventured into the seedier parts of town, especially in New York City, looking for a more interesting thrill. Cocaine was the drug of choice, and Harlem was the place for black entertainment in clubs. Some of these clubs were owned by blacks or whites, staffed only by blacks, and entertained an all-white clientele.

    Famous performers like Josephine Baker and many jazz musicians got their start in Harlem nightclubs during the 20s. An entire culture was bankrolled by rich whites looking for a thrill. Certainly the Harlem Renaissance experienced the development of an AfricanAmerican cultural expression, and you'll see that in the web site for the week. But if you wonder why it came to an end, or at least turned into something else, it's because the rich who invested in Harlem pulled all their spending out when the Stock Market crashed in 1929.

    Josephine Baker, 1927 from Sans Tabù on Vimeo.

    Sacco and Vanzetti

    The Red Scare of 1919-20 ended when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's prediction did not come true. The Communist Internation (Comintern) had been formed in the newly communist Soviet Union in 1919, proclaiming as its goal the international organization of communist revolution. For all the workers of the world, May 1 (May Day) is traditionally a day off, everyone's Labor Day. So Palmer predicted that American communists would try to take over the country on May 1, 1920. When this didn't happen, Palmer was discredited, but the fear of communists, radicals and anarchists continued (oh, and we're the only country on the planet to hold our Labor Day in September!). "Sacco and Vanzetti"

    Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were anarchist Italian immigrants arrested, tried and executed for a small-town murder and armed robbery. The trial of these obscure guys caught national attention, and has since been used to analyze the effect of nativism and xenophobia on the U.S. during the 1920s.

    Many of the details of the investigation did not match the accusation. Fingerprints on the getaway car did not belong to them, one had an alibi for a previous robbery attempt connected with this crime, the money wasn't found among either the suspect's personal effects or those of their anarchist friends, the suspects were identified by eyewitnesses who were shown only the two men. Neither had a criminal record.

    On the other hand, both men were armed when they were arrested, and both lied to the police about knowing the owner of the getaway car. Nevertheless, the prosecution had trouble making their case. One witness claimed she could tell Sacco from a 60-foot distance because of the size of his hands, another claimed to have seen it all but was actually hiding under a bench where he couldn't have seen a thing, another identified Sacco (who was dark-haired) as a man she'd asked directions of when all other witnesses said she'd asked a fair-haired boy.

    When the defense was able to discredit the witnesses and show that the bullet could not have been fired from Vanzetti's gun, the prosecution focused on the fact that the men had behaved in a guilty manner following the crime. This forced the defense to bring up anarchism, the U.S. government's distaste for which would make any anarchist act in a nervous way. The issue of anarchism became central to the trial, and there is much evidence that the judge and District Attorney were prepared to convict the two because they were radicals.

    After their conviction, new evidence emerged, including a prisoner on death row who admitted to the murders and was identified by witnesses. When the District Attorney refused to reopen the case, public sentiment turned against the courts. The appeals were denied by the same judge who had convicted Sacco and Vanzetti originally, and they were sentenced to death by electrocution. There were mass protests the night of their execution. The case is still being discussed. Although in 1977, governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis issued a posthumous pardon, recent reanalysis has suggested that Sacco and Vanzetti did commit the crimes.

    So for historians, the case best serves as an example of how nativism and anti-immigrant prejudice divided the nation at the time.

    The Scopes "Monkey" Trial

    "Clarence Darrow" "William Jennings Bryan" You have read how John Scopes, the high school biology teacher, was put on trial for teaching evolution in Tennessee, where doing so was against the law. The trial was quite a show for William Jennings Bryan (prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (defense, hired from the American Civil Liberties Union). The spectacle was extraordinary. At one point, Darrow called Bryan to the stand as a Christian to testify as to the factual content of the Bible. Bryan accepted, considering his role to be defender of religious fundamentalism. Check out the actual transcript of the trial. The University of Missouri at Kansas City has put the whole thing on the web.

    Document: Scopes Trial: Examination of Bryan by Darrow (1925)

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    Scopes was clearly guilty (it was against the law to teach evolution, and he did), but the extremely light sentence clearly indicated that the newer sentiments were in favor of evolution. Darrow's approach was seen by traditionalists as blasphemous, a symbol of the declining morality of America. Bryan's was seen by modernists as archaic. A sad note: the trial was so wearing on Bryan that he died, after a long and brilliant life serving his fellow Americans, shortly thereafter.

    They made a very good movie (if not completely historically accurate) about the trial called "Inherit the Wind", with Spencer Tracy as Darrow.

    The Black Sox Scandal

    One of the most fascinating events in American popular culture occurred in 1919. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team conspired with gamblers to "throw" the World Series. They would ensure that the White Sox (a really good team) lost the Series to the Reds (a so-so team) in return for a kickback and the return on any side bets they made. The deal was not the best-kept secret, either; even casual bar-hopping gamblers seemed to know the Sox were fixed to lose. "Black Sox at Bat"

    The events are shrouded in mystery. The players themselves discussed taking the money, then winning the series anyway, and this may have been the plan. But the Sox did lose the series. Did they throw it? Lots of historians have analyzed the statistics. It seems as though the eight players (known now as the Black Sox) played better than their innocent teammates. Ultimately, the case went to the Grand Jury, where some of the players confessed; all eight were indicted. Then the trial bagan, and with it the revelation that the confessions they had signed had disappeared.

    At the end of the trial, the judge instructed the jury that the ball players had to be guilty of defrauding the public, not just taking money or throwing a ball game. With no way to prove that, the jury brought back a verdict of "not guilty". However, the new commissioner of baseball, Judge Landis, banned all eight from professional baseball (he also banned another player from another team who had made money betting on the Reds).

    The effect on the country of the entire incident was devastating. Baseball had become almost a religion in the U.S. To have baseball players engaging in such underhanded dealings shocked many people and destroyed the dreams of many kids who loved the game. According to Randy Roberts and James Olson in their book, "American Experiences", the scandal damaged America's self-image just at a time when we were trying to return to "normalcy", creating disillusionment about the personal integrity of America's sports heroes.

    Slideshow: A Celebration of Modernism

    Alternate link: The 1920s: A Celebration of Modernism

    Radio: Amos 'n' Andy

    Amos 'n' Andy was an early radio hit and was descended directly from black-face minstrel entertainment.

    radio "Radio"
    The show was written and performed by Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, who were both white (hence the analogy to black-face). It was the first program to portray an all-black situation, and has since been heavily analyzed for racism and stereotypes. Even at the time it aired, there was by no means only one view: some saw it as harmful to black self-respect (and white respect for blacks), but others thought that it was a harmless comedy. Certainly it was extremely popular: by 1930, 40 million listeners were tuning in. During the 1950s, it went to television, with a black cast.   Transcript

    Literature, Hollywood, Image and Prohibition

    20s dressFlappers were women who rejected the image of Victorian womanhood during the 1920s. You may recall that this Victorian image was very modest, and included clothing that covered females to the floor. Hair was long (in fact it was never supposed to be cut) but always worn up -- a woman's long hair was a sight only for her husband, in private. Beginning in the 1870s, however, war in Europe and economic crisis in the U.S. meant that fabric was quite expensive. Skirts became more slender and showing arms was no longer forbidden. There is a theory that as women's independence in society increases, the fashions become less hour-glass shaped, because they aren't emphasizing a woman's fertility. Some historians connect the fashions of the late teens and twenties to the Great War and the achievement of female suffrage in 1919.

    Cinema hearthrob Rudolph Valentino

    By the 1920s the flappers were wearing skirts above the knee, and had cut their hair in a chin-length "bob" that couldn't be tied up. The trend was led by upper class young women, and with the availability of ready-made clothes from catalogs, the style could catch on easily. In addition, there was a new great distributor of pop culture: the motion picture.

    Movie stars were glamorous, and the images on the screen seemed very real to people. Movie plots, costumes, and images affected people.

    Document: Movie Diary of 22-year-old Female College Senior (1922)

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    Even more accessible were modern novels, which often told stories of rich and glamorous people. Beginning in 1920, Prohibition was in effect, making it illegal to sell alcohol. For a country founded by Puritans who drank beer for breakfast, a country where individual freedom was a high value, Prohibition seemed like a punishment. Organized crime got its big break, running gin and other beverages around the country, like the drug cartels today. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway spent much of the 1920s in Europe, but wrote novels that resonated in America. The Great Gatsby is a perfect example, since it featured with two sets of characters, one lower middle-class and one upper and slightly criminal, the latter spending most of their time drinking and partying.




    All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.