“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925
Celebrating The Roaring 20s in America.
“The parties were bigger. The pace was faster, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper,” observed Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby. The horrors of the First World War and the 1918 Flu Epidemic coupled with the rising consumerism, Hollywood’s movie culture, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, and the growth of professional sports, Prohibition, and jazz music ushered in 1920s America. It was among the most interesting, exciting, and entertaining decades in the nation’s history, and still leaves a powerful imprint on our culture and world today.
The ‘20s figures were larger than life. Babe Ruth, perhaps still the greatest, most celebrated figure in the history of sports, earned his own adjective – “Ruthian.” Charles Lindbergh, the first human to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean and the modern age’s first international media celebrity, was the prototypical American hero, before later falling from grace.
A noisy and frenetic decade, it created high and low art and timeless music, including lyrically introspective novels from F. Scott Fitzgerald; poignant poetry from Langston Hughes; as well as blues and jazz from African-American geniuses like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. There were also Broadway shows, playful tunes, and popular movies from Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Cecil B. DeMille. Widely distributed and increasingly fashionable, the American entertainment culture was improvised across the country and exported to the world. And it remains among the best examples of democratic art ever produced.
Nineteen Twenties politics were at once conservative, liberal, radical, nativist, and progressive. Paradoxically, the man at the center of it all was an introvert. President Calvin Coolidge, a New England Yankee with a stoic temperament and few words, was perhaps our last truly constitutionally-centered president. His famous political maxims: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones” and “the chief business of the American people is business,” contain much practical wisdom we could learn from today.
The Roaring ‘20s started with a post-war boom and ended with financial disaster when the Stock Market crashed in 1929. Having replaced London as the financial center of the world after WWI, New York City’s message of razzle dazzle advertising, cheap credit, mounting debt, hype-driven speculation, and renegade consumerism, ultimately all came to an abrupt end with the 1929 Crash. But the impact of NYC’s and America’s aura of limitlessness and materialism penetrated deep into the national soul across the 20th century. It’s all perhaps best captured by the sage of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his essay, My Lost City:
“From the ruins rose the Empire State Building, lonely and inexplicable as the Sphinx and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood—everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s Box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.”
American schoolchildren need to know more about the basics of the history of and lessons from the 1920s, which did as much as any decade to shape our modern country in the last century. To remedy this, we’re offering a variety of resources to help parents, teachers, and high schoolers: