Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Tag Archives: American History

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday is a “popular” history of the 1920′s written by an historian, Frederick Lewis Allen, who actually lived through the era and wrote on it very soon after it occurred.  As Lewis was not only an historian, but also a magazine editor, he was used to observing political and economic events as well as contemporary cultural  movements and writing cohesive and entertaining articles on these subjects.

This book is a great introduction to the 1920′s.  This is an era that is often looked back on with great interest- there is a post World War flowering of freedoms  and economic prosperity, but at the same time there is political scandal, cynicism, and uncertainty.  Women get the right to vote, and fashion emphasizes a burgeoning sexual freedom.  There is also the ghastly government experiment of Prohibition- the one that caused an explosion of organized crime.  In short, it was not the rosy picture of flapper’s, elegant parties, and everyone winning off the stock market that is so often shown- or at least that is not the full story.

There is so much in the 1920′s that has influenced our current country.  Yes- that can be said for every era of history, but the 1920′s offer so many striking similarities to our current era that sometimes I felt the pull of the past- and inevitably conclude that more people should pay attention to history or we will continue to make the same errors.  Examples follow;

- The “cult” of success developed after WWI- business began to be elevated to an almost mystical status and success in business was worshiped by the pious and envious alike.  Businesses can do no wrong- as long as they show a profit.

- Along with the cult of success an idea of wealth as an American “right” emerged- it could be earned, but the quicker and easier, the better.  This led to economic turmoil within the decade, caused by endless real estate speculation bubbles and the continual up and down of the unregulated stock market.  These problems, largely glossed over during the time, coalesced into the stock market Crash and the decade of depression that followed.

- A new poplar trend developed in the 1920′s that had rarely been seen previously- the increasing focus on a series of trifling and unimportant concerns.  This includes the passing obsessions with various sports figures, stunts, and sensationalized news stories.

- Along the vein of pop trends; both advertisers and the larger media begin to pander to their audiences instead of simply being vehicles to inform about news or products.  Lewis calls it “A carnival of commercialized degradation”.

- “Mass culture” develops- media and advertising enterprises created a culture that catered to the many over the few.  Minorities (ethnic, philosophical, or intellectual) were singled out and compelled, by either law or peer pressure, to conform to the accepted cultural norms.  In the beginning of the era there was an increase in intellectual inquiry and a call for political reform, but these groups were largely marginalized by the decade’s end.

Also, this book ties in very well with Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point.  Although in England instead in America the feelings of the characters are the same- having just fought a World War, going back to their lives as if nothing has happened was impossible.  They are cynical.  They dabble in several new philosophies and forms of governments, although many reveal only a passing interest in real, fundamental change.  They question art and literature as too formulaic or rosy compared to harsh reality.  They are perpetually bored, and continually seek new out new experiences, fads, and interests; only the novel creates any enthusiasm, and then only briefly.

Clara Bow

*Clara Bow in Arabesque Costume*

In short the era of the “Roaring 20′s” was a proverbial roller coaster ride for those that lived it; economic highs and lows, cultural flowering and political repression, new freedoms for certain groups but restrictions of other rights.  Allen’s book is a great overview that let’s the reader feel the highs and lows of an intense decade.

The Americas Before Columbus

Charles Mann takes on a subject both wide in scope and laced with continuing controversies in 1491.  He writes in an accessible manner, so one doesn’t notice (as much as you would with a drier historian) that he is covering a monumental amount of material.

It should be a widely known fact that the Americas were very different from the common image of them as pristine wilderness with a few wandering hunter/gatherer tribes.  In actuality the continents played host to very diverse and advanced civilizations.  Mann takes this thesis and develops it, using a few key examples, from well known Aztecs and Incas to lesser known Mississippi Valley dwellers and Amazonian agriculturalists.

Mann also gives an overview of archaeology in the Americas from the earliest European settlers who were interested in their neighbors through to today.  He shows how theories have changed based on newer finds deep in the Mexican and Brazilian jungles and gives a hint of some of the rivalries that develop between proponents of differing theories.  He adroitly tackles the population debate- the ongoing debate of just how many people lived in the Americas before Europeans (and their diseases) arrived.  More recent scholarship has concluded that the numbers were much higher than anyone imagined even a century ago.

I read the book primarily because of my interest in the Amazon and the native populations there.  I enjoy learning about the Amazonian jungle and how, contrary to most historical and contemporary environmentalist opinion, it most certainly is not an untouched primeval forest.  Rather, both the layout of the forest and many of the plants found within are a direct result of centuries of methodical and intensive farming by people who were very aware of both the gifts and limitations of their environment.