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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.