MODERNITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Several of you have remarked that I've not posted anything to my blog since April, and I'll admit I've been a bit of a slacker lately. I've been taking advantage of the senior program at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, which is available to those over the age of 65 and who are Missouri residents. I don't get credit for the courses, but I get to learn. I want the full college experience, so I have been doing the work, which requires a lot of research (which is so much easier now than it was when I was in college more than fifty years ago thanks to the internet) and writing. Someone suggested I post my papers on my blog, so I decided why not? They're already written, so why not share them? Here's one I wrote for my midterm in American History 1914-1945.
After World War I the world changed. As Willa Cather put it in 1936, “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” Whether is was 1922 or “thereabouts” is open to discussion, but it’s safe to say prewar America was a different country than America was in the postwar years.
The United States under Woodrow Wilson had undertaken a foreign adventure that cost the lives of more than 116,000 American (mostly) men and resulted in some 320,000 being wounded or made sick by mustard gas. Millions had to be drafted, equipped, trained, and shipped an ocean away. The war also resulted in the government’s reigning in civil liberties. In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to speak against America’s war effort at a time when many Americans opposed the war, including, according to William M. Tuttle, Jr. in Race Riot, Chicago mayor Bill Thompson. In 1918 Congress passed the Sedition Act, under which people who continued to speak against the war could wind up with heavy fines and a twenty-year jail sentence. (Eugene V. Debs, the perennial Socialist Party candidate for president, was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison under the Sedition Act.) In addition to stifling dissent, the Wilson administration created the Committee on Public Information to generate public support for the war in part by demonizing the enemy. The war to make the world safe for democracy abroad cost Americans a lot of civil liberties at home.
After the Armistice was signed, Wilson traveled to Paris to sell the world on his Fourteen Points. Unfortunately, he had not sold Congress before setting sail. After partial success in Europe, Wilson returned home to mixed public support and Republican (as well as some Democratic) opposition in the Senate, especially to the League of Nations. Wilson refused any compromise and set off on a nationwide tour that resulted in his having an incapacitating stroke on October 2, 1919. Some historians speculate Wilson was a victim of the Spanish flu in April 1919 while he was in Paris and that he may have suffered brain damage that made him more inflexible and unwilling to negotiate. Others speculate he had a series of small strokes (TIAs) that led to the October event. At any rate, the president served out his term with the help of his wife until Warren Harding took office in 1921.
Wilson refused to sign a peace treaty or release Eugene V. Debs (who received more than 900,000 votes for president in 1920 while in prison). Harding did both in 1921.
After the war and the peace negotiations, which were followed by the Red Scare of 1919-1920, people were ready for something less stressful. Warren Harding promised a “return to normalcy,” and that’s what people, including women, who for the first time since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment could vote nationwide, voted for. But it would be a different “normalcy.”
Because of a need to mobilize and gear up for war production, jobs that were previously held by white males opened up to women and blacks. During World War I, between 300,000 and 500,000 blacks left the south for northern urban jobs. Between 750,000 and one million blacks followed in the 1920s. While these black migrants encountered hardship and discrimination in the north, their lives were greatly improved over those they had lived in the Jim Crow south.
Blacks were effectively contained in small overcrowded and poorly maintained areas of the cities they migrated to. Chicago’s South Side, where the 1919 riot took place, is one example. New York’s Harlem is another. Black neighborhoods developed their own modernism. Harlem became a famous destination for blacks and whites in the 1920s and had its white promoters including photographer Carl Van Vechten and British socialite Nancy Cunard. Chicago had its “black and tan” cabarets. Kansas City even had its Twelfth to Eighteenth and Vine area. The nightclubs in these areas opened up opportunities for jazz artists, jazz bands, and vocalists. Examples include Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Cab Callaway, and Kansas City’s own Count Basie and Charlie Parker and a host of others.
Because of housing discrimination black areas became self-contained and to a degree self-sustaining. Ministers, undertakers, bankers, barbers and in time lawyers and doctors had a ready-made client base. Some of these areas became quite successful and attracted the envy of less successful white neighbors. One example of this was the Tulsa, Oklahoma district of Greenwood, which in 1921 was destroyed by a white mob on the pretext that a white woman had been molested by a black man. (According to an article about the riot in the October 5, 2018 New York Times, the man most likely tripped and accidentally stepped on the woman’s foot; charges against him were later dropped.)
Women who found jobs in the war and war-related industries were young and single and often left rural and suburban homes for urban areas, where they found an anonymity that eliminated the social control found in towns filled with family and family acquaintances. The women who took these jobs often worked for low pay, so, while their jobs gave them a degree of independence, as Joshua Zeitz writes, that degree of independence was often accompanied by the need to date in order to live well, and each date “was a complex interplay among commerce, sexuality, and love.” As a young waitress he quotes said, “If I did not have a man, I could not get by on my wages.”
During the war clothing styles had become simplified thanks in large part to Coco Chanel. Paul Poiret had freed women from the corset. Chanel went several steps further and used inexpensive jersey for some designs and blurred the lines between masculine and feminine designs, making clothing that was practical, maneuverable and suitable for war work. Chanel’s designs appealed to postwar women who, for the most part, purchased affordable knockoffs.
Technology contributed to culture change. On November 2, 1920 the first commercial radio broadcast occurred when KDKA in Pittsburg reported election returns. Suddenly instant news was available nationwide. Soon radio programs and music would become part of a mass culture familiar to audiences across the country. Eventually regional accents would flatten and some accents would become more acceptable than others.
At the beginning of the 1920s movies were silent. As long as actors and actresses could convey emotions by facial expressions, how they sounded did not matter. Clara Bow, with her ability to convey sympathy, passion, and chastity all within a matter of seconds, became the nation’s “It Girl” who helped popularize the flapper movement by portraying flappers in films that were not only entertaining but instructional. Young people especially were exposed to Hollywood’s version of modern (1920s-style) dating behavior, and many adopted the techniques they saw on film, which shocked their (possibly envious) elders and led to the Hayes Code being adopted in 1930, although it was not meaningfully enforced until 1934, and some of the best pre-code movies were made in that brief interlude, including one of my favorites, International House.
The flapper lifestyle took on a life of its own, helped in part by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, beginning with This Side of Paradise in 1920 and his many short stories for magazines. Labeled and self-promoted “the flapper king,” Scott became the expert on the subject. And he had his wife, Zelda, as a resource. The lifestyle was glamorized by columnists like Lois Long, who, with her New Yorker expense account and comfortable salary, wrote as “Lipstick” about experiences most young working women could only dream about, but dream they did. The wartime propaganda industry morphed into the advertising industry, generating demand for accessories necessary to become and remain a flapper in good standing. These included costume jewelry, cosmetics, cigarettes (to maintain a slim figure), etc.
Consumers increasingly turned to chain stores such as Woolworth for dry goods and the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (better known as A&P) for food to the detriment of local mom and pop stores. Chain stores could operate on a lower profit margin because they could buy and sell in mass quantities, and consumers appreciated lower prices and consistent quality. Often the arrival of a chain store to a community was greeted with the same ambivalence as the arrival of a Walmart is today. But lower prices and brand names won out then as now. Woolworth would not survive the Twentieth Century, closing in 1997, and A&P limped into this century finally ceasing to do business in 2015. Both were replaced by more efficient and stylish stores. Perhaps it is fitting that the Trader Joes in Kansas City sits on the former site of an A&P.
The increasing availability of electricity made possible labor-saving devices such as refrigerators, vacuums, washing machines, etc., which freed up time for middle class housewives.
The automobile, and especially the fact that cars were becoming more affordable and governments were eager to accommodate this new form of transportation (Robert Moses in New York being a prime example), was arguably the most long-lasting effect of the 1920s. Not only could people use the car to find a secluded place for love-making, they could use it to travel long distances as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald did when they drove from New England to Alabama because Zelda wanted to rediscover the biscuits and peaches of her youth. People could even use the car to commute to work from homes that no longer needed to be near a bus or streetcar line. Cities annexed land. Attractive new neighborhoods were built complete with restrictive covenants, solving that pesky problem of having the “wrong” type of people moving in. Eventually suburbs independent of cities would be built.
It would seem life was much better for those coming of age after the war than it had been before the war, but there were those who disagreed.
Not long after the Civil War ended the nation lapsed into a form of amnesia that came to be known as the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” Academic credence was granted to the “Lost Cause” by Columbia University professor William A. Dunning, who in his 1907 Reconstruction, Political and Economic 1865-1877, portrayed Reconstruction as an unmitigated evil. The “Lost Cause” made its way to the general public via D. W. Griffith’s 1915 technical masterpiece, Birth of a Nation. One person who viewed Birth of a Nation, William Joseph Simmons, an Atlanta physician and ne’er do well, formed a fraternal group that would, with the help of some experienced public relations people, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, become the resurgent Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. This KKK was so influential that, according to Linda Gordon’s 2017 The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, it became a national political force. It had the most members north of the Mason-Dixon line, especially in Ohio and Indiana, where most of the state government was under its thumb. It was also extremely powerful in Oregon. In some locales, membership was necessary to do business as names of nonmembers were publicized. While the Klan had power, members saw fit to enforce old fashioned morality and one-hundred percent Americanism. Members were known to yank adulterers from their homes and beat them. Divorcees might be similarly punished as might those using automobiles for unsavory purposes.
For an organization so intent on maintaining old-fashioned morality, the Klan came to an ignominious end. D. C. Stephenson, the Indiana Grand Dragon and a political power broker, raped his aide, who committed suicide. Stephenson was not powerful enough to avoid publicity or being convicted of murder. Klan members deserted en masse—especially when it was learned Stephenson had been drunk, in violation of Prohibition, which the Klan supported, at the time of the attack. While some members remained loyal to the Klan, it was not powerful enough to recover its political clout.
Stephenson was sentenced to life and paroled in 1955. In 1961, at the age of seventy, he was arrested for assaulting another young girl and was fined $300.
The resurgent Klan, of course, was opposed to blacks (many Confederate memorials, including the controversial 1924 Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee, were erected during the brief reign of the new Klan), but it was equally opposed to Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.
It would be comforting to think the Klan was comprised of ignorant rural rednecks, but in fact it had a surprising number of urban members. Linda Gordon cites historian Kenneth Jackson’s findings that 50% of Klan members were urbanites and 32% lived in the country’s larger cities.
Several Klan members were elected to Congress. One of them was Washington Representative Albert Johnson, who, with Pennsylvania Senator David Reed, sponsored the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration by assigning quotas based on the ethnicity of those already in the US in 1890 and excluded all Asians including South Asians. Such restrictions were the result of prejudice against the more recent immigrants, many of whom were from southern and eastern Europe and many of whom were Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews. The restrictions were justified by the “scientific racism” espoused by Columbia- and Yale-educated attorney Madison Grant in his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race.
The National Origins Act, a part of the Johnson-Reed Act, did not address Mexicans, who were needed as fruit workers and in manufacturing jobs. According to Allyson Hobbes in her 2014 book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Chinese immigrants used false paperwork to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act and enter the United States as Mexicans at the Mexican border at least as early as 1907. There’s no reason to believe it stopped in 1907.
In addition to the Klan, modernism’s discontents included Christian fundamentalists, among them baseball star turned evangelist Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson (who would be caught up in her own sex scandal in 1926).
Among the traits associated with modernism are aspiring to rationality, secular thinking and embracing human mastery over nature. Modernism in the 1920s also tended to be more of an urban phenomenon. Fundamentalism as a movement started among conservative Presbyterian theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary in the last part of the Nineteenth Century. It soon spread to conservatives among Baptists and other denominations around 1910 to 1920 partly as a reaction to mainstream Protestantism. One of the tenets of fundamentalism is the belief in the inerrancy of scripture.
In 1859 Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. As Darwinism became more accepted, it became obvious that a literal interpretation of scripture was not consistent with the modern theory of evolution. Fundamentalists in many states decided that youth should be protected from Darwinism and passed laws to that effect.
In 1925 a group of local boosters in Dayton, Tennessee persuaded John Scopes, a young high school science teacher, to violate that state’s antievolution law. Their objective was to draw attention to their town, which was economically depressed. They got more than they bargained for when Clarence Darrow, a nationally famous civil libertarian and committed atheist, agreed to defend Scopes and William Jennings Bryan agreed to defend the law. In the end Scopes was convicted and fined $100, which was paid for by the Baltimore Sun, whose acerbic reporter, H. L. Mencken, covered the trial. The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which upheld the law but overturned the fine on a technicality. Bryan died five days after the end of the trial. Debates over whether Darwinism should be taught in the public schools continue to this day.
In the 1920s there was a clash between cultures—one eager to embrace or at least willing to accept change and another trying to return to an idyllic and simpler past that may never have existed and bring the country along with it.
And that continues to this day as well.