TERRIBLE HONESTY by Ann Douglas

TERRIBLE HONESTY

Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A colorful, persuasive re-evaluation of 1920s New York City, pinpointing it as the birthplace of modern American culture. Douglas (American Studies/Columbia Univ.) draws on familiar sources--memoirs by such Jazz Age novelists as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the works of Harlem Renaissance writers, biographies of all these figures, virtually every academic text ever written about the period--but puts them together in exciting new ways to create a portrait of New York that includes black and white artists, men and women, elite and popular culture, architecture and aviation. She characterizes the 1920s' search for ``terrible honesty'' (Raymond Chandler's phrase) as a revolt against the sentimental, moralizing, matriarchal Victorian ethos she explored in The Feminization of American Culture (1977). Yet she links the unique ``adrenaline rush that was modernism'' to historical traits of American life that New York intellectuals rediscovered and claimed as their own: ``the flickering sense of place, purpose, and identity'' in the works of Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe, the pessimism that ``gained more in energy than it lost in hope.'' Her assessment of African-American music's impact on the 1920s and of black writers' complex relationship with the Jazz Age forcefully makes the point that American culture has always been a black-and- white affair--for people on both sides of the color line. Douglas sees 1920s New York as standing at a turning point, with the new mass media drawing their energy and structure from older forms of folk culture. She captures its essence in a lively narrative sprinkled with fabulous quotes: Zelda Fitzgerald remarking of the new tanning craze, ``I love those beautiful tan people. They seem so free of secrets''; singer Todd Duncan writing of his audition for George Gershwin, ``Imagine a Negro auditioning for a Jew, singing an old Italian aria.'' Analyzing this rich material with undogmatic passion, Douglas rescues multiculturalism from clichÇ and reclaims it as America's defining characteristic. Groundbreaking cultural history.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-374-11620-2
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1994




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