AMERICA IN THE TWENTIES: A History by Geoffrey Perrett


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Along with the legendary Twenties of boom and ballyhoo, there was an unbuoyant era--of strikes and race riots and rampaging ""Americanization,"" of farm poverty and intellectual alienation--which has claimed scholarly attention without catching the public eye. So Perrett's aim of reconciling the two is not unworthy. He is not wrong, either, in presenting the 1919-32 period (the real subject of his book) as transitional--a ""modern society"" in which ""preindustrial"" values lingered. (He points out, for instance, that the bulk of the population was still--at least, by upbringing--rural and small-town.) But his account of the period's many elements, trends, personalities, and events is successful only in spots--and then chiefly for the reader saturated on speakeasies and Teapot Dome. Thus, Perrett is all right--discounting his penchant for hyperbole (""the most,"" ""the first,"" ""the greatest"")--on the 1919 rash of strikes; the 1915 revival of the KKK and the ensuing race riots; immigration restriction; the IWW; Sacco-Vanzetti; Fundamentalism. That is, his interpretive summaries of these well-researched, self-contained topics are generally reliable. On more diffuse, amorphous matters--including virtually everything of a cultural nature, and many social phenomena--his abbreviated histories, extending back and into the future, are full of sweeping misstatements, oversimplifications, and flagrant omissions. (On jazz: ""Creole freedmen bought up the Confederate Army's instruments. The music they made contained many strands . . . . It was the music of protest against injustice. . . . And that is how jazz was born."" Meanwhile there is no mention of Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin et al.--anything to do with popular music or the musical. Or, apropos of increasing urbanization: ""Around 1900 juvenile crime had been almost unknown."") More to the point of the book's purposes, Perrett presents Harding and Coolidge so sympathetically-to puncture the ""legend"" of Harding as a ""do-nothing,"" or Coolidge as frigid--that one might wonder why either was ever mocked. On the other hand, Perrett's emphasis on the period's economic ills might leave a reader wondering how it was that, in fact, most people were better off. A further cleavage exists between Perrett's lofty aspirations and his trivializing prose. He offers his own explanation for the Depression--not triggered by the Crash, nor the sum total of preexisting conditions, but chiefly caused by a sudden decline in consumer spending. And, typically, he writes: ""Ogden Mills, freshly installed as MelloWs successor, was both diligently drinking himself to death (he got there in 1937 with the aid of a bottle of gin gulped down in less than an hour) and trying to persuade Hoover that taxes had to be raised."" So: a big book and a petty book; a repository of much information, lots of trivia, and some misinformation.

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster