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American Culture and Society in the 1920s

by Lynn Dumenil

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8090-6978-4
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An accessible yet thoroughly detailed account of a time in American history that seems very much like our own. Dumenil (History/Occidental Coll.; Freemasonry and American Culture, 18801930, not reviewed) demonstrates in the course of this well-conceived book that a series of far-reaching social issues not only set the tone of the 1920s but also ``formed central motifs that have shaped the modern American temper.'' Foremost among those themes, in her view, was a rising general mistrust of a growing government bureaucracy; she quotes a range of contemporary opinions on the excessive power of federal law, including a US representative's argument against continuing the wartime program of daylight-savings time (``we might soon have laws passed attempting to regulate the volume of air a man should breathe, suspend the laws of gravity, or change the colors of the rainbow''); these give life to her observations on Americans' perennial suspicion of the state. In the 1920s, Dumenil argues, lobbyists for the first time became a powerful political force; large movie studios promoted their wares through national chains, undercutting the neighborhood theater and creating a mass market for mass-produced culture; and nativist political forces mobilized against immigration. Most significantly, women entered the workplace and demanded greater autonomy in determining their economic, social, political, and sexual future, although as Dumenil notes, ``the new women's liberation [was the domain of] white, relatively affluent women, and had relatively little meaning to poor women of color.'' The author is less interesting on the period's higher culture; her whirlwind tour of Hemingway, Dos Passos, Cummings, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Stein, and their peers is far too cursory to serve her argument. Nor does she give enough emphasis to WW I's role in setting the stage for the 1920s' revolt against late Victorian sensibilities. Still, a useful, circumstantial overview of a tumultuous era.