The Jazz Age (of The Roaring 20s) AP English Lit. & Comp.
Roaring 20s (Jazz Age) • The "Roaring Twenties," or Jazz Age, ushered in an exciting era of prosperity after World War I. • It was a time of extremes in America. • Many Americans enjoyed greater opportunities for material wealth. • Others, including immigrants and minority groups, experienced poverty and misery. • In the big cities, flappers—women with short hair, short skirts, powdered knees and makeup—came to symbolize modern freedom. • At the same time, hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, represented the worst of American culture.
The Jazz Age (Roaring 20s) • When reading American literature from the 1920s, it's important to keep in mind the cultural extremes of the decade. • The literature of this era reflects both the new sense of hope and the sense of desperation Americans experienced at the time.
Personal Freedom & Social Change • As a result of America's new-found affluence following World War I, the pursuit of pleasure became a focus of many Americans. • However, Americans with more traditional values—often those living in small towns—maintained an ethic of hard work, social conformity, and respectability. These Americans were outraged by the cultural change they saw in the big cities.
Social & Cultural Change • This growing sense of outrage contributed to the strength of the Prohibition movement in the years leading up to the 1920s. • The eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution—forbidding the manufacture, transport, or sale of liquor—was ratified in 1919. • Ironically, the amendment contributed to further upheaval by creating a market for legally made and transported alcohol. This market was eagerly served by organized crime, which began to flourish during this era.
Social & Cultural Change • In the 1920s, automobiles changed the cultural landscape. Henry Ford's development of assembly-line production made cars cheap enough for most Americans to buy. • Americans became more and more dependent on cars. As a result the automobile industry created millions of jobs in highway construction and automobile plants. • For many, owning a car became a symbol of freedom and prosperity.
Social & Cultural Change • In addition to automobiles, Americans began buying large consumer appliances, including washing machines, refrigerators, electric irons, and stoves. • These purchases transformed the household. Tasks, such as laundry or cooking, could be completed much faster with the new appliances. Women of the era were no longer confined to the home. • Post-war prosperity also led to a relaxation of sexual norms for women. Fashionable young women, known as flappers, shocked contemporary society with their short hairdos and knee-length skirts.
Social & Cultural Change - Women • Women in the 1920s flew in the face of what society thought they should be; many openly smoked, drank, and swore. • At the same time, more American women worked outside the home and went to college than at any other time in the country's history. • Many male writers of the time, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot, interpreted the so-called "New Woman" as a sign of social breakdown. • In The Great Gatsby, for example, Fitzgerald portrays the character Daisy as an irresponsible woman, corrupted by wealth and the immorality of society.
The American Dream • As a result of their newfound prosperity, many Americans began to aspire to a certain quality of life that had previously been unattainable. • These aspirations may be summed up as the American dream. • Though there isn't a single definition of the American dream, in the 1920s it mainly meant achieving happiness through material gains.
The American Dream • The dream suggested that if you worked hard enough, you'd be rewarded with financial success, including a house and a car. • Though this was certainly true for some, prosperity was unattainable for much of the population; Blacks, immigrants, and rural Whites were among those for whom the American dream remained tantalizingly out of reach.
The American Dream • Mass production was the engine that drove the American dream, and it had both a good and a bad side. • On the good side, it contributed to a healthy economy and a wealthy society. • On the bad side, many claimed that assembly-line production turned individuals into robots. Assembly lines sped up work, but also increased the pressure on workers to go faster and faster. • T.S. Eliot's famous poem The Waste Landportrays humans of this era as zombie-like creatures.
“Americanism” • For some, the American dream meant cultural and racial homogeneity. • Many Americans favored isolationism - the desire to stay out of affairs of other nations. • In part, isolationism was a reaction to America's involvement in World War I. • However, it was also fueled by anti-immigrant hostility. • Many Americans supported "100 percent Americanism" during this time. • As a result, the government passed several quota acts in the 1920s to limit immigration of non-whites and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Race & Culture Conflicts • Mainstream America's fear of immigrants came to a head in the famous Sacco-Vanzetti Case. • Following a murder and payroll robbery at a shoe factory, eyewitnesses claimed that Italians were responsible. • Police arrested two Italian-born men known for their radical anarchist activism, Sacco and Venzetti. • They were convicted on flimsy evidence and sentenced to death. • The Judge in the case referred to the defendants off the record as "those damned anarchists." • Their trial and subsequent execution in 1927 spurred international protests.
Race & Culture Conflicts • Anti-Semitism, was also prevalent at this time. • Anti-Semitism is discriminatory speech or behavior directed against Jews. • Jews were discriminated against in housing and employment. • Colleges and medical schools had quotas restricting the admission of Jews. The man responsible for the assembly-line production of cars, Henry Ford Sr., was one of those responsible for promoting anti-Semitic views. • He published the four-volume work, The International Jew: the World's Foremost Problem, in 1918. He argued that power-hungry Jews were trying to take over the world through economic control. • After several years of protests by prominent Jewish groups, Ford finally apologized in 1927.
Race & Culture Conflicts • In this climate of suspicion of anyone outside the mainstream, the racist hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, regained national prominence in the 1920s. • In 1920, the group had about 2000 members. By 1923, that number had skyrocketed to several million. • The group targeted Catholics in the West and Midwest, Jews in the East, African Americans in the South, and immigrants everywhere. • The Klan claimed these groups posed a threat to American purity and terrorized them with acts of violence.
Film • Arts and literature flourished in the 1920s as people had more leisure time to fill with activities. • Silent movies were incredibly popular, as were the Hollywood scandals promoted by the rapid growth of tabloid newspapers and magazines. • Eighty percent of Americans went to the silent movies each week to watch performances by Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, and Mary Pickford. • In 1927, the movies experienced a revolutionary change. Al Jolson ushered in this new era by proclaiming, "you ain't heard nothing yet" in the first motion picture with sound, The Jazz Singer.
Music • As the name of this era suggests, jazz was the dominant music of the time. • Jazz was a fusion of the European classical tradition and African American music, and first emerged in New Orleans. • Jazz quickly spread to large northern cities including Chicago and New York. The music was nothing less than a revolution in sound that challenged traditional conceptions of what music should be. • Although many in the 1920s were scandalized by jazz, it was considered quite fashionable among listeners of all races. • White listeners often journeyed to Harlem jazz clubs to hear this new form of music. • Jazz composers and performers, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Jelly Role Morton were wildly successful.
Harlem Renaissance • In addition to being a mecca for jazz lovers, Harlem was also a magnet for talented African American writers and artists. • In the 1920s, many Black artists wanted to rediscover black folk culture and integrate it into their work. • This desire to create art that was uniquely African American was the driving force behind the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. • Writers such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen wrote about the experience of Black people in America during this time.
Langston Hughes • One of the most famous authors from the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes incorporated the rhythms of black music into his poetry. • His poems most often borrowed their rhythms from jazz music and his themes often concerned of racial protest. • Unlike Jane Tumor and Countee Cullen who worked with purely literary forms Hughes wanted to capture the oral traditions of Black culture in his writing. • His first book of poetry-The Weary Blues published in 1926 was quite popular. His novel-Not Without Laughter published in 1930 secured his reputation as an artist. • Hughes was also an activist for Black causes and was well known as a journalist, playwrite, screenplay writer and poet.
F. Scott Fitzgerald • Among White writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald is the author most often associated with the 1920s. • Fitzgerald's novels often dealt with the effect America's materialistic culture had on people. • For example, his classic novel The Great Gatsby tells the story of a man who realizes his dream of material success, only to become disillusioned with the empty life he's created for himself.
Earnest Hemingway • Ernest Hemingway, a close friend of Fitzgerald's, also wrote about disillusionment and betrayal in his novels and short stories. • Wounded in the World War I while working in the ambulance corp, Hemingway found it difficult to readjust after returning home. • Hemingway became an international celebrity after the publication of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926.
Women • Women writers also had a voice during the jazz age. • NellaLarsen, one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance, addressed the theme of how the American dream applied to African Americans. • She explored the line between African American culture and white culture in the 1920s, and wrote about the phenomenon of light-skinned African Americans who "passed" for white. • Jewish writer AnziaYezerskia also explored the American dream—and how it related to the immigrant experience. • Her short stories and novels dealt with Jewish assimilation in America, including gender and cultural conflicts faced by traditional European families new to America.
Summary • When reading American literature from the 1920s, it's important to keep in mind the extremes characterizing this era. • Great prosperity for some, poverty and misery for others. • Prohibition, organized crime. • Isolationism, “Americanism”, and Racism • More leisure time for music (Jazz) and films. • African American artists flourished in the Harlem Renaissance. • The development of the idea of the American Dream