My friend Linkless Bob recommended this book by Frederick Lewis Allen, and it’s a good read.    Somewhat cheekily, Allen decided to write a history of the ’20s in 1931.  (He also did one of the ’30s called Since Yesterday, which I’ve just started.)

Cal Coolidge

As such it’s very journalistic– it seems pretty clear that his primary research tool is the magazines and daily newspapers.  He rarely gets into very deep analysis, but on the plus side he’s lively and full of detail, and the method probably gives a good idea of what people were thinking and talking about. 

Bob noted, and I agree, that the story has an unexpected contemporary ring.  The laissez-faire libertarianism of the Republican Party turns out not to be an invention of Goldwater or Ayn Rand; it’s their default mode.  The belief in the benignity of business it there, and the feeling that government is there to serve business and for little else… except for repressing people when they complain.  Coolidge won national reknown, after all, for suppressing a police strike.  The late ’20s stock bubble was a lot like the housing bubble of the ’00s.  And the Republican response to the Crash was pretty much what the elites are agreed on now: do nothing, except perhaps make it worse with government austerity programs. 

(One partial exception: Republicans back then loved tariffs, which are now out of fashion– but that’s largely because we no longer fear foreign rival manufacturers.)

Allen does have a thesis: the postwar decade was dominated by a rebellion against prewar mores.  The country was tired of wartime sacrifice and had no intention of going back to Victorianism.  Women got the vote but mostly wanted to discard encumbrances, from unnecessary layers of clothing to hard domestic labor.   The literati were disgusted with everything except for sex and Freud.  The country was transformed by railroads, scientific management, the automobile, and radio.  (I find it fascinating that the dominant force in broadcasting, RCA, was known in financial contexts simply as “Radio”.)

It’s kind of curioius to read about the Florida land boom, in that all the locations mentioned as Future Metropoles are now, in fact, part of the metropolis of Miami.  As with many bubbles, the problem wasn’t that the development was unreasonable, but that it was premature.

From a later perspective, the ’20s can be seen as a preview– interrupted by the Depression– of prosperous midcentury America.  The mass media, the labor-saving devices, the exaltation of technology and manufacturing, the weak interest in progressivism, were all there. 

I think he’s pretty perceptive at finding what in contemporary life would be of permanent interest.  A few of the references aren’t explained… someone should put out an edition with hyperlinks.  I also wouldn’t trust him too far with cultural analysis.  I think he’s a bit simplistic on the hedonism and nihilism of ’20s intellectuals, for instance.  It was clear when he was writing what they were rejecting, not so clear perhaps what they were trying to build in its place.

(I also wouldn’t take his brief explanations of the Crash too seriously.  He may not be wrong, but in 1931 there was not really enough distance for real understanding.  Galbraith’s The Great Crash: 1929 is more informative on the economics.)

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