The Return of the Roaring Twenties
Isaac Bettridge discuss the arrival of the new decade with a look back to the phenomenal era of the 1920s.
Few historical eras have such a distinct cultural image as the 1920s, at least the American 1920s anyway. Our popular image of the 20s is of a new age of cultural expression and excitement. In literature, the advent of modernism brought us writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and classics like The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Sun Also Rises. For music, jazz broke through into the mainstream, making stars of the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In cinema, ‘talkies’ replaced the old silent films whilst stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton enraptured audiences. All of this and yet the 20s brought so much more. As such, when entering the 2020s it’s natural to look back at this period with nostalgia as a bygone golden age of innovation and excitement, especially when compared with the bleak world we now see around us. But how accurate is this image?
“… when entering the 2020s it’s natural to look back at this period with nostalgia as a bygone golden age of innovation and excitement, especially when compared with the bleak world we now see around us.”
It’s important to remember that whilst the era is generally remembered as a progressive one (women got the vote and became flappers, the Harlem Renaissance revolutionised black art etc.), it was by and large more conservative than generally understood. The 20s saw a revitalization of the KKK, partly due to anxiety about increased Catholic and Jewish migration, that peaked in 1924 when they were estimated to have 2 to 4 million members, contributing to horrific acts of violence such as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre- politically, three Republican presidents were elected to the US presidency and the Conservative party won consecutive elections in the UK. Much of the now-iconic stuff from this era was unpopular with the public, who looked down on the ‘loose’ flapper women or suspected many of the pioneering creatives of having communist sympathies, in the same manner that today’s conservatives will decry the malign influence of ‘SJWs’ on the media or critique artists for promoting ‘immorality’. In this way, the spirit of the conservative 20s lives on.
Given all this, perhaps we should be careful in engaging in nostalgia for the 20s, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have much to teach us, beyond my own personal desire for art deco to make a comeback. The 1920s saw progressives, artists, intellectuals and more coming together, collaborating and interacting to a greater degree than ever before, and in such times of turbulence, as both then and now, unity is more important than ever. Perhaps a more important lesson though can be gleaned on the nature of nostalgia. People in the 20s may have, from our perspective, been living through a golden age, but from their point of view, theirs was the vulgar and diminished ‘modern world’ and the golden age was somewhere more distant in the past. The Great Gatsby, the novel which most defines our image of the 20s, ends with its protagonist yearning for the early settler days of America, “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes”, in comparison to the overexposed and overdeveloped New York of his day. The past has been romanticized for as long as there has been a past, but such romanticizing inevitably obscures the complexity and the troubles of days gone, and can mire us in self-pity and fantasy as we, like Gatsby, spend our lives chasing an unattainable perfect past, yearning for the green light.