The Jazz Age
American society went through a period of dramatic change in the aftermath of World War I. Traditional beliefs in God, country, and humanity were shaken as Americans faced the devastation of a war of this magnitude. The resulting feelings of confusion and dislocation led to a questioning and often a rejection of conventional morality and beliefs. In the 1920s, Americans recognized that an old order had been replaced by a new, freer society, one that adopted innovative fashions in clothing, behavior, and the arts. F. Scott Fitzgerald named this decade the “Jazz Age,” which along with the “Roaring Twenties” came to express the cultural revolution that was then taking place.
Despite this era of being one of Prohibition (sale and consumption of alcohol was prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which became law in 1919), Americans experimented with expressions of personal and social freedom in dress, sexuality, and lifestyle. Women cut their hair short and wore shapeless “flapper” dresses that gave then an androgynous air. Premarital sex began to lose its stigma, and exciting developments in musical styles pulled whites into predominantly black neighborhoods. The pursuit of pleasure, especially as related to the accumulation of wealth, became a primary goal, overturning traditional notions of hard work, social conformity, and respectability. Literary historian Margot Norris notes that during this age, “the aesthetics of glamour produced by material and social extravagance” were “simulated and stimulated by the celluloid images of the burgeoning movie industry.”
Literature in the 1920s
Literature in the 1920s in America was dominated by a group of American writers that felt a growing sense of disillusionment after World War I. As a result, many left the United States and lived in Europe. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound initially relocated to London, while Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway traveled to Paris, which appeared to offer them a much freer society than America or England did. During this period, Paris became a chosen destination for these expatriates, who congregated in literary salons (gatherings in private homes or apartments of artists and writers), restaurants, and bars to discuss their work in the context of the new age. Gertrude Stein, who hosted one such salon, announced: “you are all a lost generation,” a line Hemingway used as an epigraph for The Sun Also Rises . Stein, an author herself, supported and publicized artists and writers in this movement. In addition to Hemingway’s work, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby came to be seen as a penetrating portrait of this lost generation.
The characters in works by these authors reflected their growing sense of disillusionment along with the new ideas in psychology, anthropology, and philosophy that had become popular in the early part of the twentieth century. Freudianism, for example, which may have contributed to more open sexual expression during the Jazz Age, began to be studied by these writers, as they explored the psyche of their characters and recorded their often-subjective points of view of themselves and their world. Hemingway’s men and women faced a meaningless world with courage and dignity, exhibiting grace under pressure, while Fitzgerald’s characters sought the redemptive power of love in a world driven by materialism.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression held America in its grips during the 1930s. The depression was a severe worldwide economic crisis that occurred in the United States after the stock market crash of 1929. The impact on Americans was staggering. In 1933, the worst year, unemployment rose to 16 million, about one third of the available labor force. During the early years, men and women searched eagerly and diligently for any type of work. However, after several months of no sustained employment, they became discouraged and often gave up. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which offered the country substantial economic relief, helped mitigate the effects of the depression, but the recovery was not complete until the government channeled money into the war effort in the early 1940s.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Stephen Vincent Benet, Published by Gale Group, 2010