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Honors Project Prep: Lynn Dumenil, “The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s”

June 1, 2014

The prose that I’ve been reading in preparation for this project has explored different portions of American history.  Ret. Justice John Paul Stevens’ Six Amendments explores the political controversies of the present day, while Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner used The Gilded Age to lampoon the corruption of the post-Civil War period.  Why not continue to explore the American past?  Our history informs the politics of the day: the Tea Party movement borrows iconography from the Revolution, the left carries the mantle of the Civil Right Era, etc.

One moment I don’t think people are keen to evoke, however, are the 1920s.  While that decade was, in our cultural memory at least, one of prosperity and fun, it also came to represent a sinful excess which the Great Depression would punish.  There’s a reason that pundits have repeatedly compared the pre-recession 2000s to the 1920s.  But, as Lynn Dumenil argues in The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, our memory captures only part of the full picture.

As Dumenil notes, the 1920s were a time of great social struggle.  Women, having just secured nationwide suffrage in 1920, tried to further improve their social status with limited success.  Recent immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe contended with a resurgence of nativism.  African-American culture flourished in Harlem, but philosophical divides emerged among leaders regarding the image of “the New Negro”.  Fundamentalist and mainline denominations fought over the soul of American Protestantism.  Rural and urban environments fought for cultural supremacy.

At the heart of these trends lay a fundamental question: “What is the American identity?”  Is it the Northern European Protestant small-town man?  Is there room for Catholics and Jews, women in the workforce, Japanese and Mexican immigrants, African-Americans, etc?  Do those groups have to assimilate to the traditional American identity, or is a pluralistic society the real American ideal?

We still have these conversations today; it’s just that the people involved have changed over the years.  The 1920s saw the fear of Catholicism taking over the country, that Al Smith (the Democratic nominee for president in 1928) would be taking orders from the Vatican.  Now, we see the fear directed at Muslims, the specter of sharia law brought to Main Street.  That these fears are/were unfounded is beside the point; they are part of the American conversation.

The earlier chapters of The Modern Temper deal with additional tensions within American history.  Individualism and consumerism came into conflict with communal values; in parallel, the roles of the public and private sphere were in flux, with the latter in ascendancy.  These chapters are not quite as compelling, if only because I feel these changes have been extensively documented before.

If I plan to write about politics and government, I must keep in mind these social conversations.  They are implicit in how we view political solutions.  Before we answer the question, “How are we to govern ourselves?” we must answer the question, “Who are we, exactly?”  Different groups may require different systems.  At any rate, it is a conversation worth having, and therefore a subject worth writing about.

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