Victorian America ended in the catastrophe that was World War I.
2 million American soldiers had fought in France. 130,000 of them never came home. The Wilson administration imposed a suffocating conformism on the country which exceeded anything in American history before or since. We have already seen how The Masses was shutdown and anarchists like Emma Goldman were deported from the country during the Palmer Raids.
In the 1920s, there was a huge backlash against Woodrow Wilson and Progressivism. The League of Nations was rejected. Conservatives reverted to their pre-Teddy Roosevelt 19th century form. Warren Harding was elected president after promising “a return to normalcy.” Calvin Coolidge became president when Harding died in 1923. Herbert Hoover succeeded Coolidge and defeated Al Smith in the 1928 election. While the Republicans politically dominated the 1920s, there was no “return to normalcy.” A hundred years later, American conservatives are still making the same promises to their voters.
The following excerpt comes from New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“The curtain was rising on the Jazz Age, the decade Fitzgerald named and was to make his own. Skirts were going up, young women were drinking in public, painting their faces, and puffing defiantly, if awkwardly, on cigarettes, and “all night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the ‘Beale Street Blues’ in Harlem …
It was just the beginning. Over the next few months, his life (F.Scott Fitzgerald) became the concrete expression of the American Dream of easy, overnight success that is a persistent theme of the Jazz Age. He married his girl, magazine editors clamored for his stories – some even bought those they had previously rejected – and This Side of Paradise was adopted by his contemporaries as their Bible. The first printing sold out in twenty-four hours.
The book is flawed by a haphazard framework, the author’s borrowing from other coming-of-age novels is readily apparent, its characters are inconsistent, and the writing uneven, yet it captures the rhythm and feel of its era. Flippant, ironic in tone, and drenched in alcohol and an innocent sexuality; it consigned the remnants of Victorian morality to oblivion and gave voice to the attitudes, pleasures, and self-doubts of “a new generation … grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken …”
World War I was the great turning point of modern history. Over 15 million lives were lost in the struggle, including those of about 130,000 Americans. The universal presumptions of the Victorian Age – progress, order, and culture – were blown to bits. …”
Young Americans who had fought in World War I and who came of age in the 1920s rejected the Victorian values of their parents and embraced the new values of Modernism. This transition can be seen in This Side of Paradise which was the novel that made F. Scott Fitzgerald famous.
The Lost Generation was the first modernist generation. The term was coined by Gertrude Stein to describe all the American expatriate writers like Ernest Hemingway who took up residence in Paris in the 1920s and became the conveyor belt through which Modernism poured into American culture. Randolph Bourne died of the Spanish Flu in 1918, but his vision and values lived on. They were the first generation in American history to start to become antiracist, deracinated and cosmopolitan.
The culture war between the emerging Moderns and Victorians who clung to the traditional values of Anglo-Protestant culture defined the 1920s. It inspired the rise of the Second Klan and the growth of the Fundamentalist movement which was pilloried by H.L. Mencken who covered the Scopes trial. By the time women started smoking “torches of freedom” in public, slumming and drinking with men in jazz clubs in Harlem, tanning, sleeping with random men before marriage and dressing according to the modernist tastes of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, you have crossed over into our times.