American History Series: Review: New World Coming

Nathan Miller, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America

Nathan Miller’s New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America is an excellent, highly readable introduction to the 1920s. I highly recommend it.

I’ve had this book for years, but never bothered to read it until I reread Eric P. Kaufmann’s book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America. In that book, Kaufmann argued that the arrival of Modernism in the United States in the 1910s played a pivotal role in the racial, cultural and ethnic decline of Anglo-Protestant America. Seeing as how no one in our circles ever mentions Modernism as one of the leading causes of our decline, I became intrigued and decided that I would explore the subject further.

Gradually, I began to see that there was a vast cultural change that began in the 1910s and swept across urban America in the 1920s. For the the first time in American history, a majority of Americans lived in cities in the 1920s. There was the “New Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance. There was the “New Woman” who was now smoking and drinking in public, wearing short skirts with bobbed hair, working outside the home, voting for the first time, listening to jazz in speakeasies, going on “dates” and using birth control. There were men who understood themselves to be “Moderns” who lived in the “New Era” who were at odds with the backward, bigoted, repressive Americans in the small towns and countryside.

Just a decade before in Theodore Roosevelt’s time, there had been a broad cultural consensus in Victorian America. America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation with liberal and republican principles. There was universal agreement about national identity, morality and the importance of culture. As unrealistic as it sounds to our ears, it was hoped that the millions of Jewish and Catholic immigrants who had arrived in the Great Wave would convert to Protestantism. The Genteel Tradition of 19th century America was ascendant in the nation’s media and publishing houses.

World War I is best seen as the fiery end of 19th century America. The first decade and a half or so of the 20th century was culturally continuous with Victorian America. The war discredited the Victorian mainstream and provoked the youth rebellion of the Losters in the 1920s. The Modern mainstream emerged with the founding of The New Republic in 1914 and the “Little Magazines” it was associated with like The Masses (after Floyd Dell took over) and The Seven Arts in Greenwich Village around this time. Oswald Garrison Villard remade The Nation from a Genteel publication and young modernist editors gradually took over control of older Genteel institutions like The Atlantic. The New Yorker was founded in 1925. In the 1920s, Progressivism broke up over Prohibition and Left-Progressives became modernist liberals while Right-Progressives became reactionaries. New York became the cultural capital of the United States and came to be dominated by the New York avant-garde which from its inception was comprised of Jews and Anglos who were liberals, modernists and cosmopolitans.

Nathan Miller’s book is mostly concerned with the countless ways in which Modern America took shape in the 1920s. It was a decade of dizzying change compared to my lifetime:

  • As Victorian culture broke down in the 1920s, women gained the right to vote and began to wear lipstick, sunglasses and cosmetics and dress in familiar Modern styles to attract men. They began “dating,” using birth control and having boyfriends. Zelda Fitzgerald popularized tanning in the 1920s. The New Era emphasized cultural liberation and expressive individualism.
  • The automobile and car culture began its long term conquest of America as the states began building the modern highway system. The Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler) emerged in the 1920s along with parking lots, chain stores, fast food restaurants, stop signs and traffic lights. Just a decade before, America had still been in the age of the horse.
  • The Northern and Western suburbs began to grow along with the spread of the automobile and the highway system. The “motel” (motor hotel) emerged in the 1920s.
  • The lights literally came on as most American homes gained electric service for the first time. Americans began using vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, electric stoves and refrigerators. Women started going grocery shopping at supermarkets.
  • Mass circulation magazines like Time were founded in the 1920s.
  • The radio began to create mass culture in the 1920s. NBC and CBS were founded in the 1920s as radio stations. Americans started getting their news from the “mainstream media” instead of local newspapers. New York culture began its long term erosion of regional cultures.
  • Charles Lindbergh became Time‘s first Man of the Year when he completed the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927. Commercial aviation began to spread in the 1920s. Hub cities developed around the new airports.
  • Skyscrapers began to climb up the New York and Chicago skylines which began to take on their modern configuration.
  • Los Angeles and Miami became boom towns. South Florida was developed in the 1920s.
  • Spectator sports and Hollywood celebrities became popular in the 1920s. America’s national heroes became athletes and celebrities.
  • American culture and financial power began to dominate Western Europe in the 1920s. Jazz spread to Europe. It is a myth that America was “isolationist.” American influence has grown in Europe from World War I down to the present day.
  • For the first time in American history, young White Americans began to listen to black music on the radio and on phonographs. Listening to jazz became a way to rebel against your parents.
  • Victorians had valued a producer culture that emphasized self-denial, thrift, hard work and the cultivation and practice of moral virtues in the household that forged the character of their children. In the 1920s, Modern culture began to emphasize consumption and immediate gratification. The advertising industry blossomed in the 1920s as it emerged from World War I propaganda.
  • In the 1920s, America developed a consumer economy. Americans began to go into debt to buy all sorts of things on credit.
  • In the 1920s, Americans began to get into the stock market which had previously been a playground for the rich. The Roaring Twenties famously ended in the Crash of 1929.
  • In the 1920s, millions of Americans became hooked on watching Hollywood movies and imitating the lifestyles of famous Hollywood celebrities. This was particularly true of young women. Nearly every small town in the country had a movie theater. More Americans started watching movies and being influenced by mass culture than attending church.
  • In the 1920s, more young Americans began to spend more of their lives in high school and going to college, which facilitated the emergence of a youth culture among the Losters.
  • In the 1920s, the culture war emerged between Moderns who embraced the new values and Victorians who rejected them. Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken ridiculed all the backward boobs in flyover country. The Second Klan attracted millions of members. It was primarily concerned with enforcing Prohibition and responding to the sense of cultural and moral breakdown.
  • Speaking of Prohibition, it was the first major flashpoint of the culture war which has raged between modernists and traditionalists down to the present day.
  • America’s Protestant establishment increasingly began to splinter as mainline churches lost members to the Fundamentalists.
  • Modernism was popularized by the advertising industry which embraced the modernist aesthetic to sell more products to consumers, glamorous Hollywood celebrities and the literature of the era. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and the Losters who decamped to Paris and the South of France in the 1920s were paid to shape the tastes of Americans back home. Vanity Fair, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, The Smart Set and other “smart magazines” that were dialed into the expatriates and French culture popularized the modernist aesthetic.
  • In the 1920s, the Modern liberal intelligentsia based in New York emerged and “America’s philosopher” John Dewey popularized cosmopolitanism and Franz Boas, his colleague at Columbia University, popularized antiracism in the social sciences.

There were millions of American Protestants in the cities, small towns and rural areas who were highly disturbed by all these unsettling cultural changes and voted Republican. They were convinced that they were living through a time in which the cultural and moral foundations of society were crumbling beneath their feet. This is why they joined the Second Klan in the early 1920s.

They weren’t wrong. There really were countless young Losters who were migrating to the cities, reading Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald or H.L. Mencken, aping the lifestyles of Hollywood celebrities, embracing Nietzsche or Sigmund Freud’s ideas, listening to jazz on the radio, throwing off the restraints of religion, morality and custom and embracing Modernism or what Malcolm Cowley described as the Greenwich Village idea. They were starting to live self-centered, hedonistic lifestyles dedicated to the consumption and accumulation of “experiences” and material products. Those people were our ancestors and their culture triumphed over Victorian culture and created the world in which we live today. A century later, we are living at the tail end of the historical cycle which began with them.

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  1. Mencken loathed Los Angeles and called it the capital of American idiocy. He pointed to how it already had the national headquarters of the Rosicrucian Church during the nineteen twenties. He also ridiculed modern progressive education claiming it was no improvement on the old methods of teaching. He said much the same of modern psychiatry. So he was not a wholehearted proponent of modern ideas over the old even though he had little time for much of the old.

  2. I get a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” impression from many of these posts, like you think anything and everything that happened after the 19th century was a mistake, and inevitably led society to black women twerking in the burning ruins of Minneapolis.

    • I’m closely studying this era because …

      1.) I see in it the origins of our present troubles. The rift that opened up at this time has been building up to a crisis.

      2.) I think we are about to go through a similar violent, gut wrenching upheaval and transition between 20th century and 21st century culture.

      3.) The Losters are fascinating to me because of how their lives straddled two worlds. They were the last generation to grow up in Victorian times and the first to become fully Modern. I think our own future will be similar to theirs in the World Wars.

      • There’s certainly something wrong with a society that enjoyed the early summer of 1914 and was suddenly plunged into the Mill on the Meuse. Lightswitch suicide.

  3. Not to shift the topic too much, but the end of the Victorian era alone is an interesting topic of discussion. I was reading Christian von Ehrenfels’ wikipedia article in relation to what he his reaction to the Russo-Japanese war and I think there is an argument to be made about the death of Victorianism being built upon the flawed worldview many who were Victorian seemed to hold.

    Did you know that cowboy and frontier literature was incredibly popular at the time of the Edwardian era? That the heroic rugged frontier adventurer that you later saw in mid-20th century tv shows and movies were a favourite at the time? That even before the first world war, there was a feeling of loss, that at the height of European world power, that somehow men just weren’t as masculine as they were in the past and men themselves wished they could have been an explorer and living along the frontier instead of cities.

    Victorianism was built upon the notion of doing what was expected of you and that everything will turn out alright. Many people were sent to die in mines, factories or pointless wars. For the upper class, there was constant competition with the merchant class and nationalist or democratic sentiment. Many seemed to have felt like they lost their humanity, and by the time you reach the late 1800s you’re dealing with perhaps the second most corrupt plutocratic era, second only to the one we live in now, that culminated in the slaughter that was the First World War and led to the reactionary obsession with the self that existed in the Roaring 20s.

    One only has to look at the types of men involved in leadership during the First World War to see what kind of men were in charge of society by the late Victorian period.

    If there is ever to be a phrase to explain the misery of man it will be that the era from the end of the Thirty Years war roughly, to now is “The Rise of the Merchant Class”. As Big Capital gained an ever-increasing grip on the world, people seemed to become less happy. There was freedom before when you existed on some plot of land somewhere, days if not months away from your capital, where the governor of your community’s word was effectively law, where you could go anywhere you wanted, where land and food were cheap, where there was a lack of censorship and surveillance outside of your immediate community.

    I also wonder if the end of the Modern era is going to be similar to that of the Enlightenment.

    Any thoughts or speculation on either subjects?

    • Yes and this time the Federal reserve is causing the money supply to explode which is making the crooks on Wall Street even more bloated with ill gotten wealth than usual and is laying the foundation for inflation. The Federal Reserve is nothing but trouble.

  4. Hunter, there is an additional book that you might wish to consult: “Rise of Selfishness in America” by James Lincoln Collier. Sam Francis liked it. Russell Neli did a long review of it and other works by Lasch and by Bell in “The Political Science Reviewer” (volume XXII, 1993) entitled “Social Conservatives of the Left.”

  5. “automobile and car culture” … “American homes gained electric service for the first time.”

    My grandfather grew up a sharecropper – they literally ate what they grew. They had no electricity. They had no indoor plumbing – instead they had an outhouse. They had no toilet paper, they wiped their asses with corncobs and pages of the Sears catalog.

    My grandmother survived Indian raids – as a little girl she watched as her father, uncles and brothers killed a dozen Indians attacking their house – and went to church in a horse-drawn buggy.

    People really just do not understand how *quickly* things changed during this time period, and how *much* they changed. Not just ideas and fashion, but the every day material reality of human life.

    For 10’s of thousands of years, people more or less lived the same way – pastoralism. Then within one generation they went from farms to the Space Age.

  6. Hunter, all of these modernism threads…I can’t keep up with you, so I’ll comment here.
    First, I liked the women in bathing costumes. Looks like about 1920. The hair is still long, and notice no bras…hadn’t really been invented yet, and they look like real women, not lacquered types.

    In his book Modern Times, Paul Johnson argued the 20’s was, for America, an Arcadia, but also an intense time of spiritual growth. Literacy increased, it was a golden age for novelists and stories, and a general dissemination of culture came throughout the country and all classes.

    Also, the immigration was controlled (not dried up…as critics say…it was kept to a small flow, greatly favoring Europe, and this was planned. Eugenics were actually very popular.

    There was a lot of ‘ballyhoo’, but it’s important to remember not everyone was a flapper or jazz age follower. Much of the traditional American culture was upheld and enhanced, and seen as a worthy thing to do. The 30’s changed all that.

    American literature was at a high point, and writers like Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis won international awards. Along with new writers like Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay were widely admired. Lindbergh was seen as a new, American, god of aviation.

    Interestingly, Thornton Wilder, in his The Woman From Andros, portrays the European gods as being superseded by new, American gods. This was a prevalent view of many thoughtful people in the 20’s.
    Of course the American culture seen as taking over was regnant with traditional American values, not the Jazz age/nihilism that was slowly coming to define America. In the 20’s was the last time the right really had control of the culture or at least was equal to the left.

    Especially interesting is Main Street. It’s seen as an attack on middle-class, midwest America, but when I read it, I thought it was also a comment on Carol Milford’s attempts to bring Gopher Prairie into ‘cultivated’ society, and how her efforts fail, but she’s kind of a snoot, and I think Lewis created a tension between the ‘uncultivated’ small town people, and Carol’s higher culture…she tries to get them to put on Shakespeare, but the town settles for The Girl From Kankakee, a typical American farce. Gopher Prairie is stuck and unresponsive, but it’s also lively and living. Lewis throughly researched his subject, and it’s a great social document of America then. It’s a shame no one ever made a movie of Main Street, but someone is always going the Gatsby, and never pulls it off.

    But Lewis also warns us in his introduction, that this is the people and culture that will overtake Europe and rule the world. Gulp!

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