I’m continuing to investigate cosmopolitanism, deracination and how both are connected to the growth of Modernism in 1910s and 1920s America. Why would White Americans repudiate their own ethnic identity? White jazz musicians, the expatriate writers of the Lost Generation who moved to Paris and bohemian artists who lived in enclaves like Greenwich Village in Manhattan were pioneers of this.
The following excerpt comes from Burton W. Peretti’s book The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race and Culture in Urban America:
“As Neil Leonard first argued, the white jazz musicians were among the few younger Americans in the twenties who sensed that the First World War had permanently altered the foundation. Hoagy Carmichael, recalling his days in Bloomington, noted that “it was hard for the veterans of my generation to come back from the Argonne and slow down to the prewar tempo. You get into higher gear and you never quite drop back.” In his perception, nonveterans like himself were changed as well. “The shooting war was over but the rebellion was just getting started. And for us jazz articulated.” Few other jazz musicians alluded to the war in their memoirs – the major effect it had on jazz in America was to bring like-minded musicians together at various training camps, such as Camp Beauregard near New Orleans – but the quickening tempo of their lives compared to that of their elders, and their radical revision of racial and cultural priorities, illustrated the effects of the dynamic Carmichael perceived.
The white jazz musician’s sense of urgency and need, in addition to what they did, showed their similarity to the other major group of what postadolescent dissenters of the twenties – the expatriate writers. Both groups fled mainstream neighborhoods, schools, and economic values, what Ernest Hemingway called the “broad lawns and narrow minds” of his native Oak Park. As Ben Hecht put it, “you did not [in the 1920s] plunge into the worlds of painting, music and literature. You plunged out of worlds,” and “as long as you ‘believed in art’ you remained orphaned from the smothering arms of society. You shaved only when you wanted to and you felt a contempt in your head like a third glass of wine for all that was popular and successful.” Significantly, Hemingway, Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, and other expatriates had lived in Chicago in the 1910s, and a vital avant-garde literary movement in the city had thrived for a few years, centering on the theatrical presentations of the Dill Pickle Club, Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, and Hecht’s own short-lived Chicago Literary Times. Freeman, Tough, and other young musicians knew of this activity, and mimicked it to an extent, developing their own forms of avant-gardist art and nonconformist attitudes.
The expatriate writers, as the critic Malcolm Cowley especially made clear in his memoirs, were characterized by a sense of rootlessness in the wake of the war and a desire to roam, and eventually to leave the United States. Cowley believed “that our whole training was involuntarily directed toward destroying whatever roots we had in the soil, toward eradicating our local and regional peculiarities, toward making us homeless citizens of the world.” His Harvard education instilled in him a sense of the European tradition that (along with favorable exchange rates) drew him to France. Once in Paris, as expatriate memoirs and studies make painfully clear, these Americans remained rootless, troubled, and fiercely individualistic. Their humanistic, cosmopolitan educations and their shedding of ethnic, regional, or national identity perhaps mandated that these writers would remain a fragmented, if not a lost, generation in Europe.”
“Traditionalists wanted to live the simple life, and wanted to have a wife and kids, and mostly farm. Modernists were typically younger people, and wanted more excitement in life. This is when flappers, or women wearing short dresses and dancing, were invented. Traditionalists were people who had deep respect for long-held cultural and religious values. For them, these values were anchors that provided order and stability to society. Modernists were people who embraced new ideas, styles, and social trends. For them, traditional values were chains that restricted both individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
As these groups clashed in the 1920s, American society became deeply divided. Defenders of traditional morality bemoaned the behavior of “flaming youth.” They opposed drinking, and supported prohibition. Old-time religion faced off against modern science. The result was a kind of “culture war” that in some ways is still being fought today.
The new values, referred to as modernism, were at the core of the youth movement and challenged the old, anti-modern, values of the generation before them. While anti-modernism valued the past, the modernists put a greater emphasis on the present and the future as the youth were always looking forward to what was next and what changes were coming their way. Urban living and fast-paced city life became a prime motif of the modernist movement while the anti-modernists stayed in small communities, farms, and villages. The ideal of community life of anti-modernism was being replaced by individuality in the sense that the self was no longer bound to the community. Even time itself was being redefined by the new modernist values with a nine to five work schedule shaping the lives of many of the city dwellers while the anti-modernists held a cyclic sense of time on their farms with the set seasons and harvest times. This modernist movement was spearheaded by the growing independence, liberation, and celebration of youth during this period. Adolescence were leaving their villages and farms to pursue lives in the city and encountered a plethora of new experiences and questions they had not encountered in their anti-modernist shelters.