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Monday, 6.21.04: Going into the 1920s

(Preparing for my James and Orpha project)

I guess my head contains the usual movie version of the 1920s: prohibition and its gangsters; speakeasies for bootlegged booze; flapper girls with bobbed hair, smoking and dancing the charleston. The Jazz Age. A wild, undisciplined era between the austerities of World War I and the Crash of '29.

Reality was a little more complex. The decade started off with a very American combo of idealism and truculence.

I guess that giving women the vote was idealistic. I've read that 75 years of advocacy simply wore down the opposition. The opponents figured that annoying organizations like the National League of Women Voters would finally go away if the right to vote was granted. But the fact that women could vote opened up a whole Pandora's box of social reform. Women were still essentially property of their fathers and husbands with no independent rights of their own.

Prohibition was idealistic. People were fed up with what they saw as the effect of liquor on the fighting efficiency of a country at war. Temperance was a grass roots movement. The country went dry county by county, and state by state. Within nine weeks of Armistice, the 18th Amendment was ratified and the saloon was banished "once and for all."

We had won World War I (1917-1919) with great sacrifice. We were proud of ourselves. We had done some serious German ass-kicking. The Bolsheviks -- the godless communist Reds who had taken over Russia -- scared the hell out of us but we could kick their asses too. Woodrow Wilson was trying to pull the world together into a League of Nations, but it wasn't very popular. In general, we turned inward and embraced Americanism.

Conformity was a virtue. Tolerance was not. Like today, danger lurked everywhere: Communists, labor unions, aliens, blacks, Jews, Catholics. These and anyone else who could be labeled a radical threatened our American way of life. America was synonymous with WASP.

As I write this, leafing through my books, I get a chill. History does undulate through time in cycles, doesn't it? Right now we are in an Americanist cycle. To hell with globalism, deport the aliens, round up the usual suspects and don't lecture me about your damn rights. America is a Christian country, don't you forget it, and God is on our side.

[Link to James and Orpha Letters]





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