GAVIN JONES ON THE 1920s: “THERE WAS A FEELING THAT IT COULDN’T REALLY LAST. AND IT DIDN’T.”

This season’s “Another Look” book club selection is Anita Loos’s comic masterpiece Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  The 1925 book was published the same year as another book that looks at the same era: F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  In a fortunate coincidence, the Stanford Alumni Association’s Book Salon is featuring the Fitzgerald book in an online discussion hosted by Gavin Jones, chair of the Stanford English Department. Both events coincide with the release this month of a major motion picture, The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo di Caprio:

“Another Look” stopped to chat with Gavin about the two books, the two worldviews, and the Roaring Twenties.

Cynthia Haven:  Two novels from the same year.  One ends with marriage, the other with death – the comic and tragic sides of an era. Can you give us a little of the historical context that would help us understand the 1920s?

Gavin Jones:  The decade began in turmoil, with the end of World War I and with a mood of socialist revolution in the air. It ended with the Stock Market crash of 1929.

It was very much a boom time.  A time of intense competition as well.  In a way, American society began to look like it does today in the twenties.

Business became a kind of religion. By the end of the twenties, over 40 percent of the world’s manufactured goods came from the U.S.  The U.S. became an enormous global power during this decade.

Mass advertising campaigns began to dominate people’s lives.  The most famous advertisement was for Listerine. Its slogan has become a cliché: “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” In other words, halitosis was pitched as the cause of people’s social failure.

The salesman became a key figure.   Fitzgerald’s father had been a salesman for Proctor and Gamble, and was sacked when Fitzgerald was 12.  Fitzgerald described it as the central crisis of his youth, and became very interested in male failure in his writings.

Henry Ford became the cultural hero of this new business culture.  He claimed to make a new car every 10 seconds.  The road began to take over from the railroad.  There were 23 million cars in 1929, up from 7 million in 1919.  Perhaps the most important development was rise of the closed car.  It led to all sorts of new freedom – it provided a space where young people could become free from parental supervision.

Haven:  Much like the internet has created a new social space today.

Jones:  Kind of like that, yes.  It’s a good comparison.

Haven:  I remember a rather so-so movie about the era, The Yellow Rolls Royce, written by the playwright Terence Rattigan.  The plot turned on an illicit affair that took place in the car of the title.

Jones:  Religious figures and social leaders saw the car as “a house of prostitution on wheels,” according to one judge.  It was a huge cultural shift to suddenly have all of these automobiles buzzing around society.

Haven:   And wasn’t there a yellow car in The Great Gatsby?

Jones:   The authorities are able to track Gatsby down because of his yellow car.  Initially all cars were black.  By the mid-20s, however, new finishing processes for cars led to a rainbow of colors.

HavenThe Great Gatsby ends with a car accident.  Oddly, the era marks the beginning of the car accident, and car fatalities, as a commonplace occurrence.

Jones:  It is very much a new thing.  It’s the emergence of modernity.  These novels describe a certain kind of modernity in which the fate of humans is intertwined with machines.  You can see it just the role of the accident – people are very much more prone to accident rather than intention.  There’s a loss of agency with the growth of industrial power.

Meanwhile, a self-conscious, isolated intellectual class came to the fore in America: H.L. Mencken was a huge figure.  Debunking popular myths was a popular pastime in the era, so intellectuals like Mencken would criticize bankruptcy of mass culture.

Haven:  Even as they accelerated its destitution…

Jones:  There was great disillusionment with the institutions of society and with human culture more generally.

Haven:  It was a time of transition for African Americans, too, with a massive migration from south to north.

Jones:  Harlem becomes a center—a “race capital,” as it was described.  Elite whites became fascinated with black culture and Louis Armstrong became a household name.  African American music began to flow into American households, thanks to the radio.

While it was a time of sharing racial culture, it was also a decade of racism.  The Ku Klux Klan became national and political power in 1920s – particularly in the Midwest and California.  It had 4.5 million members by 1924.

Yet Fitzgerald describes it as an apolitical time.  Politics didn’t matter in 1920s, he writes.  It was all about a certain kind of thoughtless mass culture.

Haven:  With all the upheaval, it must have felt like the end of the world for many people.

Jones:  There was a kind of apocalyptic sense in 1920s, that it was all going to end.  There was a feeling that it couldn’t really last.  And it didn’t.

People became nostalgic very quickly.  By 1930, Fitzgerald was writing about the Twenties like it was another life.  Like the 1960s were, for many people.

Haven:  Crime is under the glittering surface of both novels.  Gatsby’s wealth is supported by bootlegging, crime syndicates, and gambling.

Jones:  Organized crime reaches unprecedented levels, mostly because of Prohibition and the trade in illegal booze. Al Capone controlled revenue from alcohol to the tune of $60 million a year.  Protection rackets become a kind of institution in 1920s.

Haven:  In a sense, the drug culture today doesn’t really compare with the booze scene then.  Our drug scene seems to lack the folly and exuberance.

Jones:  Drugs are more of a subculture today.  Alcohol was really the fuel of an elite culture in the 1920s.  The connotations were much more positive – it represented a certain kind of nonconformity. There was a cachet, even heroism attached to it.  While at Princeton, I knew professors who still had martinis at lunch, and still thought they had a kind of allure. Gin became the most popular drink in the 1920s.

Haven:  In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lorelei and Dorothy represent a new kind of woman, launching out on their own without male protection – and getting as much as they can while committing as little as they can.

Jones:  The flapper was an iconographic figure. These young women smoked defiantly and drank publicly in speakeasies.  Women were also entering labor force in increasing numbers.

Haven:  Women could drink, and vote, and … what about sex?

Jones:  People were obsessed with sex in the Twenties.  The Freudian gospel began to take hold and enter the popular culture.  Sex was seen as a central force in human development – sex explained it all! Terms like inferiority complex, sadism, masochism, the Oedipus Complex entered the language in the twenties.

Premarital sex becomes much more common.  Divorce becomes much more common.  You get what Fitzgerald called the “problem of younger generation,” which was a crucial flashpoint in the Twenties.  The younger generation was Fitzgerald’s great theme.

Movies came to emphasize the body, and kissing – “hot love,” popular confession magazines thrived.  Intense dances developed in the 1920s, emphasizing speed and close bodies, almost falling out of control.  Rudolf Valentino was widely promoted for his lovemaking skills.  Flesh-colored stockings, sleeveless dresses, short skirts: more flesh was on show.   Also, silk and rayon underwear replaced cotton, clinging closer to the skin, showing off the boyish figures that were popular then.

Haven:   America has been described as the land of social dislocation and class anxiety.  In America, money makes the difference between being “upper class” so to speak, and “lower class” – and money says goodbye as often as it says hello.  Certainly social anxiety and insecurity underlie The Great Gatsby, and in a sense, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, too, the story of a hick-town girl toasting champagne with the upper crust.

Jones:  That’s right.  Fitzgerald describes it as a nervous, violent decade.  Things were almost spinning out of control, and people were rising and falling quickly.  There was great social insecurity, a sense that civilization was in crisis.  That attitude takes root after World War I.  It was a time of fragmentation, in which the certainties of the 19th century were no more.  The Evolutionary Gospel began to take hold, religious faith was increasingly questioned by science.  The backlash: Protestant fundamentalism began in the 1920s.

Haven:  Two world wars.  Two very different reactions.  America reacted to the First World War with wildness and abandon, to the second with domesticity and conformity.  Why the difference?

Jones:  Perhaps it’s because the U.S. became involved much later in World War I.  A general intellectual pessimism about civilization after World War I perhaps signaled the problems that hadn’t been fully resolved.

Europe had been bled dry by that first war.  In England and France, a whole generation of young alpha males had been taken out, a generation is missing.

Haven:  Both books show us the same moment of time from different perspectives – but the superabundance wasn’t worldwide.  Europe was recovering from a catastrophic world war – even Lorelei comments on postwar hardship in Germany.  Yet Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited still shows a Twenties esprit in its portrayal of the era.

Jones:   The situation was much more extreme in U.S.  More money, I think – although we should note that, farmers didn’t prosper in rural America.  In general, however, the sudden rise of business was such a huge force, generating so much enormous wealth.  By contrast, England was declining by the 1920s – it as a colonial and industrial power.

Haven:   So what’s the takeaway?  What do these two novels have to tell us today?

Jones:  I think it’s important to understand all the contradictions that came into play in 1920s, because we’re still living with them.

Haven:  The end of the Industrial Revolution is usually placed at the end of World War I, with its emphasis on machinery and invention – and yet it continued.

Jones:  The Industrial Revolution was the beginning of it all.  What changes is the shift toward consumption.  Everything started to shift from production to consumption.  Both of these novels show the moral pitfalls inherent in consumerism.

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