Jazz, flappers, and the Lost Generation.

Overview

  • The Lost Generation refers to the generation of artists, writers, and intellectuals that came of age during the First World War (1914-1918) and the “Roaring Twenties.”
  • The utter carnage and uncertain outcome of the war was disillusioning, and many began to question the values and assumptions of Western civilization.
  • Economic, political, and technological developments heightened the popularity of jazz music in the 1920s, a decade of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the United States.
  • African Americans were highly influential in the music and literature of the 1920s.

The First World War

The experience of the Western democracies in the First World War was disheartening and disillusioning. So-called “civilized” countries had declared war on each other for uncertain reasons, had fought to a stalemate in brutal trench warfare conditions, and had then negotiated a peace settlement that neither settled the underlying causes of tension nor truly brought peace.
The nationalistic fervor that had motivated many Americans and Europeans to enlist in the war effort dissipated in the muddy trenches of battle, where the purpose and aims of the war seemed distant and unclear. Technological advances in armaments made World War I the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming millions of casualties on all sides. The very nature of the war called into question the West’s perception of itself as “civilized.” Small wonder, then, that many in the United States and Europe began to question the values and assumptions of Western civilization.1^1

The Lost Generation

The Lost Generation refers to the generation of writers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals that came of age during the First World War and the “Roaring Twenties.” The unprecedented carnage and destruction of the war stripped this generation of their illusions about democracy, peace, and prosperity, and many expressed doubt and cynicism in their artistic endeavors.
Photograph of Ernest Hemingway sitting in front of a fireplace wearing a beret.
Ernest Hemingway in Paris, 1924. Image courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
Some of the most famous Lost Generation writers were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck. Many of these writers lived as expatriates in Paris, which played host to a flourishing artistic and cultural scene.2^2 The themes of moral degeneracy, corruption, and decadence were prominent in many of their works. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is a classic of the genre.

Jazz and the “Roaring Twenties”

Jazz music became wildly popular in the “Roaring Twenties,” a decade that witnessed unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the United States. Consumer culture flourished, with ever greater numbers of Americans purchasing automobiles, electrical appliances, and other widely available consumer products.3^3 The achievement of material affluence became a goal for many US citizens as well as an object of satire and ridicule for the writers and intellectuals of the Lost Generation.
Technological innovations like the telephone and radio irrevocably altered the social lives of Americans while transforming the entertainment industry. Suddenly, musicians could create phonograph recordings of their compositions. For jazz music, which was improvisational, the development of phonograph technology was transformative. Whereas previously, music-lovers would actually have to attend a nightclub or concert venue to hear jazz, now they could listen on the radio or even purchase their favorite recordings for at-home listening.4^4
Photograph of a jazz quintet. African American men play horns, drums, and string instruments.
A jazz orchestra in Texas, 1921. Photograph by Robert Runyon, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
After Congress passed the Volstead Act in 1919, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, many Americans sought refuge in speakeasies and other entertainment venues that hosted jazz bands. Harlem’s Cotton Club was one famous venue, where both whites and blacks gathered to listen to jazz, dance the Charleston, and illicitly guzzle booze. Women attended jazz clubs in large numbers, and the “flapper girl” became a staple of US pop culture. These women flouted orthodox gender norms, bobbing their hair, smoking cigarettes, and engaging in other behaviors traditionally associated with men.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a flourishing of African American art, music, literature, and poetry, centered in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes were among the most famous African American authors associated with this movement. African Americans also dominated the jazz scene in the 1920s. Duke Ellington, who frequently performed at the Cotton Club, was one of the most influential jazz bandleaders and composers of all time.5^5
The Roaring Twenties screeched to a halt on October 29, 1929, also known as Black Tuesday, when the collapse of stock prices on Wall Street ushered in the period of US history known as the Great Depression.

What do you think?

What unifying themes linked the works of the Lost Generation writers?
How did the experience of World War I influence popular culture in the United States?
Why do you think jazz became so popular in the 1920s?
Was mainstream American culture distinct from African American culture during this period?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more, see David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
  2. For more, see Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985).
  3. See Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).
  4. See Kathy J. Ogren, The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  5. For more on the Harlem Renaissance, see Jeffrey B. Ferguson, The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007).
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