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American culture in the 1920s

AP.USH:
KC‑7.2.I.A (KC)
,
Unit 7: Learning Objective H
,
WXT (Theme)
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.start superscript, 1, end superscript

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.squared 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.cubed 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.start superscript, 4, end superscript
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.start superscript, 5, end superscript
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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Alana O'Flynn
    Was mainstream American culture distinct from African American culture during 1920's
    (15 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user kateweber
    what long term effects did the Roaring 20's have on the U.S economy?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user summersbigsister
      The Roaring Twenties contributed the Great Depression. But specifically, during the Roaring Twenties, inflation rates skyrocketed. The federal government printed way more paper money than was necessary, and so the actual value of the dollar dropped considerably. That is why the Roaring Twenties were so "prosperous". Everyone had plenty of money, but that money was practically worthless. That was not the only factor in causing the Great Depression, of course, but it is a big one.
      Hope this helps!
      (14 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Jimothy McYeet
    what effects did the "roaring 20's" have on the world
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      This was an urban phenomenon in the West. It crashed at the end of the decade. Some might call this a natural consequence of excess. The Roaring Twenties refers to the decade of the 1920s in Western society and Western culture. It was a period of economic prosperity with a distinctive cultural edge in the United States and Europe, particularly in major cities such as Berlin, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, and Sydney. When the urban centers went down, they dragged the rest of the economies in which they existed with them.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user aguirkn544
    How did the world war 1 influence U.S.A population?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Christopher Hill
      Do you mean in the sense that WWII led to the Baby Boomer generation? I'm not certain of exact figures, but the US entered WWI quite late (the war began in 1914, the US entered in 1917, and the war ended in 1919), soldiers and sailors were separated from loved ones for a relatively short period, and the US escaped from the devastation that affected Europe. WWI no doubt had a different outcome on the population than WWII had.
      (5 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jessie
    how did the roaring 20s even happen if you just had a war? you would think that the economy was not in a good place after a war
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Yes, you would think that. And parts of the US economy were doing poorly through the 20s. Farmers had it BAD. But with the economies of the West European nations where and by which the war had been fought were in crisis. America, which had been in the war only briefly, and where NONE of the war was fought, had the industries and productive capacity in place to profit from whatever was being sold wherever it could be sold. The "businesses" profited in an unregulated environment, while the PEOPLE that the businesses exploited sank.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user JAQUAN965
    What unifying themes linked the works of the Lost Generation writers?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user SH4RPSH00TER
    Why was the generation that came of age during World War 1 referred to as the "Lost Generation"?
    (5 votes)
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  • male robot donald style avatar for user FlynnTaggart
    In the article, the First World War is referred to as the "deadliest war in history". However, this same label has also appeared on multiple articles on multiple wars. Could someone clarify on this repetition of titles?
    (2 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user cjruehle2004
    Where did the term "Lost Generation" come from? I know they weren't literally lost, so did it refer to them not knowing what to do with their lives?.
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Sam
      there are two definitions of the Lost Generation that I know of:
      1) a generation that was reduced by the casualties of World War I
      2) a generation who had gone thru WWI and questioned traditional religion/ explanations of the purpose of life leading to
      EXISTENTIALISM
      (4 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Joel Forey
    What was culture in the other parts of the world have in the 1920s?
    (2 votes)
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