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American culture in the 1920s

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

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.
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 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 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
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
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
    (16 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?
    (4 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!
      (19 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
    (6 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.
      (11 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Cory
    Why was the jazz so important in the american revolution
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The American Revolution happened about 150 years before the 1920s.
      This lesson is about the 1920s, when jazz was important.

      Jazz is rooted in the African-american experience and culture. Jazz was one of the ways that white americans came to appreciate aspects of African-american culture. Nevertheless, many white people opposed it for racist reasons.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user chhuon.menglin
    The underlying themes linked the works of lost generations were about the human capitalists. To put them in simple terms, many talented citizens lost their lives in world war one such as artists, writers, and musicians. In effect, WW1 and Roaring Twenties, the technological advances era, happen simultaneously. In the 1920s, Americans could get access to many new revolutionized devices, going along with the unprecedented period of economic development. People could purchase electrical gadgets like radios, and telephones. Fortunately, jazz came to exist and became increasingly prominent when the Americans were able to have devices to listen that type of music comfortably at their homes. Before that, they had had to join the live concert to listen and watch performers. Lucky them. Admittedly, the mainstream American culture was not that much different from African American one. During the 1920s, the American did not discriminate the lifestyle in term of music, literature, whether they were innovated by the Africans or not. Both of two races enjoyed that moment altogether.
    (5 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user European Qoheleth
    I fear we're having our own lost generation right now.
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Zoe Helmke
    What are the underlying negatives during this time, as there still had to be people in poverty and other bad things hidden by all the shimmer and shine?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Connie Wolf
    what is great literature?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Great literature stands the test of time, not just because it got put onto library shelves decades ago and is still there, but because even after centuries people are still reading it, learning from it, and finding new things about themselves from it. Great literature helps us to look into ourselves and into our times. As a boy, I thought Ian Flemming novels (about James Bond) were pretty good stuff, but they didn't have the staying power. I find greater enjoyment, and even better villians, in Jane Austen now.
      Since we're in a lesson about the 1920s, I suppose we can pluck out things written then by Fitzgerald and Hemmingway that are still around today and call those "great literature", and dismiss much of the other fiction writing that was done in that decade as so much paper and ink.
      (6 votes)
  • 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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  • male robot donald style avatar for user Jimothy McYeet
    what effects did the "roaring 20's" have on the world
    (3 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)