Topics in the News
Although he was already America's most interesting and innovative architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1869—1959) produced no public architecture in the United States during the 1920s. His concept of organic integrity was significant in the California houses he designed, but his major work of the decade was the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (having survived earthquake and fire in 1922, it was demolished in 1946); and he spent much of the decade in Japan. Important public architecture in the United States during the decade was relentlessly eclectic. (Built in 1922, Henry Bacon's Lincoln Memorial was a monument for neoclassic architecture, as its seated figure of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French was for academic sculpture.) The 1922 competition for the design of the Tribune Tower in Chicago was won by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood; not until the end of the decade did they eschew eclectic embellishment. The second-place Tribune Tower design by Eliel Saarinen and Walter Gropius, though not built, attracted more attention than HoweUs and Hood's and proved of greater influence on urban architecture, the most important derivative being the Empire State Building.
Leland M. Roth, A Concise History of American Architecture (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).
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Dramas of the "legitimate stage" (performed by live actors before successive audiences) flourished. Nineteen different work by Eugene O'Neill, the supreme American dramatist, were premiered—not all in New York City—in the 1920s (among them: Anna Christie, 1921; Desire Under the Elms, 1924; and Strange Interlude, 1928). George S. Kaufman was author or co-author of eighteen productions and Marc Connelly of eleven—nine of them jointly (for example, Beggar on Horseback, 1924) during the decade. There were nine premiered works by Philip Barry (Holiday in 1928); sixteen by Sidney Howard (They Knew What They Wanted in 1924); and three by Robert E. Sherwood (The Road to Rome in 1927). The first, best, and most successful product of the long collaboration between Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht was The Front Page in 1928. Three plays jointly by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings were premiered (What Price Glory? in 1924), as well as other works by each. Though it would be eclipsed by the opera derived from it in 1935, Porgy by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward was a critical and popular success in 1927.
John MacNicholas, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark/Gale,...
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Censorship and Puritanism
The 1920s are now popularly perceived as an era of hedonistic rebellion against Victorian repression. Prohibition, the decade's defining institution, made dissipation a matter of principle and lawlessness chic. But the speakeasy would not have existed without the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, a triumph for puritanism. Deriving from optimistic overconfidence in the power of law to promote human virtue, Prohibition—which became the law of the land in 1919—was an experiment no less characteristic of the 1920s than other more rebellious experiments. Puritanism—contemporaneously defined as the fear that somebody somewhere is having a good time—remained a powerful force throughout the decade.
The battles between puritanism and the New Freedom were triggered by the marked changes in American society resulting from World War I. Young men who had never traveled went to France. A great war was fought, and boys died for idealistic slogans promulgated by old men. Women enjoyed previously unheard-of personal liberty, and many of them held what had been regarded as men's work during the war. The war brought new prosperity and new leisure. The issues were youth versus age, small town versus city, native-born versus immigrant, fundamentalism versus science. The struggle was particularly evident in the...
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Patrons of professional ballet in the early decades of the twentieth century tended toward a view of culture as a European import. At its best, American ballet was ardently derivative; resident companies hardly existed outside the major cities, and much of what little professional dancing was accessible to the public was both imported and of poor quality. Ballet schools were numerous—then, as now, ballet being considered an appropriate physical activity for young ladies. (The art of American modern dance would scarcely exist without the opportunity provided by regional ballet schools for early exposure to performance dance.)
The state of popular professional dancing at the time was no better. Modern-dance pioneer Ted Shawn, describing the situation that existed in his youth, said, "Dancers in musicals kicked 16 to the right,16 to the left and kicked the backs of their heads. In vaudeville you had the soft shoe, the sand shuffle and the buck and wing."
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At certain times during the 1920s the centers of American literature, music, and art appeared to be located in the Montparnasse and Latin Quarter sections of Paris on the Left Bank of the Seine. There are ample explanations for this reverse migration. World War I had introduced Americans to France ("How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?"); transatlantic travel was cheap; the exchange rate (twenty francs to the dollar) enabled Americans to live better in France than at home; there was Prohibition and puritanism in America; there were opportunities for Americans to get published in Paris; everybody else was going there. Although there were pockets of Americans in Germany, England, and Italy, Paris was the preferred venue for creative figures, especially those serving their apprenticeships. There was also an American colony on the Riviera, about which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art."
City Full of Geniuses.
The reputations of the now-famous expatriates have obscured the actuality that there were more fakers than workers. In one of his earliest dispatches from Paris in 1922 Ernest Hemingway declared; "The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladlesful on that section of Paris adjacent to the Café...
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Another musician remarked that no trumpet player could do anything that Louis Armstrong had not already done. Armstrong's contemporaries included pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton, blues singer Bessie Smith, and orchestra leader-composer Duke Ellington. The innovations and achievements of these and other black musicians in the 1920s proved to be the first widespread fulfillment of black American talent and genius. There were no doubt mute black geniuses in the arts before then who were deprived of the opportunity to utilize their genius. Art requires an audience, an interaction between the maker and the perceiver by means of the work; and artists, however compelling their creative urges, require incomes. Jazz provided black musicians with an art and a cross-racial public during the 1920s. The bootleggers functioned as patrons of American musical culture. The speakeasies were concert halls. The phonograph extended the popularity and the profitability of jazz.
The term jazz, current before World War I (variably as jass), was applied to a way of dancing, to a type of music, and as a synonym for sexual inter-course—each meaning being disputably "the original." As music it is characterized by informality, syncopation, and a strong beat, and as dance by liberation from the more inhibited mating...
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Certain writers, painters, and musicians found new ways of perceiving reality that came to be defined as modernism—not a period of time but a commitment to experimentation in techniques, freedom in ideas, originality in perceptions, and self-examination in emotions. In general it manifests a rejection of traditional techniques and unexamined values. It often—not invariably—expresses the plight of the individual in a world of machinery and commercialism. Perhaps the greatest influence on the ways writers endeavored to convey experience was the stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). Utilizing one day in Dublin, Joyce explored the interior lives of his characters by means of the association of ideas and sensory impressions. Novelist John Dos Passos adapted Joyce's techniques to American life. His Manhattan Transfer (1925) connects hundreds of episodes to convey a sense of New York City. The strongest influence on literary modernism was the new psychology with its analysis of the operations of the unconscious and myth. Sigmund Freud explicated the id, ego, and superego; and Carl Jung identified "the collective unconscious,"
Modern literature, like Cubism and abstraction in painting, required re-education for comprehension. In his 1929 novel The Sound and...
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Stimulated by the aspiration and confidence that characterized the decade, the literary artists of the 1920s shared an ambition to make their work not just new but an expression of the possibilities of American creative force. The popularity of the term renaissance indicated a belief in the imminence of great developments in American culture. The Harlem Renaissance and the Southern Renaissance shared material but were segregated as to membership; no writer belonged to both.
In 1920 the South was H. L. Mencken's "Sahara of the Bozart"; its literature was retrospective and trapped in the lost culture of Before-the War. Two Richmond novelists who belonged to the Southern establishment, James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow, led the attack on the old school of literature and urged the discovery of Southern writers who would treat Southern material in new ways. Cabell (1879-1958) utilized satire and fantasy in creating the kingdom of Poictesme. Glasgow (1873-1945) utilized satire and realism in portraying the postbellum South. The Richmond-based journal The Reviewer (1921-1925) published Julia Peterkin, DuBose Heyward, and Paul Green. Charleston, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, were also pockets of literary activity.
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Art and Money.
Periods of great artistic activity require wealth and leisure. The prosperity of the American 1920s and the rise of new classes provided a public and a market for artistic endeavors. It takes money to buy a theater ticket or concert ticket; it takes time to attend; it takes previous experience or education to understand the performance. During the 1920s the arts became important to classes of Americans who had heretofore been indifferent to them. This awareness of the arts was concomitant with the development of mass media. In previous decades American art was nurtured in certain big-city enclaves mainly in the Northeast, particularly New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Newspapers did not have national distribution; there were no newsmagazines; there was no radio. But arts and letters became national news during the 1920s; artists and writers were newsworthy. Money makes headlines. The publicized record prices for paintings, statues, and rare books impressed people and in some cases stimulated their interest. It was characteristic of the era that genius and materialism were linked. There was a general belief that if something was really important, then it ought to be worth a lot of money.
The most spectacular development occurred in the movies. Nickelodeons became picture palaces as the movies—before and after...
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The movies and radio killed vaudeville, but Broadway provided a string of brilliant musical productions, many by younger composers and lyricists. The revue format consisting of a series of unconnected acts remained popular; in addition to the annual Ziegfeld Follies that had started before the war, there were the George White Scandals, Irving Berlin's Music Box Revues, Earl Carroll's Vanities, and others. The hit shows included No, No, Nanette (Vincent Youmans and Otto Harbach), Show Boat ( Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), A Connecticut Yankee (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart), and Lady, Be Good! (George and Ira Gershwin).
Ethan Madden, Better Foot Forward: The History of American Musical Theater (New York: Grossman, 1976).
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"Ashcan," "Precisionist," "Regionalist"—several schools of American art flourished in the 1920s, as well as important painters unallied with any school.
The "Ashcan School," developed from Impressionism, was realistic painting of informal subject and style. John Sloan (1871-1951) and George Bellows (1882-1925) were still producing important work in the 1920s (Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street by Sloan in 1928; Lady Jean by Bellows in 1924), though they are identified especially with the preceding decade.
After the 1913 New York Armory Show launched modern art in America, the two principal clusters of American avant-garde artists were the Stieglitz Group and the Precisionists. All of these painters were born in the 1870s and 1880s, and they overlapped. The Stieglitz circle were painters who had been exhibited by photographer Alfred Stieglitz at his 291 Fifth Avenue gallery. Mostly European-trained and influenced by Cubism, they included Max Weber (1881—1961) and Arthur Dove (1880-1946), who had been in Henry Matisse's painting class in Paris in 1908; John Marin (1870-1953) and Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) had also studied in Europe. Weber, the first to develop a mature style, was a Cubist painter and sculptor. His...
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Major poems were written during the 1920s by poets who were publishing before the war: Robert Frost (1874-1963), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). It is therefore misleading to identify the poets who began appearing in the 1920s without acknowledging their senior colleagues, especially Pound. Although Pound published his first book of verse in 1908, he was the most influential poet of the 1920s in terms of both his own work and his assistance to other writers. He encouraged gifted writers as different as Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot; he edited journals, drafted manifestoes, and arranged for the publication of other poets' work. As a leader of the Imagists, Pound wrote a perfect Imagist poem, "In a Station of the Metro":
The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Petals on a wet black bough.
The first sixteen of Pound's most ambitious undertakings, the Cantos—poems drawing on a vast range of historical material—were published in 1925.
The Waste Land.
T. S. Eliot (1892-1965) dedicated The Waste Land (1922) to Pound with the words, "il migglior fabbro" (the better craftsman). The Waste Land was the most influential...
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Pulps and Detective Fiction
The hard-boiled style, an enduring influence on American writing, began in what was regarded as the subliterary environment of pulp fiction—so named because the magazines were cheaply printed on wood-pulp paper. This way of writing flourished in the pulps—also known as dime novels—that specialized in mystery-detective-crime fiction. The best and best known of these pulps was Black Mask. From the pulp racks grew what has been described as an authentic voice of American fiction. Raymond Chandler was a later Black Mask alumnus. The hard-boiled school outlived the demise of the pulps, achieved respectability, and flourishes in the 1990s.
Hard-boiled writing results from the use of violent or brutal action and the writer's response to that material. It is therefore realistic fiction with some or all of these elements: objective viewpoint, impersonal tone, colloquial speech, tough characters, and under-stated style.
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was the first major figure in the hard-boiled movement; if he did not invent it, he certainly perfected it. Hammett first appeared in Black Mask during 1922. In 1929 he was published by the respected imprint of Alfred A. Knopf with his first novel, Red Harvest, which had been...
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Satire and Humor
Era of Satire.
Cynicism and ebullience coexisted during the 1920s and found joint expression as satire in words and in images. It was an era when ridicule was the weapon of choice. Politicians, financiers, intellectuals, puritans, reformers, feminists, and revolutionaries were popular targets. The main target was pomposity.
Irreverence and Wit.
The defining characteristic of American humor is irreverence—the refusal to be impressed by or respectful of institutionalized power or conventional morality. Wit was prized during the 1920s, and reputations were built on the application of it. The reputations of literary humorists rarely outlive them because humor becomes identified with its time: a comic style often achieves its humor by originality of perception and expression; repeated and copied, it becomes corny. Satire and parody, however brilliant, depend on reader recognition of material that usually has a short literary life. Of the many 1920s humorists, the one who has achieved the greatest permanent stature and readership is Ring W. Lardner. His acutely observed misanthrope's sketches of personalities and human relationships, in particular, have retained an audience; and some of his topical material—baseball, for example—has acquired historical value.
Parody and Verse.
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Naturalism to Modernism.
Naturalistic sculpture was ascendant at the start of the 1920s, The heroic in scale and theme was exemplified by Daniel Chester French's Lincoln Memorial statue begun in 1922 and Henry
French-born and -educated, émigré Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), who worked as an assistant to Manship, continued as an independent sculptor in the Beaux Arts tradition (Dolphin Fountain, 1924) but with greater originality in his bronze female nudes of monumental proportions (Standing Woman, 1912-1927, and...
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Impact of Sound.
No matter how well photographed and directed, filmed drama is incomplete in the absence of audible spoken dialogue. The exaggerated mugging
In the early years silent comedies were restricted to one-reelers and two-reelers—running for seven to fourteen minutes. These shorts did not permit the development of character or mixed emotions, but they were enormously popular throughout the silent era. One thousand reels of short comedies were released in 1925.
The Little Tramp.
The golden period of silent comedy commenced in 1914 when Charlie Chaplin went to work at...
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The full literary impact of Marxism came in the 1930s, but the Russian Revolution and the political suppressions during the 1920s influenced American writers who were socialists if not communists. These writers attempted to use literature as a class weapon. The most productive radical novelist of the decade was Upton Sinclair (1878-1968). A veteran of earlier protests, Sinclair published Boston (1929), a two-volume novel based on the Sacco-Vanzettti case. The younger literary radicals included Floyd Dell, Joseph Freeman, Max Eastman, and Michael Gold. John Dos Passos (1896-1970) was the most innovative—and the most talented—of the young radicals. Although he later moved to the Right, during the 1920s and 1930s he used news reports of oppression and injustice in his fiction-as-contemporary-history novels. Dos Passos experimented with techniques from cinema and modern painting to provide impressions of contemporary American social and political events.
Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961);
Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States 1900-1954 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956).
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The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson opened at the Warner Theatre in New York on 6 October 1927 and inaugurated the motion-picture talkie era. But the movie renowned as the first talkie was actually a silent with partial sound. It was not even the first feature movie with synchronized sound: Don Juan in 1926 had a synchronized music score and sound effects. Nonetheless, Jolson spoke the first line of dialogue in a full-length movie: 'Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet."
Rush to Sound.
There was an apparent economic motive, apart from technological and personnel costs, to resist the change: the restoration of language to drama immediately limited the audience, which had been worldwide. With the transition to sound, the only universally accessible form of dramatic narrative ceased to exist. But, although some movie-industry people dismissed sound as a fad, audience demand was irresistible. The rush to sound was on, and all the studios eventually converted. Weekly movie attendance rose from 57 million in 1927 to 95 million in 1929.
After more part-sound features, Warner premiered the first all-talking feature movie, Lights of New York, in July 1928. The Warner sound system, Vita-phone, used records synchronized with the...
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Armstrong, Louis 1901-1971
An American Treasure.
Louis Armstrong was probably born on 4 August 1901, but he appropriated 4 July 1900 as his official birthday to reinforce his identification with American history. Born out of wedlock in New Orleans to Mary Albert and Will Armstrong, a laborer, he grew up surrounded by music. At twelve he was sent to the Colored Waifs Home for firing a gun on New Year's Eve. There Armstrong learned to play the cornet.
Supreme geniuses develop rapidly. In 1920 Armstrong was working with the Fate Marable Band on Mississippi steamboats. Then in 1922 he was invited to join King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. Oliver, then the leading cornet player, acted as Armstrong's mentor; but the apprentice excelled his master. His reputation among other musicians soared. His playing was distinguished by energy, clear tone, rich phrasing, lyricism, and complexity. Hoagy Carmichael described his first exposure to Armstrong playing...
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Berlin, Irving 1888-1989
When asked to comment on Irving Berlin's place in American music, Jerome Kern famously declared: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music," None of his contemporaries in an era of great songwriters that included Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter wrote so many standard American songs. His fifteen hundred songs display an extraordinary range of material and moods: "White Christmas," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Remember," "Always," "Blue Skies," "Cheek to Cheek," "Puttin' on the Ritz."
This intensely American troubador was born in Russia and arrived in America when he was five. His father died when he was eight, and Israel Baiine took to the streets of New York with less than two years of schooling. Working as a singing waiter in low saloons, he taught himself to pick out tunes on the black keys of the piano in the key of F-sharp. There is disagreement about whether he ever learned to read or write music. For the rest of his life he composed on the black keys ab ad the music...
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Chaplin, Charlie 1889-1977
The American recognized more readily than any other throughout the world for more than seventy years was inhabited by an Englishman. Charles Spencer Chaplin, the child of English music-hall entertainers, grew up in English work-houses and orphanages, but his success story is a type of the American dream unrivaled by the imaginings of Hollywood: he became the supreme genius of movie comedy. His work has been analyzed by intellectuals and enjoyed everywhere by people wanting to be amused, and his Little Tramp is still such an identifiable Everyman that an impersonation of him has been used to sell electronic office equipment.
At twelve Chaplin was on the stage, and at seventeen he was touring with the Fred Karno comedy troupe. In 1914 he was hired by Mack Sennett to appear in the silent shorts made by Mack Sennett's Keystone...
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Fitzgerald, F. Scott 1896-1940
Tales of the Jazz Age.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is the American writer most closely identified with the 1920s, which he named the Jazz Age. Early success, alcoholism, and an appetite for glamorous society rendered him the subject for enduring literary gossip. Although Fitzgerald's popular reputation has been distorted into that of a playboy who squandered his genius, he was a productive author whose best fiction occupies a permanent place among the classics of American literature.
The only son of a respectable merchant-class Roman Catholic family—on his father's side genteel and on his mother's prosperous—Fitzgerald left Saint Paul, Minnesota, for an academically precarious but socially and artistically profitable four years at Princeton University, leaving without a degree to serve stateside in World War I in 1917. In 1920 his first novel, This Side of Paradise, brought him...
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Gershwin, George 1898-1937
Born Jacob Gershwine in Brooklyn, George Gershwin was the most brilliant figure among the cadre of brilliant song-writers of his time. Before his early death he had progressed from Broadway to classical forms and opera, treating the jazz idiom with increasing complexity.
A gifted pianist, he was a song plugger on Tin Pan Alley at sixteen. In 1919 he wrote his first big hit, "Swanee," followed by scores for the George White Scandals (1920-1924) that included "Stairway to Paradise," "Do it Again," and "Somebody Loves Me." Gershwin was handsome and attracted admiration. He behaved with the confidence of his genius.
George and Ira.
George Gershwin wrote only the music for his songs. After 1924 his older brother, Ira, was his lyricist for a string of successful Broadway and Hollywood productions. George's fame overshadowed Ira's reputation, but the two artists worked together comfortably. Their first hit musical was Lady, Be Good! in 1924 (which introduced "Fascinating...
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Held, John, Jr. 1889-1958
Illustrator of the Jazz Age.
The work of John Held Jr. so accurately delineated and parodied the new fashions of the 1920s that his illustrations became guides for the conduct and costume of flaming youth. He was the most popular and highest-paid artist of the decade, appearing in Life, Judge, The New Yorker, College Humor, and Vanity Fair. If a magazine had circulation problems, it commissioned a Held cover. He drew syndicated comic strips; he provided dust-jacket art; he made blockprints; he sculpted; he painted landscapes and cityscapes; he designed theater sets and costumes.
Held was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, where his father was a musician and an illustrator. He had no formal art training, apart from working in his father's engraving shop. Held attended grade school and high school intermittently, but at fourteen he was a cartoonist for the Salt Lake City Tribune. As was the case with many gifted youths of...
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Hemingway, Ernest 1899-1961
The Writer as Celebrity.
Ernest Hemingway became America's most famous and recognizable writer, combining literary genius with a life of action. He may have been more widely celebrated as a sportsman, warrior, traveler, and drinker than as a literary figure. It has been frequently remarked that Hemingway's greatest fictional character was Hemingway.
The elder son in the large family of a devout doctor and a music teacher, Hemingway grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, summering at Walloon Lake in northern Michigan. Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, was prosperous and puritanical. In Michigan Hemingway found the material for his early fiction: events of sudden tragedy and pathos endured by the local Indians; the life-and-death consciousness of the hunter and fisherman; and the adept participant and empathic witness that he discovered in himself. Hemingway did not attend college. After graduating from high school in 1917, he worked for a brief time as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star before joining the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. During World War I Hemingway was wounded while serving on the Italian front. Married in 1921 to Hadley, the first of his four wives, assisted by the income of her trust fund, and encouraged by Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway returned to Europe as a correspondent...
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Hughes, Langston 1902-1967
The "poet laureate of the Negro race" was born into a troubled family, albeit one with a long history of abolitionist activism. Abandoned by his father's immigration to Mexico, young Langston and his mother moved in with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent an unhappy, lonely childhood. In 1915 his mother moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio, where he began publishing stories and poems in the highschool magazine, reflecting his concerns with race and social justice.
Travel and First Book.
After high school and a stay in Mexico with his father, Hughes returned to the United States for a year at Columbia University. Throughout a period that included odd jobs in New York, work as a messboy on ships traveling to Africa and Europe, and a job washing dishes in a Paris nightclub featuring black entertainers, Hughes was publishing poems in journals such as The Crisis, the journal for the NAACP, and...
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Jolson, Al 1866-1950
The World's Greatest Entertainer.
According to different sources Asa Yoelson was born in Russia or in Washington, D.C. As a boy he sang in the streets and in saloons, running away from his Orthodox Jewish home several times in attempts to break into show business. At fifteen he was performing in vaudeville. By 1906 jolson was working in blackface.
From the mid nineteenth century through the 1920s whites and blacks in burnt cork or grease paint performed exaggerated and distorted versions of black material. These acts—in and out of minstrel shows—were extremely popular with white audiences and frequently featured blacked-up whites yearning to return to the South. This nostalgia for a way of life that the audiences had never experienced may have resulted from the familial yearnings of immigrant groups. Jolson was by far the most successful of the mammy singers. In 1912 a runway from the stage was constructed in the Winter Garden on Broadway to enable Jolson to work closer to the audience. He probably introduced his mannerism of singing on one knee in 1913. The 1921 show Bombo included four songs that became Jolson standards: "My Mammy," "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," "California Here I Come," and "April Showers." Although he was a showman who put songs across with dancing and gesturing, his...
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Lardner, Ring W. 1885-1933
Ringgold Wilmer Lardner was the last master of American vernacular humor. Born in Niles, Michigan, he briefly studied engineering; but newspapers were his college at a time when most American writers came out of the newsrooms. Starting as a sports reporter for the South Bend Times, in 1919 he took over "In the Wake of the News," the widely read Chicago Tribune sports column. Lardner filled his daily columns with verse, parody, and short fiction.
You Know Me AL
In 1914 he published his first short story, "A Busher's Letters Home," which initiated the highly popular You Know Me Al series. These stories consist of quasi-literate letters written by an ignorant, boastful, dishonest, mean baseball pitcher. Known as the Busher stories, they established Lardner's reputation as a slang writer. H. L. Mencken observed in The American Language that "Lardner reports the common speech not only with humor, but also with the utmost accuracy." These stories solidified Lardner's fame as a writer of baseball fiction, although the range of his later stories extended to show business, the new leisure class, and marriage. His most widely reprinted story, "Champion"—about a corrupt fighter—appeared in 1916. The success of his magazine work enabled Lardner to give up the grind...
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O'Neill, Eugene 1888-1953
The Greatest American Dramatist.
American drama is divisible into two periods: before and after Eugene O'Neill. The son of James O'Neill, a popular actor, Eugene O'Neill was born in a hotel at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street and grew up in the theater. Rejecting the crowd-pleasing melodrama form, O'Neill enlarged the scope, material, and technique of American drama while setting high aspirations for himself and writing masterpieces that included The Emperor Jones (1920), Anna Christie (1921), Desire Under the Elms (1924), Strange Interlude (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Iceman Cometh (1946), A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947), and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956).
O'Neill was dismissed from Princeton during his freshman year and spent his young manhood as a sailor, alcoholic, and beachcomber. The destructive love and guilt of his family inspired O'Neill's later family dramas: the father believed he had wasted his talent in moneymaking roles; the mother was addicted to morphine; the alcoholic son Jamie was an embittered failure. O'Neill began writing plays in 1913, developing themes of family guilt and strife, the destructive power of love, the constrictions of marriage, the necessity for sensitive and gifted...
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Rosenbach, A. S. W. 1876-1952
"The Napoleon of the Auction Room."
Dr. Abraham Simon Wolfe Rosenbach was the greatest rare-book dealer in the world during the 1920s; indeed, he is regarded as the greatest one who ever lived. Combining scholarship with salesmanship and showman-ship, Rosenbach bought and sold more great books and manuscripts and built more major collections than anyone else. He boasted that the books and manuscripts in his vault were worth more than the total inventory of Macy's department store.
An Era of Bibliophiles.
Great men match their times; their achievements are encouraged by the spirit of an era. The 1920s produced wealthy collectors who cherished their books and enjoyed the competition for rarities. By setting record prices in the auction rooms of New York and London, Rosenbach validated the cultural and investment values of books and manuscripts.
A Philadelphian, Rosenbach was the nephew of antiquarian bookseller Moses Pollock and started pursuing books in his boyhood. Rosenbach planned an academic career, but after taking his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania he began selling books in his brother Philip's antique store. A bon vivant who drank a bottle of whiskey a day, Rosenbach had the ability to develop friendships with his customers,...
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Smith, Bessie 1894-1937
Empress of the Blues.
Born in poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith became the greatest of blues singers. Supposedly discovered when she was eleven by blues singer Ma Rainey, Smith toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and tent shows in the South. During her lifetime the blues was regarded as a form of black expression; she performed for mostly black audiences and recorded for what were classified as race records that were not stocked in record shops catering to whites. Unlike Louis Armstrong, who reached all audiences, Smith was unknown or unavailable to most white Americans during her career. She was a black artist working with traditional black material for a black public; nevertheless, Smith gave special performances for white audiences in some large cities.
Smith reached her own audience through 160 records. She made her first identified recordings in 1923, "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down-Hearted Blues." These two sides sold an extraordinary 780,000 copies, and Smith became the...
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Thalberg, Irving 1899-1936
Irving Thalberg became an icon of American success mythology, but he did not rise from poverty; his German-Alsatian Jewish family was middle class. A Brooklyn boy who had not finished high school because of illness, Thalberg was employed at eighteen as a secretary in the New York office of Universal Pictures; he became general manager of the California studio when he was twenty. The story went around Hollywood that he was running a major studio before he was old enough to sign the payroll.
In 1923 Thalberg joined Louis B. Mayer as vice president of the Mayer Company. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was formed by Loew's, Inc., in 1924, Thalberg became second vice president and supervisor of production. Mayer as president and Thalberg built the largest and most successful studio in Hollywood, based on its stable of stars and expensive productions. The M-G-M slogan was "More stars than in the heavens," and the studio roster included Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Spencer Tracy, and Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer. His achievements resulted from his management skills, his decisiveness, and his movie sense. He had a strong understanding of movie structure and was able to supervise an entire production. Slim and handsome, Thalberg was mild-mannered; yet...
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People in the News
Film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was arrested for the rape and murder of a young actress found unconscious in his hotel room on 5 September 1921. Arbuckle was acquitted after three trials but his career was ruined.
In 1924 George Pierce Baker was named the director of Yale University's newly established department of drama, and he laid the groundwork for a program that would later be recognized as the best theater training center in the United States.
Josephine Baker became an immediate star in La Revue Nègre, Paris, in 1925.
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum abandoned work on the Lee-Jackson Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in March 1925. He shifted his attention to Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, where he commenced work on portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt in 1927.
In 1921 Nadia Boulanger became composition teacher at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France.
In 1926 Constantin Brancusi had to pay an import fee for his Bird in Flight when it was classified as a taxable piece of metal—not a sculpture—by U.S. customs officials.
A. P. Carter, Sara Dougherty Carter, and Maybelle Addington Carter formed the Carter Family singing group in 1927....
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AMERICAN ACADEMY AND INSTITUTE OF ARTS AND LETTERS GOLD MEDAL
Edwin H. Blashfield—painting
William C. Brownell—essays and belles lettres
William M. Sloane—history and biography
George W. Chadwick—music
Edwin Arlington Robinson—poetry
JOHN NEWBERY MEDAL (CHILDREN'S BOOKS)
The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Van Loon
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
Dark Frigate, by Charles Hawes
Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles Finger
Shen of the Sea, by Arthur Chrisman
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Brooks Adams, 78, historian (The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma), 13 February 1927.
James Lane Allen, 75, local-color novelist (A Kentucky Cardinal), 18 February 1925.
John Kendrick Bangs, magazine editor and humorist (A Houseboat on the Styx), 21 January 1922.
Nora Bayes, 47, singer ("Shine on Harvest Moon"), 19 March 1928.
Henry A. Beers, 79, literary critic, 7 September 1926.
George Bellows, 42, painter, 8 January 1925.
William Crary Brownell, 76, literary critic and editor, 22 July 1928.
Frances Hodgson Burnett, 74, author (Little Lord Fauntleroy), 29 October 1924.
John Burroughs, 83, naturalist writer, 29 March 1921.
Donn Byrne, 39, Irish American writer (Messer Marco Polo), 19 June 1928.
George Washington Cable, 80, local-color writer (Old Creole Days), 31 January 1925.
William Bliss Carman, 68, Canadian American poet (Songs from Vagabondia, with Richard Hovey), 8 June 1929.
Emma Carus, 48, singer, 18 November 1927.
Enrico Caruso, Italian tenor, 2 August 1921....
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Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties (New York: Harper, 1931);
Charles and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (New York: Macmillan, 1927);
H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Second Series—Sixth Series (New York: Knopf, 1920, 1922, 1924, 1926, 1927);
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1927);
Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, 3 volumes (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927-1930);
Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts (New York: Harper, 1924);
Harold Stearns, Civilization in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922);
Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925 (New York: Scribners, 1926-1935).
Eustace Hale Ball, The Art of the Photoplay, second edition (New York: Veritas, 1919);
Iris Barry, Let's Go to the Movies (New York: Payson & Clarke, 1926);
Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1953);
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Important Events in The Arts, 1920–1929
- The Americanization of Edward Bok by Edward W. Bok and
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis are the year's sellers.
- Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Katherine Dreier organize the New York Societé Anonyme for promoting modern art.
- The Pavley-Oukrainsky Ballet of the Chicago Civic Opera is the first American Ballet Company.
- Reginald de Koven's opera Rip Van Winkle is performed by the Chicago Opera Association.
- The Juilliard Foundation is established in New York to encourage music in the United States.
- Joseph Stella paints Brooklyn Bridge.
- Thomas Hart Benton paints Portrait of Josie West.
- Arturo Toscanini and the LaScala Orchestra give their first American performances.
- Jo Davidson sculpts Gertrude Stein.
- Lorado Taft sculpts Fountain of Time.
- On February 2, Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon opens at New York's Morosco Theater. It wins the 1920 Pulitzer Prize.
- On June 7, George White's Scandals opens with songs by George Gershwin.
- On November 1, Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones opens.
- On December 21, Zona Gale's Miss...
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