The "Return to Normalcy" Speech
Published in 1920
The 1920 election marked a major shift in the mood and direction of U.S. society. During the Progressive Era (roughly 1900 to 1914), elected officials and other leaders sought to achieve social reforms by expanding the federal government's power to protect the vulnerable, especially workers, children, and consumers. Under the lead of the idealistic Democratic president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), the nation had stood by the Allies (Great Britain, France, and Italy) against German aggression in a war that was meant, in a phrase common during the period, to "make the world safe for democracy." But in the aftermath of that bloody conflict, U.S. citizens faced not only the knowledge of its horrors but also an economic recession at home. They began to retreat from the outward looking stance of progressivism toward isolationism (staying separate from other countries' affairs). When it came time to elect a new president, Wilson's Democratic Party was weak and divided. It chose as its candidate Ohio's progressive-leaning governor, James M. Cox (1870–1957). The Republicans also chose an Ohioan: a popular newspaper publisher and senator named Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23).
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Excerpt from Babbitt
Published in 1922
Anative of the midwestern United States, Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) chronicled through novels and short stories the changes brought by the shift from a mainly rural, agricultural society to one that was increasingly urban and industrial. The middle-class businessman and resident of the up-and-coming town of Zenith who is the title character of Babbitt is probably Lewis's best-known creation. The novel captures in realistic detail many of the major trends of the 1920s, including the worship of business, rising materialism and consumerism, boosterism (enthusiastic promotion), and the conflict between the older and younger generations. Lewis exposes a spiritual emptiness and complacency (being uncritically satisfied with oneself or one's society) at the core of his characters' lives.
Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, a tiny village on the Minnesota prairie. He entered Yale University in 1903, pursuing his interest in writing and publishing his work in student magazines. After traveling to Europe and Central America, Lewis graduated in 1908. He lived in Iowa, New York, California, and Washington, D.C., working as a journalist while also writing short stories and novels. Lewis's first big success came with the publication of his novel Main Street (1920), in which the central character, Carol...
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Lewis, Ellen Welles
Excerpt from "A Flapper's Appeal to Parents"
Published on December 6, 1922
Even before the 1920s began, a new kind of young woman was emerging in the world. As early as 1915, the celebrated journalist H.L. Mencken (1880–1956) was commenting on this woman's appearance in the pages of The Smart Set, a New York-based magazine that combined social satire with commentary on the arts. According to Mencken, this new young woman was characterized by her very different appearance, especially her shorter skirts and bobbed (short) hair. The use of the word "flapper" to describe her seems to have originated in England, in reference to the unbuckled, floppy galoshes (rain boots) that some young women there were wearing.
The women of the previous generation had been part of the Victorian era, which corresponds roughly to the years 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria (1819–1901) ruled Great Britain. Women of this period were expected to dress and behave modestly. They wore long skirts and high collars, with tight corsets (body-shaping undergarments) and layers of petticoats underneath, and their long hair was piled on top of their heads. They were the embodiments of innocence, protectors of morality, obedient to their husbands, and devoted to their children. By the 1920s, however, new ideas about women's roles were taking hold, a development that had...
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Excerpt from "The Weary Blues"
Published in 1923
Recognized as the best known and most celebrated of African American poets, Langston Hughes (1902–1967) began his career, which would span five decades, during the Harlem Renaissance. This period of creative and intellectual achievement took place during the 1920s and was centered in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, which had become a gathering place for African Americans. As a young, exciting, up-and-coming poet, Hughes played an important role in setting the tone and style of this era. His vivid, often earthy poems were written in language that echoed both the jazz and blues music that dominated the Harlem Renaissance and the language spoken by the ordinary people of that time and place.
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was raised by his mother after his father left for Mexico. They moved often, and Hughes sometimes lived with his grandmother. While attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio, where his mother had moved with her new husband, Hughes began writing poems that were published in his school's literary magazine. These poems were written in traditionally rhymed and metered verse modeled...
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Closing Argument in the Leopold and Loeb Trial
Published in 1924
In the late spring of 1924 the nation was shocked by the news of a kidnapping and murder in Chicago, Illinois. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two nineteen-year-olds from wealthy families, had confessed to the brutal killing of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. The young men had shown no remorse, admitting that they had plotted for some time to commit the perfect crime. Their plan was spoiled when Leopold left his eyeglasses at the scene, which eventually led to their arrest. The public expressed outrage at the crime, with many declaring that the killers, popularly characterized as "spoiled brats," deserved the death penalty.
Hoping to spare their children from such a fate, the families of Leopold and Loeb hired the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) to defend them. A Chicago attorney in his late sixties, Darrow had earned a reputation as a champion of the underdog through his defense of union leaders, antiwar activists, and others. He was also a strong opponent of capital punishment (the death penalty) and had already saved more than one hundred clients from execution.
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Fitzgerald, F. Scott
Excerpt from The Great Gatsby
Published in 1925
Although F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) is now considered one of the most important figures in twentieth-century American literature, he was not highly regarded at the time of his death in 1940. He did enjoy a brief period of fame and success during the 1920s, when he used vivid language and imagery to bring the Jazz Age (a term that he himself coined) to life in his popular stories and novels.
Fitzgerald was born to fairly well-off parents in St. Paul, Minnesota. He showed an early interest in writing and drama and pursued both at Princeton University, which he attended for two years. He never graduated, leaving in 1917 to join the army. Fitzgerald served for fifteen months but, to his disappointment, was never sent overseas to fight in World War I (1914–18). While stationed at an army camp near Montgomery, Alabama, he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the wealthy daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge.
Returning to St. Paul, Fitzgerald continued work on an autobiographical novel he had begun...
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Bryan, William Jennings
Undelivered Closing Statement from the Scopes Trial
Published in 1925
The 1920s was a period of great change in the United States, and the changes made some people uncomfortable. The clash between traditional values, especially religious fundamentalism (a strict form of Christianity based on the belief that the events in the Bible are true, rather than stories told to illustrate moral lessons), and modern trends was perhaps never more apparent than during the Scopes trial. This widely publicized, much discussed courtroom drama took place in the summer of 1925. It featured two figures already famous in public life: Chicago defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) and longtime political leader William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925). In fact, the man who gave his name to the trial, defendant John Scopes, seemed to play only a minor role.
The Scopes trial began with the passage of Tennessee's Butler Act in January 1925. People who disapproved of the theory of evolution passed the law. This idea was closely associated with the work of naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who outlined the progressive development of human beings and other species over millions of years. The Butler Act made it illegal to teach in public schools any theory that contradicted the story of divine creation found in the Bible. This is the theory of human origin upheld by...
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"The Press under a Free Government"
Published in 1925
One of the ideas most often associated with the 1920s is that "the business of America is business." These words, spoken by President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) in a speech to newspaper editors, did indeed capture the pro-business spirit of this economically well-to-do decade. A closer look at this speech, however, reveals a more complex picture of Coolidge's ideas about his nation.
Coolidge climbed the political ladder slowly and steadily, reaching the presidency unexpectedly when President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) died in office before the end of his first term. Born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Coolidge attended Amherst College and later established a law practice in Northampton, Massachusetts. He served as a city councilman and state legislator and eventually as governor of Massachusetts. In that position Coolidge gained national recognition and praise from the Republican Party for his firm handling of a police strike in Boston. That led to his nomination as Harding's vice presidential running mate in the 1920 election. As vice president, Coolidge was a quiet presence. Thrust into the office of the presidency, he vowed to carry on the policies begun by Harding.
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Excerpt from The Sun Also Rises
Published in 1926
One of the most influential authors of the twentieth century, Hemingway was a leading figure among the famous U.S. expatriates (people who live outside of their home countries) who lived in Paris during the Roaring Twenties. As a young man who had participated and been wounded in World War I (1914–1918; the United States entered the conflict in 1917), Hemingway both embodied and voiced the viewpoint of the disillusioned postwar generation. His work is characterized by a spare, succinct writing style with a distinctively modern feel that, especially in the 1920s, presented a strong contrast to the ornate prose of the nineteenth century.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway was influenced by both his physician father, who introduced him to the joys of the outdoors, and his music-loving, rather domineering mother. Each year the family vacationed on a lake in northern Michigan, which would provide a wealth of material for Hemingway's fiction. In high school, he wrote articles for...
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Kellogg, Frank and Aristide Briand
Excerpt from the Kellogg-Briand Pact
Published on August 27, 1928
World War I (1914–18) involved thirty-two countries around the globe in a conflict that took more than 15,000,000 lives. Although casualties suffered by the United States were comparatively small—130,000 were killed, and 190,000 wounded—the country joined the rest of the world in shock at the bloodshed and destruction of this war. A mood of isolationism (keeping apart) dominated the United States as people expressed their strong desire to stay well away from other nations' troubles. Lawmakers and leaders reflected this mood. In 1929, for example, the U.S. Senate voted not to join the League of Nations, the international organization originally conceived by President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) as a way to prevent war through global cooperation. The next year, the size of the U.S. armed services was reduced from a wartime high of 4,355,000 to 250,000.
Clearly, U.S. citizens were ready for peace. One indication was a contest sponsored by the former editor of Ladies Home Journal magazine, Edward W. Bok. Heoffered a $100,000 prize for the best plan to preserve international peace. Thousands responded. But it was not just isolationists who supported the idea of finding a way to end war. Others actually wanted the United States to take a more active role in an...
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Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd
Excerpt from Middletown
Published in 1929
In January 1924 a young couple arrived in Muncie, Indiana, with a special purpose in mind. They planned to conduct a study of religious life in this small town in the middle of the United States. By the time they were finished, though, the scope of their study had expanded. What they finally produced was a richly detailed portrait of how the residents of the place they called Middletown lived. The Lynds' published study gives contemporary readers a revealing peek into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in the 1920s.
Robert and Helen Lynd had both been born and raised in the midwestern United States, but both were living on the East Coast when they met. At the time of their 1922 marriage, Helen was a schoolteacher and Robert a graduate student in religious studies. After Robert's graduation, the couple moved to Montana to work as church missionaries (those who try to convert people to their own religious beliefs). This experience helped to shift their interest from religion toward sociology, the study of human...
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