The title and subtitle of Ann Douglas’ massive study of New York City in the 1920’s indicate the cultural context of this work. Alluding to the planned (though never written) autobiography of writer and wit Dorothy Parker, Douglas notes that the title of that book—“Mongrel”—could refer not only to Parker’s mixed Jewish and white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage but also to the racially and ethnically mixed “mongrel” Manhattan. In another allusion, Douglas notes that detective writer Raymond Chandler said that “all writers are a little crazy but if they are any good they have a kind of terrible honesty.” Thus Douglas’ book explores a New York City in which artists of various kinds—from Louis Armstrong to Harry Houdini to Eugene O’Neill—exerted their influence to expose unpleasant truths, to focus on the facts, to speak and act and perform and create with a “terrible honesty.”
The particular target of these New Yorkers was the generation that preceded it, the Victorian era. Channeling their energies toward the destruction of what Douglas calls “the Titaness, the Mother God of the Victorian era,” the hundreds of creators dealt with in this book were united in an effort to design a new American culture, freed from the restrictions of their historical predecessors.
They were also united in their relationship to New York City, the world’s most powerful city during this period. In the 1920’s, the United States was for the first time in its history an urban nation, and New York was the largest city in that nation. Reading the stories of significant New Yorkers and the thousands of anecdotes about them, one sees the dual purpose of this book: to describe the larger American emancipation from Europe and the nineteenth century and to examine the African American liberation movement within that larger context. As a sequel to Douglas’ earlier study of Victorianism, The Feminization of American Culture (1977), this volume continues her exploration of the demise of nineteenth century culture, especially its idealized notion of the Victorian woman.
While the book is permeated with what appears to be an infinite number of facts, anecdotes, and allusions, the three-part organization provides a handy approach to this cornucopia of information. Part 1, entitled “Setting the Stage: The Players and the Script,” does exactly that as it introduces the cast of characters and the major themes connecting their various dramas. The focus of part 2, “War and Murder,” is the Great War and the ways in which that historical phenomenon accelerated modernism in America generally and in Manhattan specifically. The interaction of the black and white cultures in mongrel Manhattan is the heart of part 3, “Siblings and Mongrels.” An epilogue, foreshadowing the legacy of the 1920’s, provides the bookend to the introduction, thus suggesting a neatness that the profusion of information permeating the book sometimes conceals. With photographs, a bibliographic essay, and a selected discography, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920’s plunges readers into the richness of life in the Big Apple during its halcyon days.
In the first part of the book, Douglas introduces the players in her script by race. The black men and women include performers such as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, and Josephine Baker; musicians and composer-lyricists Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others; writers such as Countée Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston; and intellectual leaders such as James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois. The white men and women are represented by those who lived in Manhattan and a quintet whom Douglas calls “outside insiders”: Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, William James, and Sigmund Freud. These five played out a debate that Douglas, with particular emphasis on James, Stein, and Freud, views as the dynamism of the 1920’s—namely, a tension between the cultural pessimism of white culture and the cultural optimism of the African American culture. This contrast was complicated by the different religious heritages of the two cultures.
Different as these heritages and cultures were,...