Essay: Temper Lynn Dumenil, Modem Temper: American Culture

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¶ … Temper

Lynn Dumenil, Modem Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. (New York: Hill and Wang. 1995).

The "Jazz Age" is often portrayed as an era of great decadence, which rapidly came to an end with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. In this conventional conception of the age of Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby, people drank illegal booze from slippers in speakeasies, the Cotton Club showcased the top musical talent of New York City, and the flapper reigned. But this was also the era that produced Prohibition, was lead by a highly conservative president, and the nation oversaw the rise and fall of a deregulated financial environment of unprecedented capitalist rapacity. How to reconcile these seemingly conflicting images and facts about the 1920s? That is the task of historian Lynn Dumenil, in her book Modem Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. Dumenil suggests that although some elements of the media of the period might present an image of liberalism and excess, the real political and social environment of the time was far more conventional than one might suspect.

Lynn Dumenil book on the Modern Temper of the Jazz Age suggests that the history of this period of time was a chronicle of some strides forward, such as the role of women, but also strides backward from the Progressive program of tempering the excesses of capitalism. Dumenil's book is entitled Modem Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s because it suggests that the era was really a struggle about coming to terms with the challenges of modernity -- the modern temperament emphasizing progress and moving forward into sexual freedom, pluralism, and greater tolerance. But the prevailing Protestant elites and aesthetic still dominated many pockets of America and wished to temper that modern temperament with sobriety and conventional ways of thinking.

Dumenil's analysis is uniquely valuable to a reader today because it chronicles an America in the grips of a cultural divide that eerily parallels our own era. Economically, Dumenil demonstrates the dangers of a society characterized by a schismatic gap between the richest and the poorest members of society. Eventually the rich's speculation and paper money grew so fevered that this caused the economic implosion of America -- yet even the middle-class often articulated a near hysterical paranoia of government regulation of the economy. The facts also parallel our own era, further making the work instructive and sobering reading. Given the current anxieties about how to regulate the banking industry that has gone amuck, Dumenil's opening chapters about America's distrust of government regulation seems prescient. There was a wide-spread distrust of government and public power, in contrast to the previous, Progressive era's focus on the need to curtail capitalism. Increasingly powerful business interests justified a lack of government intervention to remedy social inequalities and check rampant capitalism through their actions philanthropy. Because many of the members of the middle class were able to enjoy the ability to increase their consumer spending, they too grew depoliticized.

But while Dumenil suggests that the economy and political life was regressive during the era, social policy was paradoxically progressive, and attitudes towards women, African-Americans and other ethnicities did undergo a profound cultural change, although some of these attitudes, particularly those directed towards women, did experience some retrenchment during the Great Depression. The 1920s did initiate the true shift in the modern temper, a true "multiplicity of cultural and behavioral standards that was to become the hallmark of modern America."

The cultural divide was not just economic, but also geographic. More Americans were moving to cities. The city as a place of 'decadent' values, in contrast to homespun, agricultural values became a common cultural trope, particularly in the era of the 'New Woman' and the birth of sexually frank teenage culture. Some women, empowered by the ability to gain salaries, even in tedious occupations like factory and clerical work, gained new vocations and made inroads in creating sources of independent prosperity for themselves, apart from fathers and husbands. However, while Dumenil celebrates an evident shift in cultural attitudes, she also notes that changes were not as deep and far-reaching as is often portrayed for women. For women of color in particular, even while they worked in large numbers, they bore a "double burden of race and gender." Also, the new occupations for all women had little prospects for promotion and it was more the prospects of engaging in consumption that fueled middle-class women's desire to work, rather than the sustenance such jobs provided for them intellectually. Lower-class women of course had to work, regardless of the quality of occupation. Still, the new clerical opportunities in work as secretaries once done by men had an aura of glamour domestic and factory worked lacked, as well as an aura of legitimacy, and were even the subject of some films such as the memorably-titled Ankles Preferred (1930).

African-American success was mixed in terms of social progress. "A more militant 'New Negro' was emerging in both North and South...the coalescence of the artistic and literary expression of the New Negro was not altogether spontaneous, for the Harlem Renaissance had many midwives. Black magazines like the Crisis, Opportunity, and the Messenger provided showcases" for emerging Black literary talent and also articulated the frustrations of Blacks of how little had changed since the fallen promise of Reconstruction. This was the age when Negro baseball leagues proliferated, as did new organizations like the Universal Negro Improvement Association. But unlike their middle and lower-class white counterparts, African-Americans were less able to fully prosper in the urban renewal and explosion of white-collar works. "Tens of thousands of Negro women in the South are employed ten hours daily in old, unclean, malodorous buildings in which they are denied the most ordinary comforts of life," read one representative report of African-American women laborers. Unlike white, Catholic, and other immigrants who began to break out of the 'domestic ghetto' of entry-level employment, Black women were still disproportionately employed as domestics, and Black men in lower-skilled jobs that demanded back-breaking labor.

Dumenil thus resists any homogenizing portrayal of the culture of the day, and tempers those who might be overly enthusiastic about the image of the New Woman, the flapper, the New Negro, the Harlem Renaissance, and the sexual liberation of the Jazz Age and Lost Generation. Instead, she offers important insight for those individuals who may be unfamiliar with the period that the cultural changes were often concentrated in certain segments of the nation. Indeed, "Most of the popular literature of the period remained totally conventional" Because urban centers generated the types of media Americans read today in literature survey courses like the Great Gatsby, an erroneous perception that the era was a profoundly liberal has emerged. The parallel between 'red' and 'blue' cultures today is irresistible. Yes, Dumenil says, this was the era of the 'Harlem Renaissance and the so-called New Negro, but it also oversaw the resurrection of the Klu Klux Klan, inspired by the celebration of this racist terrorist group in the innovative and ideologically abhorrent cinematic masterpiece, D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." Defensive social movements, like the Ku Klux Klan bore "strong witness to the desire to maintain" a social order, as strong as the desire to deconstruct that social order in the pockets of the intellectual elites of America opposed to existing hierarchies. In an interesting extension of the uses of "Birth of a Nation," Dumenil notes that "film, by and large was not a radical medium," but a popular one more often than not sentimental in spirit (as in the case of Griffith) or in the case of Cecil B. de Mille, broadly proclaiming the value of "consumption, personality, and success."

Constantly, Protestantism found itself buttressed against new ideological movements… [END OF PREVIEW]

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