Book Review: Frederick Lewis Allen – Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s

Frederick Lewis Allen – Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2015 [1931]).

A history of the 1920s, but written in 1931, when the memories were still fresh. The title is almost literal. I read part of it in undergrad and revisited it recently. Many historians would write this type of near-real time history by simply discussing the major news stories of the day in order. Allen goes for a more thematic approach. A typical chapter covers the entire decade from beginning to end, but covering a different theme. Topics include sex and morality, fashion, Prohibition, business and the economy, technology, leisure, sports, politics, and more. But Allen also sees larger overarching themes that tie all these mini-themes together—and this is what makes his book so compelling.

The 1920s saw shared mass culture arise in a way that hadn’t been seen before. It would be a while before there was a television in every room. But every town had a movie theater, and the radio was mass-adopted more quickly than perhaps any other technology. Radio, along with maturing telephone and telegraph networks, enabled instant mass communication. Mass-produced automobiles meant that people lived their lives in a much broader area than before. For the first time, people could live in one city and work in another. Daytrips or weekend trips to other states became commonplace.

This led to an explosion of shared culture. The 1920s were filled with fads, sensations, and cultural icons—flappers, Babe Ruth and his home runs, title fights like Dempsey-Tunney, Mahjong, crossword puzzles, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh and other aviators, and more. Nothing like this had ever happened before, at least on such a scale.

Allen also notes the very different starting and ending points of the 1920s. It began just after the end of World War I, and ended with the onset of the Great Depression. These natural bookends are grist for occasional meditations for an almost life-cycle view of the decade. A young nation began the decade eager and optimistic to rebuild and make something new after the war was won. This exuberance gave way to an industrious middle age filled with work and reward. Finally, a jaded old age kicks in as youthful excesses brought economic ruin. I share the historian William McNeill’s skepticism of these types of stories. Nations and cultures are never young or old, individuals are.

A lot of Only Yesterday is surprisingly contemporary. Maybe not so much the bits about the annual rises and falls of women’s hemlines, where an inch’s change towards or a way from the knee was a major national event. But Allen’s description of how people reacted to the rise of mass media sounds an awful like how people are reacting today to the Internet, smartphones, and social media. People had all kinds of overblown reactions to it, both in favor and against it. And the technologies drove all kinds of fads. Back then, it was Mahjong. Today, it’s Candy Crush. People were able to pay much closer attention to national events than before.

There was a lot of handwringing about the changes in the news and media industries, and the effect this saturation would have on people’s health and happiness, and on America’s political system. Despite all the melodrama, people got through it—just as our generation will. Today’s generation is hardly the first one that needs to calm down about the media industry.

This is one of those books that is surprisingly hard to put down. Allen’s biggest shortcoming is a common cultural failure—an unthinking condescension towards business and commerce. Like a lot of people, he took Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt a little too seriously. And he frequently—almost reflexively, without really thinking about it—makes cutting remarks at businessmen, peoples’ work lives, or almost anything having to do with finance. The unspoken implication is that the author is above such earthly concerns, and his readers should be as well. This tendency is off-putting, and distracts from an otherwise superb volume of history.

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