The Dark Side of the Jazz Age


It’s that time again! The Jazz Age Lawn Party returns to Governor’s Island this weekend. Flappers! Hot Jazz! Hip Flasks! What’s not to love?

Yet I think the people who actually lived through the 1920s would be nonplussed to learn that nearly a century later, the public image of that decade would be dominated by this portrait painted by F. Scott Fitzgerald and a handful of other urbane writers. Somehow we worship the artists and think THEM characteristic of the country, yet not the scathing portraits of the people around them whom those artists painted. We think of H.L. Mencken and not the Booboisie. We think of Sinclair Lewis but not Babbit. We think of Dorothy Parker’s quip about Coolidge, but not Coolidge himself. These are rose colored glasses, in spite of their fashionable frames. We sort of have everything flipped. We think of consumers driving Model Ts and using modern kitchen appliances — we don’t think of a far larger number of people MAKING those things on assembly lines. Who attends parties at mansions? The 1%. How many Americans make their living in the arts and show business? A smaller percentage than that. How many go to nightclubs or race around in roadsters on their way to fraternity parties? This will be a much higher percentage, of course, but still a minority. Thus the vast majority of Americans never participated in the Jazz Age as defined by the prevailing impression at all.

I am positive my own family, for example (admittedly the American equivalent of the People That Time Forgot) knew little and approved less of what went on in big cities like New York and Chicago during the 1920s. Like nearly a third of the nation at the start of that decade, both sides of my family lived on farms. As we blogged here, my great grandfather Virgil Stewart raised cotton in Alabama with his large family during that decade. On my mom’s side, everyone worked dairy farms in Connecticut, although my grandfather found a niche for himself as a mechanic. I won’t mince words with you. These were people who fought against everything the Jazz Age stood for, and they represented the majority of Americans. How do I know that? The numbers, the political numbers bear it out.

My mother’s people were literal Plymouth Rock Republicans, the people who voted for 12 years of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, a long return to”Normalcy” and a decisive back-turning against the Progressivism that had characterized the preceding decades. These are the people who voted decisively against the “wet” Irish Democrat Al Smith in 1928. These people were literally descended from the 1620 Founders, and had resisted change for 300 years. Thus the charm of the region was preserved. But these would also be the kind of people who supported the series of anti-immigration measures in the 1920s whose ultimate result was to bar the door to millions of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe one and two decades later.

As for the Alabama and Tennessee folk on my dad’s side? Well, as we mentioned here, they were PRO-Prohibition, as must have been the majority of voting Americans at the time else it wouldn’t have gotten passed. When the Volstead Act went into effect in the 1920s so many people supported it that Congress passed it over Wilson’s veto and it was written into the Constitution which means that it also passed in two-thirds of the States. Yes, people rebelled against the law, including some of my own relatives, who were moonshiners. But I think we sometimes aren’t sufficiently mindful of the fact that the legislation happened in the first place, in a voting democracy. It proved foolhardy for a thousand different reasons. But before that was demonstrated — and it took over a decade — large numbers of people wanted it.

This was partially due to positive religious and social motivation. But it was also partially due to ethnic prejudice and Nativism. Social drinking was associated with immigrants. The older groups resisted their influence — violently, at times. So we come to the darkest aspect of the era, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Klan activity had several phases and I have reason to suspect family involvement in each leg.

The original Klan had been founded directly after the Civil War, in Giles County, Tennessee, one county over from where my family (many of whom were Confederate veterans) lived. My own great-great grandfather James didn’t serve in the War, but I tend to think it was for personal reasons (a new baby) rather than one of conviction. His brother did indeed wear a Confederate uniform as did most of the other male family members who were of age. The original Klan was shut down around 1871. But in 1915, in the wake of D.W. Griffith’s incendiary The Birth of a Nation, it was revived, and grew larger and more influential than most contemporary people realize. This version was not only racist in nature, but also religiously and ethnically intolerant, and reached a peak membership of 4-5 million members (15% of eligible Americans, 40% in some areas) by the mid-1920s NATIONWIDE. This was not just a Southern phenomenon anymore. Rallies were held in places like Madison Square Garden and Washington, DC. The most powerful state chapter was in Indiana; 40,000 Klansmen lived in Detroit.

This is one reason I think it is important to air this topic. If you are an American WASP, chances are quite good you have this blight in your own family’s past. It ought to be confronted and dealt with. It’s well to be proud of the good things your forbears did, but by the same token you bear responsibility for the ugly things they did as well. The Scopes Monkey Trial (1925) was three counties away from where my family lived. The railroading of the Scottsboro Boys (1931) was two counties away. And there were lynchings in the area. It’s too much to hope my relatives were some sort of saints or heroes. The best I can hope for is that those closest to me stayed at their plows and stayed away from the lynchings, which were treated as big public parties at the time. Again: for some people Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” is a cabaret act. It is more than that.

To me there’s something optimistic if not self-delusional about calling that period the Jazz Age, as opposed to, say, the KKK Age? The vast majority of Americans didn’t even listen to jazz during the 1920s. They didn’t even access or exposure to it. 40% of Americans were still without radios by the end of that decade, and only a handful of radio stations (ones in major cities) played jazz at all during that decade. It was a specialized underground music, associated primarily with African Americans, and faddish young adults with disposable income. And yet jazz won in the long run and the KKK lost. That is the point. It is a long game. My mother, who grew up listening to radio, lived for swing music and the big bands a couple of decades after jazz had been invented, and she later loved rock ‘n’ roll. My father never cottoned to any of that stuff, but I happen to love it, just as I love the people who made it and the immigrants who contributed so much to this country, culturally and otherwise. It’s never been a zero sum game. People give as much as they take. It’s an exchange. The people who try to resist that process always wind up poorer for it — visibly poorer.

In the 1970s, our groovy junior high social studies teacher “Ms. P. ” was trying to describe the 1920s, and the best comparison she could find, which she admitted was imperfect, was the Fabulous Fifties, thinking primarily of the prosperity and the consumerism, and some cultural change (drawing a parallel between jazz and rock ‘n’ roll). Little did any of us know that an even better parallel was about to roll around during the Reagan years. Yet, as I write this (obviously) I can’t help drawing comparisons to the present day. The horrifying, sickening spectacle of millions of people behaving abominably in the name of preserving something they figure someone else is stealing from them. To me there’s irony — folly — in trying to escape the hideousness of our own times by running into the arms of another illusion about another equally heinous time. There’s something Weimar-like about it. I don’t blame people or begrudge the urge to escape, however fleetingly. We’re only human. But let’s not be ostriches either.


3 Responses to “The Dark Side of the Jazz Age”

  1. Bruce Schaffer Says:

    Thank you for this fascinating and compelling blend of cultural, political, and personal history.

  2. Thank you for this fascinating and compelling blend of cultural, political, and personal history.

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