Fitzgerald’s Eras
    Social and Political Backgrounds of the 1920s and 1930s

by Matthew J. Bruccoli

     An era is not just a time span; it is a period characterized by major events and the responses to themςpolitically, socially, and culturally. An era is defined by the way people felt about what was happening to them and around them.

     F. Scott Fitzgerald is now automatically identified with the Twenties.  He is regarded as an exemplary figure for that decadeςembodying and expressing its charm, ebullience, waste, genius, dissipation, confidence.  Yet Fitzgerald was a professional writer from 1920 through 1940; connecting him exclusively with the Twenties distorts the shape and significance of his life and career.  The dominant American historical influences during his lifetime were the First World War (The Great War, 1914-1918 in Europe) and the Great Depression of the Thirties. In between there was the Boom, the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Ageςnamed by Fitzgerald.  His own history reflected the history of his time: his success and fame in the Twenties; his crack-up and relative obscurity in the Thirties.


Pre-war to 1920

     Born in 1896, Fitzgerald grew up with the manners, values, standards, and culture of the late nineteenth century.  The world of his boyhood was a time of great American fortunes and enormous inequalities.  Workers were wage slaves; there were no social security benefits, and pensions were rare.  Women were denied career opportunities, as well as the vote until 1920.  Low taxes and the availability of servants enabled the upper-middle and upper classes to live very well.  After Fitzgerald’s father lost his job as a Procter & Gamble salesman in 1908, the family of four lived comfortably on Mollie Fitzgerald’s income of $5,000 or $6,000 a year from her inheritance.

     The class system was rigid, but Americans still believed that America was the land of opportunity.  The self-made man was a model.  Successful businessmen and moguls were heroes.  The pre-war years were also a period of social reform and the Progressive Movement.  Republican Theodore Roosevelt, President from 1901-1909, was known as The Trust Buster for his opposition to unregulated corporations; he sponsored pure food and drug legislation and was regarded as a conservationist.  This period also established the International Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies) and the beginnings of American Socialism.  Fitzgerald was never politically active, but like other privileged collegians he regarded himself as a socialist.  His first novel, This Side of Paradise, ends with a denunciation of capitalist inequality.

     Democrat President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) promulgated The New Freedom.  The idealism of the Progressive Movement facilitated America’s involvement in World War I with such slogans as “The War to End all Wars” and “The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.”  Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for his opposition to America’s involvement in the war.  Fitzgerald’s reasons for joining the army had little to do with patriotism: it was a way out of his academic difficulties at Princeton, and it was the gentlemanly thing to volunteer.

     The warςin which he did not see battleςchanged Fitzgerald’s world, erasing the old certainties and faiths.  In 1920 he was both the product of the great change in American society and its herald-prophet.  In “My Generation” (1939) he wrote that “We were born to power and intense nationalism”:

     That America passed away somewhere between 1910 and 1920; and the fact gives my generation its uniquenessςwe are at once prewar and postwar.  We were well-grown in the tense Spring of 1917, but for the most part not married and settled.  The peace found us almost intactςless that five percent of my college class were killed in the war, and the colleges had a high average compared to the country as a whole.  Men of our age in Europe simply did not exist.  I have looked for them often, but they are twenty-five years dead.

     So we inherited two worldsςthe one of hope to which we had been bred; the one of disillusion which we had discovered early for ourselves.  And that first world was growing as remote as another country, however close in time.1

     The prolonged slaughter of trench warfare (more than one million casualties in the 1916 Battle of the Somme) and the victors’ quarreling over the spoils resulted in the disillusionment and political cynicism that characterized the American Twenties.  There were 117,000 American casualties and an estimated ten million British, French, Germans, and Russians killed in battle; many Americans concluded that the Great War had been a misdirected massacre. During the Twenties America was isolationistςrefusing to join the League of Nations. Americans distrusted politicians and noble causes.  Hemingway spoke for his generation in A Farewell to Arms (1929):

     . . . I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.  There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.  Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.  Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.2

    Warren G. Harding won the Presidency in 1920 on a platform of “not nostrums but normalcy”3 and presided over a crooked administration.  His successor Calvin Coolidge announced that “The business of America is business.”

     The Russian Revolution during World War I resulted in the spread of world communism.  Beforeςand even afterςthe horrors of Stalinism were manifest in the Moscow Show Trials of 1935, 1936, and 1937, many American intellectuals and liberalsςthe terms became interchangeable in the Thirtiesςembraced the ideals of communism.  During the Twenties most Americans regarded communism as a foreign threat to the American way of life. Immigrants suspected of radical activities were deported during the “Red Scare.” The Sacco and Vanzetti case became the most passionately argued political cause of the decade when two immigrant Italian anarchists were executed by the state of Massachusetts in 1927 for their participation in a payroll robbery-murder.  Their trial was conducted in an atmosphere of prejudice, and many writers believed that shoemaker Niccolo Sacco and fish-peddler Bartelomeo Vanzetti were electrocuted for their political beliefs.  In his U.S.A. trilogy John Dos Passos denounced this injustice, declaring that “we are two nations.”4 Although Fitzgerald’s friends were passionately engaged in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, he made no statement on the case.


The 1920s

     The decade of the Twenties was known as the Boom because of general prosperity and ebullienceςdespite the 1921 recessionςand the seemingly easy money to be made in stock-market speculation.  So-called “paper profits” were made by playing the market on margin:  that is, paying as little as ten percent of the purchase price for stocks and borrowing the rest with the stocks as collateral.  This method worked while the price of the stocks rose; but when stocks fell the speculator was required to put up more cash (a margin call) or lose the stocks. (The Dow-Jones average fell from 381 to 198 after 29 October 1929).5   Most Americans were not “in the market”; nonetheless, stories abounded about barbers and bootblacks who retired on stock tips.  There was a get-rich-quick, gold-rush mentality at the end of the decade.  Fitzgerald’s characters were in the market, but he never owned a share of stock.  His investment portfolio consisted of two five hundred-dollar bonds that he sold at a loss.

     Two major achievements of the reform impulse were the Eighteenth and Nineteenth AmendmentsςProhibition and votes for womenςboth of which were ratified by 1920.  The impact of the nineteenth amendment is difficult to assess.  Women did not become a political force during the Twenties, although both political parties tried to appeal to “the women’s vote” by building “family values” into their platforms; the child-labor laws were credited to the influence of women voters. Yet there were few women in important elected positions.  The Volstead Act, which implemented the Eighteenth Amendment by prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States had powerful social and economic consequencesςnot because it was enforced, but because it was unenforceable.  Prohibition changed American drinking habits and manners.  Debate continues about whether Prohibition increased alcohol consumption.  Speakeasies (illegal establishments, so-named because patrons were required to speak to the doorman through a peephole in order to get inside) became centers of social life and literary life.  Men who had not patronized saloons before Prohibition frequented speakeasies.  For the first time women who were not prostitutes drankςand smokedςin public.  The speakeasies provided venues for jazz music.  It really was the Jazz Age: the termςwhich originally had sexual connotationsςreferred to the music as well as the “revolt of youth” associated with jazz.

     Prohibition fostered the rise of organized crime as bootlegging (dealing in alcohol) became a major industry.  The most famous gangster, Al Capone, controlled the liquor trade in Chicago and controlled the city.  The Mafia was restricted to Italiansςmostly Siciliansςbut other racketeers included Jews (Murder, Inc. and the Detroit Purple Gang) and Irishmen (the O’Banion Gang). The Chicago Saint Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 was Capone’s response to competition from Bugs Moran.  With the help of the movies the gangster joined the cowboy as an American character type—Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932).

     Prohibition was the most fervently debated domestic issue of the Twenties.  In general, the Republicans defended prohibition as “a noble experiment,” and the Democrats advocated repealςexcept in the South.  Protestants were dry, and Catholics were wet; the small towns were dry, and the big cities were wet.  There were no class boundaries: rich and poor drank.  In 1928 repeal Democrat Al Smith ran against Republican Herbert Hoover for the presidency and was badly defeated.  Smith’s Roman Catholicism resulted in the first defection of the Solid South to a Republican candidate.  

     After Smith’s defeat it was generally held that a Catholic could never be elected President.  The Twenties and Thirties were characterized by racial and religious prejudiceςboth unthinking bias and active intolerance.  Segregation of blacks was the law of the South and the practice in the rest of the country.  Southern blacks endured de facto slavery and the danger of lynching. Catholics, Jews, and foreigners were included with African Americans on the hate list of the Ku Klux Klan, whose power reached beyond the South into the border states and the Midwest.  The KKK claimed five million members in 1923.  Anti-Semitism was in force.  Jews were excluded from hotels and restaurants that displayed the sign “Restricted”; good neighborhoods were restricted.  There were Jewish quotas in private schools and colleges.  To a lesser extent there were Catholic quotas.

     The Twenties were also the collegiate decade.  University enrollments increased especially at the state schools, as uneducated parents sent their children to college.  Between 1915 and 1930 the student bodies doubled at larger universities: University of Illinois from 5,439 to 12,709; University of Iowa from 2,680 to 4,860; University of Wisconsin from 5,128 to 9,401.  These figures do not represent government support of veterans: there was no G.I. bill after World War I.  However, tuition was low (ninety dollars per year at the University of Iowa), and many students were able to work their way through college. 

     The growth in college and university population was accompanied by a collegiate culture: college styles, college slang, college manners were widely imitated.  Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise was the first of the many popular Twenties college novels.  College football became big business.  In 1927 thirty million football tickets were bought for fifty million dollars.


The 1930s

     Fitzgerald’s reputation or image functioned as a barometer of his times.  He was the darling of the Twenties and the sacrificial victim of the Thirties.  The Great Depression began with the October 1929 stock-market crash.  The crash was not the only or even the main cause for the Depression, but millions of Americans who were not speculators or investors suffered.  Factories closed; workers were dismissed; wages were cut; banks failed; farms were foreclosed; Hoovervillesςshack clusters sarcastically named for the President—appeared in cities; the dispossessed and unemployed took to the roads.  Between 1930 and 1939 unemployment went from 4,340,000 to 9,480,000ςhaving reached 12,830,000 in 1932, when twenty-five percent of the labor force was out of work.  In May 1932 twenty thousand veterans marched on Washington to demand early payment of the World War I bonus.  The Bonus Army was dispersed by the regular army. Social security and unemployment benefits were unknown before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal sponsored pro-labor legislation.  The Thirties brought the expansion of American labor unions and majorςoften bloodyςstrikes in the coal, auto, and steel industries.  Labor leaders emerged as national figures: John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and the C.I.O.; Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers.

     There were fears of communist revolution from the Left and, after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, of fascist revolution from the Right.  Radical political groups were visible, but their actual strength was limited.  The most votes a communist candidate for president polled was William Z. Foster’s 102,000 in 1932, when socialist Norman Thomas received 881,000 votes.  There was no American fascist party, although the pro-Nazi German-American Bund and pro-fascist Silver Shirts were active.

     The broad economic, political, and social programs of the Roosevelt New Deal, commencing in 1933, bandaged some of the worst wounds of the Depression and permanently changed what Americans expected from government.  Roosevelt became the most adored and hated president since Lincoln.  His supporters asserted that he had saved the country from revolution; his detractors asserted that he had eroded American liberty and self-reliance by means of a massive bureaucracy and punitive taxation. Inheritance taxes were instituted to break up large fortunes, but the big rich remained rich.  Roosevelt’s political genius and personality enabled him to maintain a working relationship between the conservative Southern Democrats and the liberal Northern Democrats.  Opposition to Roosevelt for having gone too far or not far enough was constant during the Thirties.  His opponents included Dr. Francis E. Townsend, whose Old Age Revolving Pension Program proposed that all retirees over sixty would receive $200 per month on the condition that they spend it.  Roosevelt’s Social Security Act of 1935 was regarded as the result of the Townsend plan.  Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long, murdered in 1935, propounded a Share-Our-Wealth Society and called for a guaranteed $2,500 income for everyone, along with a $5,000 homestead allowance.  Father Charles E. Coughlin, “The Radio Priest,” began as a Roosevelt adherent but turned against him as too radical. Hard-line radical writers believed that Roosevelt had failed to do enough to equalize American lifeςparticularly with regard to what was called “The Negro Question.”  Fitzgerald was a Democrat and voted for Roosevelt, but he did not engage in political activity.

     During the Thirties American liberals were concerned about Hitler’s Nazi Germany and his anti-Semitic actions and, to a lesser extent, by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.  European Jewish intellectuals fled to America where they exerted a strong influence on the arts and science.  Among these figures were Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Billy Wilder, Bertold Brecht, Kurt Weill, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Fermi, and Vladimir Nabokov (whose wife was a Jew).  American writers turned left out of conviction or conformity. 

     Liberal orthodoxy became a test of literary merit.  The “fellow-travelers”ςthose who did not join the Communist Party but accepted the doctrines of Marxism and supported the partyςhailed Russia as “the workers’ paradise”; the famines, purges, and executions were ignored or denied or alibied.  There were also anti-Stalinist American Marxistsςusually followers of Leon Trotsky.  The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, which parceled Poland, disillusioned many American communists and fellow-travelers, but the hard-liners defended Stalin.  From 1937 to his death Fitzgerald worked as a Hollywood screenwriter among $1,000-a-week communists.  He remained apart from radical causes although his friends engaged in pro-communist or anti-fascist activities. Fitzgerald did not lend his name to leftist causes, did not join political groups, and did not even sign petitions.

     Another European war was anticipated after Germany and Italy armed and commenced their territorial demands.  Most Americans were still isolationists who remembered the slaughter and deals of World War I and wanted to keep out of another foreign war.  The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was regarded as a rehearsal for World War II by both the left and right.  Many American writers and intellectuals sided with the elected socialist government of Spain (the Loyalists or Republicans), supported by Russia, against the  Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, aided by Germany and Italy.  The American government maintained a strict neutrality, but Americans volunteered for the Loyalist Abraham Lincoln Brigade and other international units.  Hemingway was a pro-Republic war correspondent.  John Dos Passos supported the Republic until he learned that the communist-controlled Loyalists were suppressing disagreement among their own ranks by means of executionsςas did the Fascists.  Franco’s victory was seen by liberals as the defeat of democracy and as omen of Nazi conquest.

     Fitzgerald was an ardent student of history and had been influenced by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (translated into English in 1926), which predicted twentieth-century wars and dictatorships.  Nevertheless, he was too deeply concerned about his own financial, professional, family, and health problems to become involved with the Spanish Civil War or other Thirties causes.  In 1936 he wrote essays for Esquireςan men’s-fashion magazine expensively priced at fifty centsςanalyzing his collapse.  Known as the Crack-Up series, these confessional articles damaged his reputation and caused him to be regarded as a symbolic Twenties figure who had been condignly punished for his frivolity, dissipation, and irresponsibility.  Hemingway was writing for Esquire at the same time as Fitzgerald, but Hemingway’s contributionsςmostly about hunting and fishingςwere not condemned.

     After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, America was officially neutral but in fact pro-British, providing lend-lease support to England.  A peacetime draft was imposed, and it became manifest that America would become involved in the war. 


  Culture and Society in the 1920s

     The popular impression of the Twenties as a time of hedonism, alcoholic orgies, and high jinks is in some part based on misreadings of Fitzgerald’s fiction.  Gatsby’s party has become the quintessential Twenties party.  Fitzgerald’s characters have become confused with the cartoons of sheiks in raccoon coats and flappers in short skirts drawn by John Held Jr.  The Vegetable and Tales of the Jazz Age had Held dust jackets, and Fitzgerald titled his first story volume Flappers and Philosophers.  The term flapper, which had frivolous connotations in America, originated in England to describe young women in a society where there was a shortage of men during and after the war.

     Fitzgerald’s view of the Twenties was serious and complex, for he recognized the glamour as well as the waste, the charm as well as the self-destruction.  In “Early Success” (1937) he wrote: “All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in themςthe lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy’s peasants.”6  He wrote in “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1931), his post-mortem for the decade he named that “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.”7  After the party ended Fitzgerald declined to cry mea culpa:

                It is the custom now to look back ourselves of the boom days with a disapproval that approaches horror.  But it had its virtues, that old boom:  Life was a great deal larger and gayer for most people, and the stampede to the spartan virtues in time of war and famine shouldn’t make us too dizzy to remember its hilarious glory.  There were so many good things.  These eyes have been hallowed by watching a man order champagne for his two thousand guests, by listening while a woman ordered a whole staircase from the greatest sculptor in the world, by seeing a man tear up a good check for eight hundred thousand dollars.8

     More than any other American decade the Twenties were a period of heroes and hero-worship, resulting from the defining American belief in individuality and the possibility of greatness.  Charles A. Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris made him the most admired and celebrated figure of the decade.  (His popularity was diminished by his isolationism and admiration for Germany in the Thirties.)  Never before or since have there been so many sports idols: tennis players Helen Wills and Bill Tilden; boxers Jack Dempsey and Benny Leonard; golfer Bobby Jones; football players Red Grange and The Four Horsemen; thoroughbred Man ’o War; baseball players Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson.  Ruth, the highest salaried athlete of the Twenties, signed a three-year contract in 1927 calling for $70,000 a year.  Dempsey’s cut of the first million-dollar gate in the Carpentier bout of July 1921 was $300,000 plus twenty-five percent of the movie rights.  Professional sports were segregatedςexcept for boxing, in which blacks were often required to lose to whites.  The Negro Leagues produced pitcher Satchel Paige, catcher Josh Gibson (“The Black Babe Ruth”), and other stars who earned little money.

     The Twenties were the golden decade of American music.  The songs of the Twenties were by Irving Berlin; George and Ira Gershwin; Cole Porter; Rodgers and Hart; Jerome Kern; Vincent Youmans; DaSylva, Henderson and Brown; Ruby and Kalmar.  These composers and lyricists continued their work in the Thirties, but they were identified with the Twenties.  Lavish musical revues of the Ziegfeld Follies genre typified Broadway productions.  The black jazz giants emerged:  King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith.  Paul Whiteman’s orchestra performed white jazz with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. 

     The Twenties generated the secondςand greaterςAmerican literary renaissance after the nineteenth-century New England Renaissance.  These are the writersςsome of whom began earlierςwho were published during that miraculous decade: fiction writers Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Dashiell Hammett, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, James Gould Cozzens; poets T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens; and critic H. L. Mencken.  It was a time of wit and satire before the laughter ended in 1930.  Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Donald Ogden Stewart, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, Don Marquis, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, and a flock of newspaper columnists provided the laughs. Eugene O’Neill established himself as the greatest American dramatist with a run of innovative plays: Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones, Diff’rent (1920); Gold, The Straw, Anna Christie (1921); The First Man, The Hairy Ape (1922); Welded, Desire Under the Elms (1924); The Fountain (1925); The Great God Brown (1926); Marco Millions, Strange Interlude, Lazarus Laughed (1928); The Dynamo (1929).  All was not high culture in the Twenties.  Abie’s Irish Rose, a corny comedy about love between a Jewish boy and an Irish girl, ran for 2,327 performances on Broadway. 

     The writers were not the products of college creative-writing courses because there were none.  Some of the best writers served their apprenticeships on newspapers; the Twenties were a time of great newspapermen, columnists, and editors: reporter and short-story writer Damon Runyon, columnist Heywood Broun, editor Harold Ross (The New Yorker), editor Herbert Bayard Swope (The New York World), editors Henry Luce and Britten Hadden (Time), editor George Horace Lorimer (The Saturday Evening Post), editors H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan (The Smart Set and The American Mercury).  The historically Protestant American book publishing industry was stimulated by the founding of new houses by energetic Jews: Bennett Cerf and Donald S. Klopfer (Random House), Richard Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster (Simon & Schusterςwhich published the first crossword puzzle books), Alfred A. Knopf, the Boni brothers and Horace Liveright (Boni & Liveright), Harold Guinzberg and George Oppenheimer (Viking Press). Though not experimental or avant-garde publishers, these commercial houses were receptive to the books of younger writers.

     The innovations in literature and the other arts were connected with the expatriation tropism that made Paris seem an American creative colony during les Annees Vingt.  American writers and artists went to France during the Twenties because they could live affordably there, drink there, satisfy sexual proclivities there, and get published there by the little magazines and small pressesςor start their own journals and imprints.  The rate of exchange was crucial to this migration.  The franc fluctuated from fifteen to thirty-five to the dollar; a meal with wine cost four or five francs.  Prohibition has been exaggerated as an impetus for expatriation.  Bootleg booze was readily available in the States, but some Americans who could afford to leave home proclaimed that they could not tolerate living in a society that interfered with their freedom to drink.

     Under the influence of Sigmund Freud men and women shed their repressions and inhibitions.  Psychoanalysis became fashionable among the affluent.  The general loosening of moral and sexual restrictions liberated American women, whose activities had been more circumscribed by custom.  Corsets were abandoned; skirts rose; the double standard eroded as birth-control information became available.  Women gained more educational opportunities and held some jobs that were previously reserved for men.  Nonetheless, the best colleges and universities remained sexually segregated, and women were blocked from executive positions.  The freedoms of the Twentiesςwhich began during the warςcontended against entrenched Puritanism.  Censorship of printed matter was usual.  Copies of the Paris-published Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce could not be brought into America; Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) and an issue of The American Mercury were banned in Boston.  Mencken attacked American prudery and ignorance, labeling the South as “The Sahara of the Bozart” (that is, the desert of the beaux arts) and defining Puritanism as the fear that somebody was having a good time.

     Americans became mobile, and the automobile was the most powerful agent of social change. During the Twenties there were more cars in the United States than in all of the rest of the world.  A new Model-T Ford cost $260 in 1928; most American families could afford a used Tin Lizzie for fifty dollars or less.  Automobile proliferation influenced sexual conduct.  A popular song of 1928 celebrated the Model-A Ford ($545): “You don’t have to do it any more / With one foot sticking out the door / Since Henry made a lady out of Lizzie.”         

     The prosperity of the boom years was not very prosperous by present standards: the average salary for public-school teachers rose from $970 to $1,445 per year between 1920 and 1929; stenographers were paid twenty-five to thirty dollars per week; maids got twelve to fourteen dollars per week; carpenters earned sixty cents per hour. Textile mills in the South paid men eighteen dollars and women nine dollars for a seventy-hour work week.  Mobs of job seekers came when Ford offered five dollars a day to assembly-line workers.  Food and rent were commensurately cheaper; nonetheless, five dollars a day did not provide luxury.  It is almost impossible to convert the buying power of the Twenties dollar to the value of the present-day dollar, but the usual conversion factor is seven to ten times.  Thus five dollars would be worth thirty-five to fifty dollars now. 

     The Twenties brought a vast expansion in what became known as the media.  The mass-circulation slick-paper magazines (The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Liberty, Cosmopolitan) paid Fitzgerald and other popular writers very well.  The pulp-paper genre magazines (detective, adventure, western, romance, sports, and science fiction) paid a penny or two cents a word; but they provided places for writers to publish and perhaps develop.  The magazines were competing with the new forms of mass entertainment: the movies and radio.  Silent moviesςespecially Charlie Chaplin’s comediesςhad huge audiences.  Movies evolved from one-reelers to epics (director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance ).  The talkiesςcommencing in 1927 with The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolsonςenlarged the audience and influence of movies on style, morals, and manners.  It was the age of the movie palaces, and Americans attended the movies religiously. The stars of the silents included Mary Pickford (America’s Sweetheart), Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd.  John Barrymore (The Great Profile) and Greta Garbo successfully made the transition to talkies; John Gilbert did not.  The great directors included Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, and Mack Sennett.  The Hollywood studio system flourished; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was organized in 1924.  Although Fitzgerald regarded the talkies as a threat to printed fiction, he tried unsuccessfully to master screenwriting for its financial rewards.

     The Twenties brought the Second Industrial Revolution as the production of American consumer goods was driven by advertising.  Radio was the most effective means of reaching prospective customers.  Radio networks emerged in the Twenties.  KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the presidential-election returns for the first time in 1920 as Harding and Coolidge defeated Cox and Roosevelt; by 1925 there were fifty million radio listeners.  The first radios for home use were marketed in 1920ςbulky, expensive contraptions that operated on large batteries.  The National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) was organized in 1926, followed by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1927.  There was life before television, which was experimentally introduced in 1929 but did not succeed until after World War II.  The most popular radio program during the Twenties and Thirties was Amos ’n Andy.  The comic treatment of blacks impersonated by two white men did not arouse objections.  The humor of the Twenties and Thirties depended heavily on racial, religious, and national stereotypes and dialects.  White (Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor) and black (Bert Williams) blackface performers were staples of show-business as were Yiddish comedians.  The sale of fragile seventy-eight r.p.m. shellac phonograph records that played for three minutes was not impeded by radio; broadcasts provided exposure for songs and performers.  Bing Crosby became the most popular crooner of the twentieth century on both radio and records.  Phonograph records disseminated black jazz on what were known as “race records.”  The blues singersςincluding the incomparable Bessie Smithςwere initially available only on black labels, which were white-owned.

     Blacks achieved limited literary recognition during the “Harlem Renaissance” as African American writers came to New York during the Twenties.  The most prominent figures in this group were Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923), Countee Cullen (Color, 1925), Langston Hughes (Fine Clothes to the Jew, 1927), Claude McKay (Home to Harlem, 1928), and Wallace Thurman (The Blacker the Berry, 1929). The publication of black writers by white-owned houses was concomitant with the discovery of black culture and folklore by white critics and intellectuals.  Literature was still mostly segregated; black characters in fiction by whites were clowns, devoted servants, or criminals; in the movies they were clowns, servants, or dancers.


Culture and Society in the 1930s

     In literature and the other arts the Thirties became known as the Proletarian Decade.  Art was expected to deliver the correctςthat is, leftistςmessages; the acceptable material and characters were from the working class.  Critics and other opinion-makers applied the test of social-political-economic significance to literature.  Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934) has been labeled a casualty of the Thirties, but the reviews were mainly respectful.  Its disappointing 15,000-copy sales cannot be attributed to hostile political action:  readers had temporarily lost interest in Fitzgerald.  The new fashion was for fiction about strikes, migrant workers, and proletarian hero/victims.  John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and especially The Grapes of Wrath (1939) satisfied the requirements for meaningful literature.  Clifford Odets was the most admired younger playwright with his strike dramas Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! (both 1935).  New writers of and from the proletariat were welcomed: Michael Gold for Jews Without Money (1930) and Henry Roth for his Call It Sleep (1934).  James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-35) and his other works about Irish working-class characters in Chicago were well received.  Another Chicago writer Nelson Algren wrote his first novel about drifters, Somebody in Boots (1935).  Proletarian material did not guarantee success: Daniel Fuchs wrote three excellent novels about poor Jews in BrooklynςSummer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937)ςthat had negligible sales.  Richard Wright was the most highly regarded black fiction writer to emerge in the Thirties, with Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938.  Novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston published her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937.

     The most innovative and influential radical novels were John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1930; 1919, 1932; and The Big Money, 1936).  These books combined historical commentary with technical experiments; but before the decade ended, Dos Passos rejected Marxism and consequently lost much of his standing.  Two major non-political social novelists to emerge in the Thirties were James Gould Cozzens (The Last Adam, 1933) and John O’Hara (Appointment in Samarra, 1934); both examined social stratification and community structure.

     The critics wanted redeeming social value, but most readers wanted pleasure and escape from the Depression.  The biggest sellers of the Thirties were historical romancesςHervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse (1933) and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936), which provided the scenario for the most profitable movie of the decade.  Southern fiction perpetuated the legend of the aristocratic ante-bellum Eden “befo de wo,” but novels about the dispossessed and deprived in the contemporary South also achieved recognition.  Erskine Caldwell’s white-share-cropper novels combined naturalism with grotesqueness.  Jack Kirkland’s stage adaptation of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road opened on Broadway in 1933 and ran for more than three thousand performances.  Although William Faulkner won critical respect in the Thirties, his books sold poorly, except for Sanctuary.  General readers preferred Caldwell to Faulkner.

     A two-dollar novel was a luxury during the Thirties.  The first American mass-market paperbacks were introduced by Pocket Books in 1939; they were priced at twenty-five cents.  Since many public libraries did not provide popular fiction, readers rented books for five cents a day from the lending libraries or circulating libraries.  Writers and artists joined the federal WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects orςif they were luckyςfound work in the movies or radio.

     Ernest Hemingway managed to have it both ways.  After writing Death in the Afternoon (1932) about bullfighting and Green Hills of Africa (1935) about big-game hunting, which were criticized for their lack of social conscience, he wrote To Have and Have Not (1937), a novel with a proletarian hero, that ridicules proletarian writers.  In Green Hills of Africa he declared:

            A country, finally, erodes and the dust blows away, the people all die and none of them were of any importance permanently, except those who practiced the arts, and these now wish to cease their work because it is too lonely, too hard to do, and is not fashionable.  A thousand years makes economics silly and a work of art endures forever, but it is very difficult to do and now is not fashionable.  People do not want to do it any more because they will be out of fashion and the lice who crawl on literature will not praise them.9

Fitzgerald did not climb on the prole bandwagon and was unable to deny the attractions of the Twenties, writing in “Echoes of the Jazz Age” that “it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.10

     In contrast to the hero-seeking and hero-worshipping impulse of the Twenties, the Thirties had a paucity of heroes apart from New Deal politicians and labor leaders.  Among sports figures Joe Louis, who won the heavyweight championship in 1937, became the first black sports hero widely admired by white fans.  The two Louis bouts against German Max Schmeling had strong political overtones.  Jesse Owen's victories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics undercut Nazi theories of Avyarv superiority, pleasing black and white Americans.  Joe DiMaggio, who followed Babe Ruth as the Yankees star in 1936, had none of the flamboyance of the Sultan of Swat.

     The American automobile industry held its own during the Thirties with no foreign competition.  The Ford V-8 was introduced in 1932.  Automatic transmissions were made available by Chrysler (Fluid Drive, 1938) and Oldsmobile (Hydramatic, 1939).  Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, Marmon, and Stutz, producers of legendary cars, did not survive the decade of the Thirties.    

     Americans were more concerned with making a living than with having a good time.  The movies maintained their audience because they were cheap: ten cents for children and twenty cents for adults in the neighborhood theaters, with raffles on bank nights and free dishes.  Patrons expected a lot for their money: two features, newsreel, cartoon, travelogues, and other “selected short subjects.” Movies were not required to be socially meaningful; the customers knew about povertyςthey wanted entertainment.  Warner Bros. produced gritty crime movies, but the lavish MGM productions filled the theaters.  What has been called the greatest year in movie history came at the end of the Depression in 1939:  Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra), Stagecoach (John Ford), The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming), Wuthering Heights (William Wyler), Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks), Gunga Din (George Stevens).

     Radio comedy flourished in the Thirties: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and a ventriloquist and his dummyςEdgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.  Al Capp’s satiric comic strip, Li’l Abner, began in 1934. In music the Thirties were the swing era; the Big Bands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller developed huge followings through radio.  They were dance bands, and the Jitterbug and Lindy replaced the Charleston.  Gorney and Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was banned from many radio stations because it was too depressing, as were Rodgers and Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance” and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,“ which were depressing and suggestive.

     The peace-time draft began in September 1940.  During 1941 there was a national sense of impending vast changes.  The next era began on December 7, 1941.


Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group from Literary Masters: F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Judith S. Baughman with Matthew J. Bruccoli.  Detroit: Manly/The Gale Group, 2000. 



  1. Esquire, 70 (October 1968), 119, 121. Return to text.

  2. (New York: Scribners, 1929), Scribner Library edition, pp. 184-85. Return to text.

  3. His only lasting achievement was to put the neologism "normalcy" into the American language. Return to text.

  4. (New York: Modern Library, c. 1937), p. 462. Return to text.

  5. The Dow-Jones hit 11,200 on the day this sentence was written in 1999. Return to text.

  6. The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1945),  p. 87. Return to text.

  7. The Crack-Up, p. 14. Return to text.

  8. The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Bruccli Clark, 1978),  # 1769. Return to text.

  9. (New York: Scribners/ Scribner Library edition, 1935), p. 109. Return to text.

  10. The Crack-Up, p. 22. Return to text.



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