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Collected commentary on "the age," 1920s PDF file


1. "The Age We Live In"

The people of every age think theirs is the "golden age" of the world—and they think aright. The age we live in is the alivest and best that mankind has ever known.

So wrote the Atlanta Constitution in an effusive editorial, six months before the "alivest and best" age would come to an abrupt end with the stock market crash of October 1929. While "Black Tuesday" erased investors' profits by the millions and ushered in the Great Depression, it did not eradicate the fact that the Twenties had delivered a brief but stunning "golden age"—one in which the daily use of words like new, modern, and amazing did not seem like hyperbole.

How did the decade's "residents" view the age? What did they welcome and praise? What did they resist and fear? What questions did they ask? What predictions did they make? Here we peruse Twenties' commentary from witty one-liners and contest entries to newspaper editorials and intellectuals' analysis. Use the commentary as an introduction to the six collections of primary materials in this Theme, each from a single source—newsreels, cartoons, political cartoons, animated cartoons, and more. Before you begin, subtract 1920 from the current year; as you read, note statements that could appear, with a little tweaking of slang and phrase, in commentary today. (10 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. To organize the commentary for analysis, complete the chart below to group the speakers by the attitudes expressed toward "the age." Several have been entered; remember to include the cartoonists.
    Atlanta Constitution H. L. Mencken the Lynds
  2. Select two statements on "the age" that represent the range of opinion from enthusiastic to critical. What do the extremes reveal about the Twenties and the people who experienced the decade?
  3. What aspects of the Twenties were singled out for awe and enthusiasm? Why?
  4. What aspects generated resistance and concern? Why?
  5. How was the word modern used and defined? Find evidence in the sources for the statement of the Forum that "with so many meanings . . . there is some question as to whether modern really means anything anymore."
  6. How were the factors of speed and activity emphasized? What positive and negative consequences were perceived?
  7. Why did the A. B. Dick Company describe the mimeograph machine as a "striking measure of civilization"?
  8. Analyze the use of the word civilization in the commentary. What kind of new "civilization" was embodied in the "new age"?
  9. What generational factors influenced the commentary ("older folks" and "young folks")?
  10. Study the humor in "Life Lines," the New Yorker cartoon, the comic strip Them Days Is Gone Forever, and the political cartoon "The Happy Family." How does humor function as a unique mode for commentary?
  11. At what point in the political cartoon "The Happy Family" does the family's happiness end? Why?
  12. What perspective was added by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who embodied the "Jazz Age" in his life and fiction?
  13. What is the nature of Tom's and Amory's disagreement in the excerpt from Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920)? Why is World War One an ever-present feature in Fitzgerald's perspective on the 1920s?
  14. Explain the restlessness and ennui of the young generation expressed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barbara Shermund, and others.
  15. What points are emphasized by the Protestant clergymen?
  16. Explain how Rev. Merrifield answered his question "Is this really a new age?"
  17. Select several statements that echo Rev. William Ladd's concern that "our material development has outrun our thinking." How is a similar concern expressed today?
  18. Compare Walter Lippmann's concern that news inundates readers in "mere flashes of publicity" with concerns about media overload and multitasking today.
  19. According to the commentators, what American attitudes would place the U.S. at the forefront of world modernity?
  20. Why did Aldous Huxley assert that "the future of America is the future of the world"? According to Henry Canby, why would American movies hasten this process?
  21. What is the "new kind of man" that America has created, according to William Allen White? How would Reinhold Niebuhr respond?
  22. Why did H. L. Mencken condemn movies of the 1920s? How would Walter Lippmann respond?
  23. From the commentary, create two or more questions like #21 and #22 above for classroom discussion.
  24. Write a poem, editorial, movie trailer, exhibition promo, advertising copy, website home page, etc., synthesizing the Twenties as lived and perceived by Americans. Title it "The Age We Live In." Select one of the lines below as an epigraph and incorporate its point in your piece, or choose another brief phrase as the epigraph to your piece.

Framing Questions

  • How are the Twenties immediately familiar to 21st-century observers? In what ways does the decade seem remote and old-fashioned?
  • Identify and explain four characteristics of the Twenties that most differentiate the decade from the 1910s and the 1930s.
  • What are benefits and downsides of snapshot views of a historical period?
  • What research would you conduct to test a hypothesis about the 1920s gained from these snapshot views?


Commentary on "the age we live in"

10 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Brief Timeline of Literature and Events: The 1920s (Dr. Donna Campbell, Washington State University)

"F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Age of Excess," essay by Joshua Zeitz (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

Kansas City: Paris of the Plains: The Jazz Age in Kansas City, 1920-1940, online exhibition (University of Missouri, Kansas City)

– John T. McCutcheon, "When the Historians Meet to Name the Dying Decade," political cartoon, The Chicago Tribune, December 29, 1929 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the Chicago Tribune. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Barbara Shermund, cartoon, The New Yorker, August 27, 1927. Reproduced by permission of the New Yorker.
– John T. McCutcheon, "The Happy Family," political cartoon, The Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1924 (details). Reproduced by permission of the Chicago Tribune. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Alvah Posen, "Toot This on Your Tooter," comic strip, Them Days Is Gone Forever, The Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1922, fourth frame. In the public domain.

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