A History That Stands The Test of Time

The 1920s brought new choices for women, from more daring clothes to bolder social attitudes.
The 1920s brought new choices for women, from more daring clothes to bolder social attitudes. (Washington Post Photo)
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

It is scarcely uncommon among middle-class Americans of my generation, but as a teenager in the 1950s and a young adult in the 1960s, I was utterly, obsessively, terminally fascinated by the 1920s. I listened avidly to the early recordings of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the musical comedies of George Gershwin, the album of Edward R. Murrow's "I Can Hear It Now" series that covered the decade. I fixated on Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Theda Bara. Compulsively, endlessly, I read the novels and stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the biography "The Far Side of Paradise" by Arthur Mizener, Morley Callaghan's memoir "That Summer in Paris," and when Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" was published in 1964 I went bananas.

Being hooked on the Lost Generation, bathtub gin and mah-jongg was totally romantic and equally harmless, but it cloaked the 1920s in a nostalgic glow that bore only passing resemblance to historical reality. For that I finally turned, sometime in the 1960s, to that extraordinary book "Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's," by Frederick Lewis Allen. Published, astonishingly, almost exactly two years after the stock market crash of October 1929 that wrote a conclusive finis to the decade, the book immediately proved at once a useful antidote to '20s romanticism and proof positive that this was indeed a remarkable and unique period in U.S. history.

Unlike that other famous and mythologized American decade of the 20th century, the '60s, much of which actually took place in the '70s, the '20s really were a self-contained decade. Yes, they began with the end of World War I in 1918 and the beginning of Prohibition in 1919, but these were preludes, just as the slide into nationwide Depression in 1930-31 was an afterword. Allen had the prescience to understand this immediately, and the skill to synthesize an immense amount of discrete material, to interpret it with intelligence and without sentimentality, and to write about it with grace, fluidity and wit.

Upon its publication in late 1931, "Only Yesterday" became an immense bestseller, with a half-million copies in print by the end of 1932 -- this, mind you, in the Depression -- as well as a critical success. This must have been heady stuff for Allen, who was 41 when the book appeared, but he seems to have been a gracious, modest man who kept fame under control. He was the son of an old WASP family, not rich but financially secure. He graduated from Groton and Harvard, then worked as a freelance journalist and magazine editor. According to the biographical note in the Perennial edition of "Only Yesterday," his daughter and then his wife died in 1928 and 1930, and "to get through the grief of these personal tragedies, Allen worked on the manuscript for the book that would become 'Only Yesterday.' "

In 1932 Allen remarried, to Agnes Rogers, who also worked at Harper's, of which he became editor in chief in 1941, a position he held until 1952. His editorship was fruitful and distinguished, as was his own writing career. In 1940 he published "Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America," which did just about as well as "Only Yesterday." He and his wife published several pictorial histories of various phases of America's past, and in 1952 he ended his career with "The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1900-1950." He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1954 at the age of 63, and was widely mourned.

It is testimony to both the popularity and the staying power of "Only Yesterday" that for more than three-quarters of a century it has remained steadily in print, and to this day enjoys sales that would please plenty of 21st-century writers. Rereading it for the first time in at least four decades, I am struck -- in all cases favorably -- by several aspects of it: the acuity of Allen's judgments, whether of people or events or larger developments and trends; his ability to discriminate between what is important and what is not; his willingness to present differing points of view fairly, and his refusal (at a time when this was all too uncommon among people of his class) to stomach prejudice in any form; and, most of all, the degree to which his book has retained its freshness and pertinence over all these years.

It is nothing less than extraordinary for a work of popular history, written in the heat of the moment, to have faded so little in more than 75 years. By way of contrast, consider the books of John Gunther, most famously "Inside U.S.A." Published in 1947, it too was a great bestseller, as were all the other "Inside" books that followed, but it is the only one still in print and its sales are meager. The reason is that, for all Gunther's diligence and professionalism, his books are creatures of their time, which is to say they are now period pieces. Yet "Only Yesterday" sails serenely on, still the one account of America in the 1920s against which all others must be measured.

The great public events that Allen covers -- Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, the Red Scare, the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition, Warren Harding and the Teapot Dome scandal, the Scopes trial, Charles Lindbergh's flight, the Florida boom and bust, the Crash -- are so familiar to most readers that retracing them here would be a waste of precious space. Instead let me give you a couple of examples of Allen's prose, so you can see for yourself the insights and delights it offers. Here, for one, he is writing about the Red Scare:

"Big-navy men, believers in compulsory military service, drys, anti-cigarette campaigners, anti-evolution Fundamentalists, defenders of the moral order, book censors, Jew-haters, Negro-haters, landlords, manufacturers, utility executives, upholders of every sort of cause, good, bad, and indifferent, all wrapped themselves in Old Glory and the mantle of the Founding Fathers and allied their opponents with Lenin. The open shop, for example, became the 'American plan.' For years a pestilence of speakers and writers continued to afflict the country with tales of 'sinister and subversive agitators.' Elderly ladies in gilt chairs in ornate drawing-rooms heard from executive secretaries that the agents of the government had unearthed new radical conspiracies too fiendish to be divulged before the proper time. Their husbands were told at luncheon clubs that the colleges were honeycombed with Bolshevism. A cloud of suspicion hung in the air, and intolerance became an American virtue."

That's lovely stuff, evocative and dead-on. Yes, there's a hint of Mencken in it, but Allen was his own man and resisted the mere apery to which so many tinhorn Menckenites of his day succumbed. Allen was a fair man, as it must be admitted Mencken really was not, and though he had his own sharp opinions, he sought balance and understanding rather than invective. Thus he writes with clarity and no small amount of amusement about the "revolution in manners and morals" of the '20s, touching deftly on everything from "the post-war disillusion, the new status of woman, the Freudian gospel, the automobile, prohibition, the sex and confession magazines, and the movies," and then strikes this sobering note:

"A time of revolution . . . is an uneasy time to live in. It is easier to tear down a code than to put a new one in its place, and meanwhile there is bound to be more or less wear and tear and general unpleasantness. People who have been brought up to think that it is sinful for women to smoke or drink, and scandalous for sex to be discussed across the luncheon table, and unthinkable for a young girl to countenance strictly dishonorable attentions from a man, cannot all at once forget the admonitions of their childhood. It takes longer to hard-boil a man or a woman than an egg."

As both of these passages make plain, the pertinence of "Only Yesterday" scarcely is limited to the 1920s. The cultural, social and political phenomena they discuss have reverberated down the years, from the McCarthy era to Woodstock and Flower Power to the present political temper. In Allen's depiction of the highbrows of the 1920s, it is impossible not to see reflected the highbrows of today:

"They may be roughly and inclusively defined as the men and women who had heard of James Joyce, Proust, C¿zanne, Jung, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Petronius, Eugene O'Neill, and Eddington; who looked down on the movies but revered Charlie Chaplin as a great artist, could talk about relativity even if they could not understand it, knew a few of the leading complexes by name, collected Early American furniture, had ideas about progressive education, and doubted the divinity of Henry Ford and Calvin Coolidge. Few in numbers though they were, they were highly vocal, and their influence not merely dominated American literature but filtered down to affect by slow degrees the thought of the entire country."

A few pages later Allen argues that "disillusionment (except about business and the physical luxuries and improvements which business would bring) was the keynote of the nineteen-twenties," and certainly disillusionment has been an important American theme ever since, interrupted by occasional bouts of jingoism and hyper-patriotism. The pulse upon which Allen had his finger beat far longer than a mere 10 years. To be sure, he doesn't get everything right -- he misses jazz entirely, scants the movies as well as the higher arts, founders a bit (as who wouldn't?) in the complexities of Teapot Dome -- but mostly he is dead on target. "Only Yesterday" is going to be around for many years to come.

"Only Yesterday" is available in a Perennial paperback ($13).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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