By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 4, 2010; B08
A Biography of the Roaring Twenties
By Lucy Moore
Overlook. 352 pp. $25.95
If you know absolutely nothing about the 1920s in the United States, you will find it useful to read this account of the decade by a youngish British writer of what her publisher calls "mainstream history writing." But if you know just a bit -- not to mention a lot -- you will either find yourself plowing through stuff you've been through a million times before or gasping at omissions or errors that run the gamut from trivial to breathtaking. I opened "Anything Goes" hoping that a writer from another country (though educated partly in this one) would bring some interesting new perspective to this endlessly fascinating decade; I closed it wondering what on Earth had persuaded her to write it or her (excellent) American publisher to publish it.
So far as I can determine, "Anything Goes" relies almost entirely on secondary sources, chief among them Frederick Lewis Allen's "Only Yesterday," the portrait of the decade that was published in 1931 and remains to this day the standard against which all other accounts must be measured. To be sure, Moore has the advantage of eight decades' hindsight and all the research that was done during those decades. Thus she has a much deeper perspective than Allen did on such matters as the rights of women and African Americans, but this doesn't really yield much of value that can't be found in "Only Yesterday"; Allen was totally free of prejudice, remarkable for a man of his time, and he treated matters of sex and race accordingly.
Three years ago, writing a Second Reading column about "Only Yesterday," I was startled to see how much of what happened during the 1920s parallels what has happened in the past decade. Moore agrees: "So many aspects of the Jazz Age recall our own: political corruption and complacency; fear of outsiders; life-changing technologies; cults of youth, excess, consumerism and celebrity; profit as a new religion on the one hand and the easy availability of credit on the other; astonishing affluence and yet a huge section of society unable to move out of poverty." All of this is true, and a useful reminder that history often has far more to teach than Americans are willing to acknowledge.
Accordingly, Moore marches us through all the usual paces: jazz and the movies (subjects not well covered in "Only Yesterday"); Zelda Fitzgerald, who "epitomized the Flapper -- in all her worst, as well as her best, qualities"; Warren Gamaliel Harding (to whom she is a bit kinder than most historians have been) and the Teapot Dome scheme cooked up by his corrupt underlings; the spectacular growth of the automobile and the innumerable ways in which it changed the country; tensions aroused by the great wave of immigration, especially as seen through the trial and execution of two unapologetic anarchists, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan; the Scopes trial and the conflicts between the country and the city, fundamentalism and modernity; the Lost Generation, at home and abroad, and the "period of vibrant growth" in the country's serious literature; the incredible flight of Charles Lindbergh (which she describes vividly, though not as memorably as A. Scott Berg does in his "Lindbergh") and the cult of celebrity it initiated; the "vast and increasing" inequalities in wealth that had much to do with the crash and the Depression that ended this period of excess with a large exclamation point.
Moore gets all of this in and gets a decent amount of it right, but she is guilty of so many mistakes, foolish opinions and omissions that ultimately the entire undertaking becomes suspect. All of us make errors, of course, and as a rule I let the minor ones in books under review pass without notice. But there are so many here that they -- or at least those I was able to detect, as I suspect there are more -- must be pointed out, for what they tell us is that a very careless hand is at the helm.
In her chapter about jazz, which is primarily devoted to Louis Armstrong, Moore writes: "Jazz, blues and popular dance music were [an] irresistible expression of black pride. Although white musicians tried to imitate black musicians they could not capture their elusive spirit." This simply is not true, as Armstrong himself would have been the first to say. He venerated the legendary Bix Beiderbecke (whose name is never mentioned here), played for years with Jack Teagarden and later employed numerous white musicians in his All Stars. The white saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, who played regularly with Beiderbecke, was one of the most influential jazz musicians of the '20s and was especially admired and emulated by the great Lester Young.
Moore is on especially shaky ground when discussing the rise of American literature. She tells us that among the "stars of the new generation" edited by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's were "Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe." She means Thomas Wolfe; apart from being sons of the Upper South with a penchant for florid prose, the two Wolfes have nothing in common. She tells us that "the post-war gang in Paris included Alec Woolcott, Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner and Franklin Pierce Adams." Not true. The only "gang" of which Lardner was a member was the one formed by sportswriters in the press boxes he frequented; apart from a brief trip to Europe to cover the war (which he did badly), Lardner knew next to nothing about Paris or any other place in Europe.
Then there's H.L. Mencken. At one point Moore describes him as "grinning good-humoredly," and at the Scopes trial "his relish for the unfolding events [was] apparent on his broadly smiling face." The source for these claims is not identified and may not exist, as Mencken was far more likely to appear saturnine than cheerful when he put on his public face.
Add to this the incredible attribution to Mencken of a witty passage about the "civilized minority" of more or less sophisticated men and women; in fact, that passage was written by Frederick Lewis Allen and can be found on Page 197 of "Only Yesterday."
As to the omissions . . . where to start? In her discussion of jazz, Moore is right to focus on Armstrong, but she doesn't even acknowledge the existence, much less the incontestable importance, of Duke Ellington; to write about the nightclubs of Harlem in the '20s and to ignore Ellington is a display of nothing except ignorance. By the same token, by limiting her discussion of American popular music of the '20s to African Americans, she completely overlooks the white composers, all of them heavily influenced by jazz, who gave American popular music its Golden Age and whose songs were played, with admiration and delight, by Armstrong and other black jazz musicians. Irving Berlin's name is mentioned only as one of many celebrities in attendance at a Jack Dempsey fight. George Gershwin, a figure of incomparable standing in American music, is mentioned not at all, and neither is Cole Porter -- from one of whose songs, ironically enough, Moore takes the title of this book.
I could go on and on. In 1927 Babe Ruth "hit the still unbeaten record of 60 home runs"; in fact, that record has now been beaten seven times, three of those times by Sammy Sosa. Et cetera. If "Anything Goes" is anything, it's a nitpicker's delight. As history, it's something else.