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  •   1910-1920
    The View From Over There

    Second in a series

    (By Paul Cox for The Washington Post)
    By Henry Allen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, September 21, 1999; Page C1

    Years later, Virginia Woolf would write: "On or about December, 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that."

    Virginia Woolf was a little crazy, of course.

    On the other hand, look at the photographs.

    Before 1910 – the Roosevelt Years, the Age of Confidence – men with mustaches stare at the camera with the hard focus of self-command. Women look at it the way they'd look at an annoying policeman. Sometimes, lost in a focusless world of love or sublimity, they seem not to see it at all.

    After 1910 – the Belle Epoque and the Great War, an Age of Reform – men shave off their mustaches and try to capture the look of college boys, full of coy self-awareness and infinite possibility. Sometimes, with their cocked straw hats and feet on the running board, they look a little weaselly, like salesmen who aren't ashamed of themselves anymore.

    Women ignore their mothers' lessons on how a lady appears in public. They slowly jettison corsets, shed chaperons and hike their hemlines over their ankles. They face the camera with an amused wise-guy wariness. Sometimes, for mischief, they pose with cigarettes. The face of sublimity starts to become the face of sexuality.

    What you want is personality, not character. You want the frankness of Freud, and the freedom of the Model T Ford. You want the nimbleness and passion of the movies, a mistake-free world where Douglas Fairbanks is always graceful, and good and evil have given way to peril and desire, as in "The Perils of Pauline" and the seductions of Theda Bara, the original vamp.

    Model T
    Henry Ford, right, with his son Edsel and a Model T in a 1927 photo. (AP)
    The idea is to be up-to-date, to get aboard the Progress Train, to put an end to greed, ignorance, inequality, disease, addiction, autocracy and the glooms of Victorian neurasthenia.

    "I tried that alpine skiing and broke my leg."

    "Say, Ted, we're in mixed company."

    "Alice doesn't mind if I say 'leg' instead of 'limb,' Dexter."

    "I think it's poor taste."

    "Well, aren't you a sketch?"

    A new look, a new ideal. You admire it in the face of Hobey Baker, hero of WASPdom and Princeton football and hockey, fighter pilot in World War I. Or John Reed, the Harvard revolutionary buried in the Kremlin Wall with Bolshevik heroes. Or even President Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton, smooth-faced and idealistic, a reformer.

    He says: "I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles." In short, he is not Teddy Roosevelt.

    Pep. Adaptability. The gross national product triples in 10 years. The national debt goes from $1 billion to $24 billion. Oh, boy. You just watch your Uncle Dudley, Mac, 'cause these United States are going to it. Child labor laws. Pure food laws. Free verse (Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg) and free love (Isadora Duncan, Max Eastman). Prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Sending troops to put the Mexicans in their place. Doing the Daily Dozen exercises invented by Walter Camp, the Yale football coach. Suffragettes singing "Everybody's Doin' It Now" as they march up Fifth Avenue in their big 1912 hats and dresses.

    "Doin' it, doin' it."

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