It’s the Roaring Twenties! – the 2020s, that is. At the beginning of the 2020s, I set a goal to read more literature from the real Roaring Twenties, that decade of extravagance and excitement a hundred years ago. Perhaps, like me, when you contemplate the 1920s, you think of flappers and speakeasies, shiny new automobiles and jazz music. While beauty and prosperity were important parts of this decade (did you know more people owned a car than a bathtub?), the literary scene often reflected a more intense side. That’s why Gertrude Stein coined the term the Lost Generation to describe many of the authors and artists who created during this time – individuals such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner, and Stein herself. The 1920s were a time like none other. Perhaps this is why this decade still fascinates and tantalizes. Perhaps this is why people like me (and maybe you too) dream of exploring this world. So grab your bowler hat and boudoir doll (flappers carried them to proclaim their independence from traditional roles) and join me on this journey into the literature of the Jazz Age.
It’s important to understand the setting in which the literature of the 1920s was created, in order to understand the literature itself. People alive in the 1920s had lived through a tragedy like none before it – a world war – “the Great War” “to end all wars.” Financial prosperity was at an all-time high. Morale seemed to be as well. Those who lived during this “Mad Age,” of course, had no idea another war loomed. People celebrated the end of the war and this era of extra. The old mores of the Victorian Era were out. Women’s hair and dresses became shorter. They had, after all, earned the right to vote early in the decade. They would flaunt their right to be themselves. Industrialism continued to flourish. Wealth amazed and drove everyday people to spend. It was time to indulge in opulence.
A sleek new form of music that combined ragtime and blues became popular. The talent of entertainers such as Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and, of course, Louis Armstrong popularized the style of music that came to be known as jazz. Silent movie stars like Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin thrilled audiences with their performances on a brand new silver screen. The glamor – and dancing the Charleston – were just “the bee’s knees.”
It was also the decade of a new form of crime in the United States. Prohibition illegalized liquor in 1920. Bootleggers like Al Capone and George “Bugs” Moran provided it. Speakeasies sold it. It was a lucrative and deadly business.
Literature of the 1920s reflected the complexities of this decade. Authors of the ‘20s helped to usher in a new, modern style of writing. Modern literature was characterized by an emphasis on the individual, the use of symbolism, and a break from more structured styles of the past. Modern works often emphasized the absurdities of life and conflict.
Salons (informal gatherings of artists, authors, and intellectuals) brought together great minds and talent. The Harlem Renaissance was formed. Talents like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman discussed ideas and wrote the results. In France, Gertrude Stein’s gatherings included authors like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and artists such as Picasso and Heri Matisse. In New York, artistic minds gathered around the round table at the Algonquin Hotel. These gatherings included humorists like Robert Benchley, poets like Dorothy Parker, and women’s rights activists like Ruth Hale. It is said, there were even visits by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Harpo Marx. These gatherings were influential in the production of some of the fabulous literature and art we still enjoy today. The literature that became popular (and is still respected and relevant for today’s readers) spoke to people on a deeper level. Let’s take a look at some specific authors and works. Please note the wonderful diversity in the following descriptions.
From 1918 to 1920, an Irish author named James Joyce saw his novel Ulysses serialized in a United States magazine. By 1922, it was published in book form in Paris. This tale of lieutenant Leopold Bloom parallels in many ways the experiences of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus. (Ulysses is the Latin form of the name Odysseus). Perhaps readers in the 1920s could relate to Odysseus’s heroic efforts after a great war. Joyce’s Ulysses has come to be known as one of the most important works of the Modern Era. One writing technique Joyce utilized in Ulysses is known as stream-of-consciousness narration – a style that emphasizes all the thoughts and feelings of the narrator. There can be little doubt, readers of the 1920s could understand the raw thoughts and emotions portrayed.
Another who used a stream-of-consciousness technique was British author Virginia Woolf. Woolf published all three of her most well-known works, Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse, in the ’20s. Through her novels and other writings, Woolf tackled issues including feminism (her writings and lectures questioned why women could not be independent) and imperialism. Virginia Woolf is now considered one of the most important voices of the twentieth century.
Hart Crane has come to be known as a Romantic (he had a more optimistic interpretation of life than many other authors) in the midst of Modernist writers. He was influenced by the poetry of Shakespeare, John Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman. His own poetry, as his 1922 collection White Buildings shows, described the abundance associated with industrialism.
One of the most crucial literary and cultural movements of the 1920s was known as the Harlem Renaissance. This Renaissance or rebirth emphasized African American culture and rights. An important poet of the Harlem Renaissance was Claude McKay. His 1922 work Harlem Shadows proclaimed the struggles of African Americans in the United States. McKay used his powerful poetry to discuss important issues such as racism, lost love, and anger and hate.
James Weldon Johnson:
James Weldon Johnson was another important writer of the Harlem Renaissance. His 1927 work God’s Trombones showed the beauty and strength of folk sermons. His goal was to convey the wide range of emotions of the human voice – a motion that is like the movement of a trombone.
Langston Hughes was a writer of novels, essays, short stories, and plays. His most famous genre, however, was his jazz poetry. After winning Opportunity magazine’s poetry prize in 1925, Hughes’s poetry was published in book form. His poetry reflected his belief that Black artists should not be afraid or ashamed to express themselves.
The poetry of T.S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot often reflected the brokenness caused by war. His 1922 work The Waste Land reflects on how the Great War brought about psychological and emotional problems. It was the epitome of Modernist poetry and reflections of the Lost Generation.
Edith Wharton, another author of the Lost Generation, released her work The Age of Innocence in 1920. In 1921, it won a Pulitzer Prize. Wharton was the first woman to win the award. The Age of Innocence is a tale of memories of a Gilded past. Those who lived through the war, no doubt, found such writing a nostalgic respite from their own worries.
Ernest Hemingway is probably one of the most famous writers of the Lost Generation. Hemingway’s minimalistic writing style became a tremendous influence on future writers. His 1926 work The Sun Also Rises recounts the disillusionment of those who, like the author, endured the war. The protagonists in Hemingway’s novels are heroic and flawed, like the writer himself – and the readers who related to his stories.
A study of the literature of the 1920s would not be complete without discussing Gertrude Stein. As mentioned above, she is the person who coined the term the Lost Generation to describe those authors who had grown up during (and often in the midst of) World War I. However, we also must mention her own writing. Stein wrote of what today is known as LGBTQ+ relationships. In 1924, she even published, at the urging of Ernest Hemingway, her own Modernist novel, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress.
Surprisingly, the novel that may be the most associated with the 1920s was not a major success when it was published. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has become known as the great novel of the Jazz Age. It, along with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is often considered a contender for the Great American Novel. This tale of lost love, yearning, infidelity, class issues, and murder contemplates the dark side of the American Dream. At the time of its publication, however, critics felt its quality did not equal that of Fitzgerald’s previous works.
If I were to list all the amazing authors of the 1920s, it would take a far longer document than what you see here. Some other honorable mentions are suspense queen Agatha Christie, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, and a young William Faulkner. These writers, like the ones detailed above, spoke to readers of the Roaring Twenties and are well-worth reading today.
Novels, poetry, and folk sermons were not the only popular reading materials of the 1920s. Readers then, like readers today, also relaxed with and learned through reading magazines. Vogue and Cosmopolitan emphasized beauty and fashion. The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, sought brotherhood among and fought for the rights of all. The Saturday Evening Post entertained with editorials, letters, humor, and poetry. Good Housekeeping spoke of everyday life and the home. In my own collection of vintage items and antiques, I have 1920s issues of Needlecraft Magazine, which provided articles and patterns for those interested in needlepoint.
Are You Ready to Read?
As you can see from just this short overview, readers in the 1920s had a lot of great literature from which to choose. The literature of this era reflected the prestige, diversity, hope, and despair of a world that had been devastated by war but still had the courage to look to the future. I encourage you to check out some of these works from the Salina Public Library. You are sure to find books from greats like Fitzgerald, Hughes, Hemingway, Wharton, and Woolf. What you can’t find on our shelves is sure to be available in our extensive online collection. While you’re online, I recommend searching through Bloom’s Literature to discover more about movements like the Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation. Such studies are not only fun and educational, you just might find a new favorite author. I have found some that are the “cat’s pajamas.”