A Different Pace of Change: Debunking the Myth of “The Roaring Twenties”
Famed 1920s American author Willa Cather once said “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts…” With this quote, Cather is referencing the culture wars that were emerging in America during the 1920s. She is summarizing the feeling that spread during the 1920s as the United States seemed to divide itself into two separate halves with urban and rural cultures. America during the 1920s is often viewed as a time of economic prosperity as well as a time consumed by an electrifying party scene. Wealthy young men and women going out to dance halls to drink, smoke, and, of course, dance. When they are not out on the town, these wealthy Americans spend their time in their lavish Fifth Avenue apartments or extravagant suites in the Ritz Hotel. This was not the lifestyle that all Americans had the opportunity of living, however, which is where the divide Willa Cather was describing occurred. Young, wealthy individuals in metropolitan America lived vastly different lives in comparison to the young individuals living in rural and small-town America.
The other perspective for which one could analyze Cather’s quote is in terms of the division of cultures as a new youth culture was emerging, growing, and spreading in urban spaces throughout the 1920s. Young men and women in metropolitan America, mainly, were working to distance themselves from their parents’ seemingly outdated morals, values, ideals, and norms which is where new images and identities such as the flapper stem from. However, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “youth is unfortunately not a permanent condition of life.” The youth in American cities spent most of their time engaging in the vast slew of leisure activities their cities provided like movie theatres, dance halls, and amusement locations like Coney Island in New York. This was not the way a large portion of the American youth population had the luxu ry of choosing to live. The youth population in rural American towns truly felt the impact of Fitzgerald’s quote as they oftentimes held more responsibility than the wealthy youths of the city. Rural youths did not have the opportunities to spend all their time as frivolously as urban youths were able to because they were busy working, whether that be in or out of the home, and they did not have the plethora of leisure activities that the city offered its patrons. This is not to say that all young people in metropolitan America were not working since there were plenty of working-class youths in cities like New York that came from immigrant families. However, the focus here is on the wealthy youth population living in the urban meccas of America during the 1920s. This leads into why “The Roaring Twenties” is such a misnomer for the decade that is the 1920s; it only classifies life in the city and disregards the large portion of the population living in the small towns and rural America.
There are some questions that arise when considering this idea that “The Roaring Twenties” is an inaccurate nickname for the 1920s as a decade. Through extensive research, this project will answer some if not all of those questions. Those questions include the following: Why is “The Roaring Twenties” viewed from only one perspective? Specifically, that perspective of immense wealth and party lifestyles. How was life different for those not living in major cities different from the lifestyles of those who were living in metropolis? Who is responsible for perpetuating the myth of “The Roaring Twenties” and why do they do that? What is the danger in immortalizing the decade in this way? Is there any danger? Again, this project will answer all of these questions in some form or another in order to provide some explanation into why “The Roaring Twenties” is such an inaccurate misnomer that disregards a large portion of the American population during the 1920s.
The decade that is the 1920s has historically been granted the moniker of “The Roaring Twenties.” When most hear this nickname, what comes to mind is lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinking, flappers, dance halls, and many other frivolous activities. The classification of “The Roaring Twenties” is one that is inaccurate when describing the decade as a whole as it only categorizes the lifestyles of those wealthy individuals living in urban spaces, like New York City. For those working-class individuals and families living in rural and small-town America, the 1920s were far from “roaring.” This unequal representation brought on by this misnomer can be visualized through the literary works of two well-known authors of the 1920s and the 20th century as a whole: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Willa Cather. Fitzgerald is arguably one of the main perpetuators of the myth that the 1920s was “roaring” as the major themes of his book revolved around upper-class society in urban meccas such as New York. The main characters that his stories focus on often hail from wealthy families and have luxuries and opportunities that not many were offered during the 1920s. Willa Cather, on the other hand, wrote stories that mostly were set in rural America. She is praised for her ability to transport readers to the small towns she writes about as well as her ability to accurately depict life in these small rural towns. Cather’s writing helps to show how incomparable life was for those individuals not living in major cities and, in turn, how and why “The Roaring Twenties” is such an inaccurate misnomer for the decade as a whole.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest authors of the modern era due to his easily recognized and distinct style of prose. He is most well-known for his novel The Great Gatsby and writing about similar themes of high society, wealthy individuals. However, he did not come from a family of money. Born in 1896, Fitzgerald was “the son of an unsuccessful businessman who had to rely upon his wife’s inheritance to support his children,” which made Fitzgerald “sensitive to his family’s outsider status among the monied elite of his native St. Paul, Minnesota” (F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, 2020). Fitzgerald’s sensitivity and insecurity eventually grew into a true inferiority complex that he was forced to deal with for the entirety of his life. He always felt a need for popularity and to fit in with the majority population. This led to him writing about the themes he is most widely known for, once he became an author. Throughout his lengthy career, “Fitzgerald’s main themes are ambition and loss, discipline vs. self-indulgence, love and romance, and money and class” (F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, 2020). Most of Fitzgerald’s well-known works focus on these major themes as they often feature wealthy, ambitious, self-indulgent individuals often trying to find love. These themes are heavily explored in two of Fitzgerald’s most famous works, The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby.
The Beautiful and Damned, published in 1922, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel. The story follows a young, wealthy, Harvard-educated man named Anthony Comstock Patch and his wife, Gloria. At the beginning of the novel, Anthony is a young bachelor living in a large Fifth Avenue apartment who spends most of his time going out with his two best friends, Maury Noble and Richard “Dick” Caramel. Anthony’s view on life completely changes when he is introduced to Dick’s cousin, Gloria, whom he falls in love with and eventually marries. The middle and latter portions of the novel follow their initially loving marriage that quickly turns a bit rocky as they wait for Anthony’s extremely wealthy grandfather, Adam Patch, to die so that they can inherit his money. The couple become enthralled in their ambition for wealth until it eventually drives Anthony completely mad by the end of the novel (Fitzgerald, 1922).
The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel which was published in 1925. This novel follows a young, middle-class man named Nick Carraway as he moves into a small house next to the enormous manor owned by Jay Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby get along incredibly well with one another, but they come from two different worlds and classes: Nick from the middle- or working-class and Gatsby from the upper class. The novel follows the two men as they form a friendship and as Gatsby rekindles a relationship with Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan. In the end, however, Gatsby’s love for Daisy ultimately gets him killed by the grieving husband of a woman whom Daisy unintentionally killed while driving drunk (Fitzgerald, 1925).
Willa Cather is also considered to be one of the greatest authors of the modern era and of the 20th century for her innate abilities as a regionalist author. Cather is most notable for her novels and short stories set in rural and small-town America. She is widely praised for her abilities to really transport readers to the locations her stories are set. She is able to do this because she actually lived most of her life in Nebraska. As “the eldest of seven children, Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia in 1873. When Cather was nine years old, her family moved to rural Webster County, Nebraska. After a year and a half, the family resettled in the county seat of Red Cloud, where Cather lived until beginning her college studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1890” (The National Willa Cather Center). Cather is known for her abilities to use her childhood and young adult experiences in rural Nebraska and allows readers to visualize the region and geographic features of rural America through her detailed descriptions and overall writing style. These skills are overtly present in two of her novels, One of Ours and A Lost Lady.
One of Ours, published in 1922, follows a man named Claude Wheeler living in rural Nebraska during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Claude feels as though he does not belong in the farming life he is living in, even though his fortune is guaranteed by his family’s profession. He is distanced from his father and extremely religious mother, and is basically rejected by his wife who would prefer to spend her time completing missionary work and political activism projects. While in college, Claude feels that the religious Temple College he attends is not giving him the best education and feels that he will get a more enriching and beneficial experience at the State University. His parents ignore his request and he is forced to stay at the religious school, but he then meets the Erlich family who he better identifies with. However, Claude eventually finds what he is searching for when the U.S. enters World War I and he enlists in the army. The novel explores the theme of belonging as Claude really only wants to feel as though he actually matters which he does not feel until he goes to fight in World War I (Cather, 1922).
A Lost Lady, published in 1923, is a novel by Willa Cather that actually had an incredibly prominent influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing of The Great Gatsby. This novel, however, tells the story of a woman named Marian Forrester, a wealthy socialite, and her husband Captain Daniel Forrester. The couple live in the small, Western town of Sweet Water, Nebraska along the Transcontinental Railroad. The story is told from the perspective of a young man and Sweet Water native named Neil Herbert. Neil feels very deeply for Marian, who is a representation of the American Dream, and he tells the story of her eventual social decline. This decline is said to mirror and allegorize the decline of the American frontier in the new age of rapid modernization and industrialization as well as the age that brought rise to capitalism in the United States. Overall, the novel is an allegory for the decline of the American Dream, a prominent theme in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, hence the influence, and the decline of the American frontier during the 1920s (Cather, 1923).
Metropolitan America, where one would find the major hustling and bustling cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are where the lifestyles most associated with “The Roaring Twenties” are prevalent. These urban meccas are where young, wealthy Americans tended to call home during the 1920s. This is not to say that everyone living in metropolitan America were wealthy and from the upper-class. Rather, there were many working- and lower-class people living in major American cities, at this time, who would also participate in the various leisure activities offered by cities, simply in a different capacity. The focus of this project, however, is solely on the wealthy, upper-class youth population. Wealthy young men and women in these urban spaces would spend most of their time in dance halls and at various parties or in their large apartments and hotel rooms. The daily lives of these Americans are what are most directly associated with the moniker of “The Roaring Twenties.” Classifying the decade of 1920s as “The Roaring Twenties” only categorizes the lives of the wealthy in American urban spaces as they have the access and financial ability to the activities that are most directly associated with life during the 1920s. This wealthy lifestyle, and the people who live them, are accurately portrayed and represented throughout the various literary works of famed 1920s author F. Scott Fitzgerald through such characters as Anthony Patch from The Beautiful and Damned (Fitzgerald, 1922) and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald, 1925).
The wealthy metropolitan lifestyle is the one that is most directly associated with the moniker “The Roaring Twenties” which leads to the inaccuracy of that classification. When it comes to the daily practices and lifestyles of individuals living in major urban spaces, specifically those of wealth, there was an evolution in how individuals experienced daily life. This evolution can be mostly attributed to the access individuals living in urban spaces had as well as to their affluence and plentitude of wealth. The evolution can also be attributed to the modernization and commercialism of urban America during the 1920s as “advertisements, magazines, and movies broadcast the hedonistic delights available in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to the rest of the country” (Ryan, 2018, p. 9). Major American cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles were growing in population and area as more and more people were being drawn to them from the country and rural areas. Metropolitan spaces were made to look incredibly attractive in various forms of media such as advertisements, books, movies, magazines, etc. as the many attractions of the spaces were highlighted. Specifically, “it was the amusement park, lit up at night, the dance halls, and the movie palaces, and the ideas about what went on there, that drew the line of demarcation between the village and the city” (Ryan, 2018, p. 9-10). These were the hotspots of activity for wealthy youths in urban America as they offered the most entertaining experiences for them and these places were frequently presented attractively to all Americans through several facets of popular media, at the time.
This sort of lifestyle is also incredibly prevalent throughout several of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most notable literary works. For example, the main character of Fitzgerald’s 1921 novel The Beautiful and Damned, Anthony Patch, lives the life of a member of high society in New York City. When he is not in his luxurious apartment on Fifth Avenue, he would frequently “walk down Fifth Avenue to the Ritz, where he had an appointment for dinner with his two most frequent companions, Dick Caramel and Maury Noble” (Fitzgerald, 1922, p. 18). Anthony Patch’s life is the epitome of wealthy youth culture in urban America during the 1920s. Other than going to dinner at the Ritz, he can also be found attending parties of various types, frequenting dance halls, and finding company with women of a similar age to his and socioeconomic status until he meets Gloria who he eventually marries. Another well-known example and representation of metropolitan youth culture that is so directly associated with “The Roaring Twenties” is the character Jay Gatsby from Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. Spontaneity was often a trait of young men and women in 1920’s metropolitan culture as they often were against being tied down and limited to experiencing too little an amount of activities and often would spend long nights out on the town. One of the most well-known examples of this spontaneity comes in The Great Gatsby when at a dinner party, Daisy Buchanan decides on a whim that the attendees of the party should drive into the city from Long Island (Fitzgerald, 1925, p. 926). Spontaneity was a common practice and trait among youths during the 1920s, especially young women and/or flappers, as they wanted to experience as much of life as they could and lead a life of excitement without being restrained or held back by society.
Young women during the 1920s saw a major evolution in the way they experienced life as well as in the ways they presented themselves to the rest of society. Specifically in urban spaces, the flapper image and identity came to prominence during the 1920s. A flapper has been described as “virtually any girl [who] could be found ‘deep in an atmosphere of jungle music and the questioning of moral codes” (Zeitz, 2006, p. 42). Flappers were redefining womanhood during the 1920s by changing the view and perception that was often placed onto women prior to this decade. They were women who dressed differently and acted differently in comparison to women prior to this time. Flappers are girls who “wear ‘hand-knit, sleeveless’ jerseys… that offer easy access to the forbidden regions of their bodies. They scoff at their parents’ prudery and remind them that ‘Mother, it’s done – you can’t run everything now the way you did in the early nineties” (Zeitz, 2006, p. 42). Young women during the 1920s were shifting the gender norms that had been placed on them and dramatically changing the ways people, but mainly men, viewed them as members of society. This flapper image and identity did not exist prior to “The Roaring Twenties” as F. Scott Fitzgerald is actually credited with creating the image in his first novel published in 1920.
In 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald published and released his first novel called This Side of Paradise. This novel is said to be semiautobiographical as the main character, Amory Blaine, follows a similar life path compared to that of Fitzgerald himself. It is within this novel that Fitzgerald is said to have created the flapper image and identity that became widely known and grasped during the 1920s and is still widely known and even grasped today. However, “by later standards, Fitzgerald’s exposé of the flapper was tame. But it was provocative enough for its time” as “‘none of the Victorian mothers … had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed,’ opened an oft quoted chapter” (Zeitz, 2006, p. 42). The college age generation (the youths) living in urban America, mostly, were wholeheartedly breaking away from the standards and norms that their parental generation was setting for them and this breaking was increasingly intense and deliberate for young women. Young women were participating in activities and completing different actions that, prior to this time, would have never been seen done by a woman. In This Side of Paradise, “Amory saw girls doing things that even in his memory would have been impossible: eating three-o’clock, after-dance suppers in impossible cafés, talking of every side of life with a furtive excitement that Amory considered stood for a real moral let-down. But he never realized how wide-spread it was until he saw the cities between New York and Chicago as one vast juvenile intrigue” (Fitzgerald, 1920, p. 55-56). Flappers went against the traditional moral code set for women prior to the 1920s and were proud of their new sense of freedom and agency that they set for themselves within urban society. This identity and image coined by Fitzgerald opened a fairly brand-new conversation about sex, mainly in the city, and women’s sexuality.
The decade of the 1920s brought about an increase in sexual fluidity in terms of the lessening of the taboo nature of sex. Further, “in a culture saturated in sex, these girls knew more than their mothers and their grandmothers had at their age, and evidence shows that they did in fact engage in more sexual activity than their forebears. Later research demonstrates that higher numbers of women partook in premarital sex in the 1920s, though for most it was only acceptable as a prelude to marriage” (Ryan, 2018, p. 107). Young women during the 1920s were much more open about sex and their sexuality than the women whom came before them. Even though some women still decided not to partake in premarital sex unless it was considered a prelude to marriage, the decade showed an immense increase in the numbers of women partaking and participating in premarital sex. These sorts of changes can be accredited to the location that is metropolitan America and the accessibility that this locale provided young, wealthy Americans.
The accessibility that urban spaces provided young upper-class citizens for the various activities they participated in has a major impact on what made life in 1920s cities so “roaring.” Being that everything in cities was so condensed, there was a vast spectrum of activities for young men and women to participate in. There were dance halls, movie theatres and theatres for theatrical productions, restaurants, and in some places like New York there were places of amusement and entertainment like Coney Island. This accessibility, in the case of urban America, had an immense impact on popular media of this times. Specifically, literature was incredibly representative of leisure activities and was greatly impacted by the geography of the locale. Authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Willa Cather were inspired by urban geography (only in some cases for Cather) to set their novels and other stories.
In Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, Anthony and Gloria Patch both hail from urban America where they were able to go out nightly and go to elegant restaurants, the theatre, or dance halls. However, after marrying one another, they decided to move out of New York City and ended up in the small suburb, north of the city, called Marietta. Fitzgerald writes a vastly different life for the young couple when they move to Marietta in comparison to the life they led in the city. Unfortunately for the newly married Patches, “Marietta itself offered little social life” (Fitzgerald, 1922, p. 152). Gloria and Anthony were so used to seeing friends on a daily and nightly basis when living in the city and this made the adjustment to rural living that much more difficult for them to the point where they were forced to move back to the city (because of this, but also because of financial issues). In opposition, in Willa Cather’s short story Coming, Eden Bower!, a man named Don Hedger takes the titular character Eden Bower on a date to Coney Island where “they went to the balcony of a big, noisy restaurant and had a shore dinner with tall steins of beer” and “after dinner they went to the tent behind the bathing beach, where the tops of two balloons bulged out over the canvas. A red-faced man in a linen suit stood in front of the tent, shouting in a hoarse voice and telling the people that if the crowd was good for five dollars more a beautiful young woman would risk her life for their entertainment” (Cather, 1920, p. 15). Places like Coney Island in urban America held such a wide array of activities for people to see, do, and participate in. These activities provided by the condensed nature of metropolises had an immense impact on popular literature during the 1920s and, in the case of Fitzgerald, helped to perpetuate the myth of “The Roaring Twenties.”
Even though is one of the most recognizable authors of the 1920s, and one of the most profound authors in general, F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most responsible individuals in the perpetuation of the myth of “The Roaring Twenties.” Fitzgerald is known for mostly only writing about the lives of wealthy men and women living in major cities during the 1920s. His most well-known and widely recognized characters like Jay Gatsby, Amory Blaine, and Anthony Patch live among upper-class society in or near New York City. These characters lived in large homes and/or apartments, spent most of their time drinking at parties or dance halls, and had enough money that allowed them to not necessarily have to work if they chose not to. The inaccuracy and myth that stems from this writing is that these characters are set in unchanging class standings with no real opportunity or need for mobility. It is evident that “Fitzgerald clearly establishes the emblematic dissimilarity of style and taste between the rich and the others, arranging it around the habit” (Bechtel, 2017, p. 118). Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of this dissimilarity as readers are presented with two vastly different main characters: Jay Gatsby of the upper class and Nick Caraway of the working class. In this novel Fitzgerald presents readers with these two characters and clearly distinguishes between their differing financial statuses through their attire, lifestyles, and homes. With this incredibly dissimilar presentation, “thus, Fitzgerald shows that the tastes of his upwardly mobile working-class men are gaudy and ostentatious, yet utterly terminable, fulfilling Bourdieu’s definitions of cultural incompetence and the vulgar manners that reveal underlying social conditions in the habitus” (Bechtel, 2017, p. 119). Fitzgerald’s portrayal of life in the 1920s was widely inaccurate as he presented this erroneous fallacy of the possibility of social mobility which is completely incongruous with Fitzgerald’s actual lifestyle.
When the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald are read, most readers would assume that Fitzgerald spent his life living like the wealthy characters he created. When reading his work, most would assume that Fitzgerald held the luxuries of frivolously spending money, living in a mansion of sorts, and no real need for work. However, “his popular reputation as a careless spendthrift is untrue. Fitzgerald was always trying to follow conservative financial principles” (Quirk, 2009). Fitzgerald led a life that was vastly incongruous with the lives in his most famous characters led. Throughout the majority of his life, Fitzgerald worked to save as much money as he could, until 1929 when his wife, Zelda fell ill. This is a perfect example of the danger of perpetuating the myth of “The Roaring Twenties.” By perpetuating this myth, Fitzgerald placed an inaccurate assumption onto himself in that most readers, and later historians, assumed he lived the wealthy, upper-class life of his characters which was not the case. Similarly, his writing is what leads to people assuming that life was the same for everyone in the country when that life that is mostly associated with the 1920s is only that of wealthy youths in metropolitan America.
Rural America, where one would find the slow-moving small towns and farm towns. This is where one would find the lifestyles that are not commonly associated with the moniker “The Roaring Twenties.” These rural spaces are where most working and lower-class families would call home. People in these smaller, slow-moving spaces spent most of their time working or could be found crowding on neighbors’ porches singing, playing games, or engaging in small talk. This locale, frequently referred to as “Main Street,” is completely disregarded when most consider the moniker of “The Roaring Twenties” as these spaces were not categorized by that nickname. Young people living in small town America did not have the access to the activities nor, in most cases, to the financial frivolity that youths in urban America had making life for these youths vastly different. This different pace of change is most accurately represented through the literary works of famed author Willa Cather through such characters as Claude Wheeler from One of Ours (Cather, 1922) and Marian Forrester from A Lost Lady (Cather, 1923).
One of the most notable differences between life in the urban setting compared to life in the rural setting is the type of leisure activities young people participated in and engaged with. Part of this difference also has to do with the accessibility these young men and women had to different activities. For those living in rural towns, there were less options for a night out in comparison to what those living in cities had. Family life was heavily emphasized in small towns as young men and women often spent more time with their parents and siblings than the young men and women in metropolitan America. Again, most nights on Main Street were spent on the lawns or porches of one’s neighbor’s home where large groups of families and neighbors would sing and chat. This was not exclusive to any age group, specifically, though as “young couples joined in too, and while they might drift away momentarily, their evening centered on these community gatherings of all ages” (Ryan, 2018, p. 2). Youth culture in small town America did not revolve around independence or separation from one’s parents as it did in the city where young men and women oftentimes put immense effort into separating themselves from their previous familial generations. This sort of community gathering did change, somewhat, during the 1920s as the automobile became more commonplace for families to own so people in small town America would often drive out of their towns to participate in other sorts of leisure activities that were not offered nor present in their hometowns. An example of this begins the novel One of Ours by Willa Cather where readers are introduced to Claude Wheeler as he awoke excitedly one morning. Claude waked his younger brother, Ralph, and asked him to come help him wash the car because they had plans to go to the circus (Cather, 1922, p. 1). Claude and Ralph would otherwise not be able to see the circus without having a mode of transportation, in this case their car, to get them there. This was the case for most Americans living in small towns as leisure activities were not readily available nor present for them in their towns.
During the 1920s, the concept of youth culture became more distinct and prevalent throughout society. Young people of the time often sought to distance themselves from their parents’ old-fashioned morals, ideals, and values and live life in the way they chose to live it. However, historians have argued and debated where this, for the time, new distinction of cultures stemmed from. Some locate the origins of this culture gap to World War I which was the first war of the Machine Age, while “others locate its origins in the nation’s rapid modernization and industrialization, dramatically altered social, racial, and gender roles” (Drowne and Huber, 2004, p. 39). This is also an explanation for why leisure activities and youth culture differed so noticeably in small town America in comparison to metropolitan America. If the development of this new youth culture is going to be attributed to rapid modernization and industrialization, then it is evident why this was how youths in cities lived; they were directly witnessing and experiencing rapid modernization and industrialization. Young men and women in small towns were not seeing this modernization and industrialization, so the new youth culture was not as prevalent in these spaces as “technological changes came far more slowly to homes in rural America” (Drowne and Huber, 2004, p. 18). This explanation is also relevant and topical for explaining why an evolution nor change in terms of women and gender norms cannot be seen as clearly in small town America during the 1920s.
The evolution and newfound freedom women felt and expressed in major cities was not as prevalent in small towns. The flapper image and identity were not seen in the same light as it was in the cities. People living in small town America tended to follow more traditional gender norms and this is evident in their views and perceptions of flappers. Journalist John Farrer learned this when writing an article about one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collections of short stories called Tales of the Jazz Age. In his article, he explains how “a young married woman recently told me that she detested the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. ‘Such girls don’t exist,’ she affirmed. ‘At least I haven’t been able to find them’” (Farrar, 1922, p. 12-13). Flappers were mainly seen in the major urban spaces and were not as prominent in rural spaces, even though there were some instances of them, as the young women on Main Street were not as focused on distinguishing themselves from their parents and engaging in the new youth culture. Furthermore, women in small towns did not venture out as much as the young women in the cities had the luxury of doing as “the great majority of families followed traditional sex roles: the husbands were the principal breadwinners, while the wives had primary responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children” (Drowne and Huber, 2004, p. 18). Women in rural spaces chose to hold onto their responsibilities and work in the home, primarily, whereas flappers in the cities wanted to break away from those traditional gender norms and responsibilities. However, this way of living was the only option for women due to the geographic locale of their small towns.
Small towns did not offer the slew of activities comparable to the amount major cities offered their inhabitants. Rural towns were less condensed and more spaced out than cities, architecturally, so there was not the available space for places like movie theatres, dance halls, and amusement parks like Coney Island in small town America. This is why people in small town America oftentimes would leave their homes for short periods of time for simple nights out and/or for longer, extended periods of time for vacations. Willa Cather’s novel, A Lost Lady, takes place in a small town known as Sweet Water, located in Nebraska where there are little to no options of leisure activities for its residents. That is why the couple the story follows, Captain Daniel and Marian Forrester, leave the town for an extended period of time. Specifically, “she and her husband spent the winter in Denver and Colorado Springs, — left Sweet Water soon after Thanksgiving and did not return until the first of May” (Cather, 1923, p. 24). Readers can infer that Cather’s Sweet Water does not offer much excitement nor any sort of change of pace for its residents, therefore, it is the type of town where residents who are able to decide to take vacations and leave town for some time. This can be accredited to the regional and geographic layout of the town and its location. Nebraska, in general, is mostly farmland with few major cities, which is evident throughout Cather’s novel. Cather is a novelist known for her regionalism within her writing or her ability to place readers in the setting of her novels through in-depth descriptions and details.
Throughout her career, it is evident that Willa Cather was heavily influenced by the geography and regional style of rural America which is the feature setting in a variety of her novels and short stories. Cather is credited as being one of the greatest regionalist authors of the modern era of literature. Literary scholars argue that “Cather achieves similar effects with fewer words, her landscape made vivid through metaphors that create picture with contrasting images of ‘sea,’ ‘Gothic… cathedrals,’ and ‘enormous city.’ Her use of color in describing the blooming vegetation suggests the influence of Impressionism, an improvement over the blur of Hawthorne’s ‘smokey-hued tracts’” (Murphy, 2021, p. 302). In her writing, Cather was able to take readers and place them in these rural settings through her use of descriptive phrases, metaphors, and colorful language. Her ability to create vivid images of her settings within the minds of her readers is why she is categorized as one of, if not the best, regionalist authors as she is able to present her words through a regionalist perspective. Cather’s “regional way of thinking emphasizes the interconnections between places and communities as a larger spatial network” (Squire, 2011, p. 48-49). When writing, Cather was able to look at her settings as a larger space rather than a specific region which allowed for her to see and write about the connections that specific places and communities hold to their larger regional space. It is evident that Willa Cather was immensely influenced by the geography of rural America as that tended to be the setting she seemed most comfortable writing about. Her writing also provides for an accurate perception of what life was like for individuals living in rural and small-town America during the 1920s and explained how life was not “roaring” for everyone during this decade. Cather’s writing also provides reasoning for why the phrase “The Roaring Twenties” is an inaccurate classification for the decade as it completely disregards nor considers life for those living in American suburbs.
Cather was able to write about the lifestyle of those living in rural America so accurately as she actually lived and grew up there. Cather was born in Virginia, but when she was only nine years old, her family moved to Nebraska (The National Willa Cather Center, 2021). When writing, Cather was able to draw on her own childhood and young adult experiences to give an accurate depiction of life in the rural region of the country. Critics raved about Cather’s writing, praising the “reality and a beauty of description in Willa Cather’s treatment of the prairie country that must bring a wonderful sigh of gratitude from anyone who lived there. The pages spill color: words sing with life” (De Leeuw, 1922, p. 7). Cather had the ability, when writing, to truly transport her readers from wherever they were reading to rural America as her portrayal and depiction of what life was really like for that large population of the country. Critics felt as though this ability was remarkable and should have really pleased the rural population as Cather was letting them truly be seen by the rest of the population in metropolitan America. Overall, “as one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century, Willa Cather was gifted in conveying an intimate understanding of her characters in relation to their personal and cultural environments—environments that often derived from Red Cloud” (The National Willa Cather Center, 2021). Willa Cather is deemed one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century because of her innate ability to draw on her past experiences in rural Nebraska in order to accurately depict life in rural America. Her writing allowed those living in this region to feel seen by those living in the major cities and she gives profound reasoning for why “The Roaring Twenties” is a misnomer for the decade as a whole.
Conclusively, 1920s, as a decade, has historically been referred to as “The Roaring Twenties.” When most hear this moniker granted to the decade, what typically comes to mind is lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinking, flappers, dance halls, and many other frivolous activities. “The Roaring Twenties” is a misnomer that is incredibly inaccurate when describing the decade as a whole as it only categorizes the lifestyles of those wealthy individuals living in urban spaces, like New York City. For those working-class individuals and families living in rural and small-town America, the 1920s were far from “roaring.” However, even though life was not “roaring” for those living in rural and small-town America, their lives were not dreary and awful. For individuals living in those spaces, the slower and more traditional lifestyle was really all they knew how to follow since they were surrounded by it on a daily basis.
The unequal representation brought on by this misnomer is overtly present within the literary works of two well-known authors of the 1920s: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Willa Cather. Fitzgerald is arguably one of the main perpetuators of the myth of “The Roaring Twenties” as the major themes of his novels and stories revolve around upper-class society in metropolitan meccas such as New York. The main characters his stories oftentimes focus, hail from wealthy families and have luxuries and opportunities that not many were offered during the 1920s. Fitzgerald highlights the fast-paced, glamourous lifestyle of young, wealthy Americans living in major cities. In opposition, Willa Cather wrote several stories that mostly were set in rural America. She is praised for her ability to transport readers to the small farm towns where her stories are set as well as her ability to accurately depict life in these small rural towns. Cather’s writing helps to show how incomparable life was for those individuals not living in major cities and, in turn, how and why “The Roaring Twenties” is such an inaccurate misnomer for generalizing the entire decade. Cather’s writing highlights the lack of serious cultural division that was prominent in American cities and emphasizes the differences in cultural identity that the youth population lived in, connected to, and promoted. She promotes the acceptance and understanding of the cultural divide that was growing during the 1920s and exposes the experiences of working-class American young men and women to uncover this frequently ignored and omitted part of American History.
A major issue that needs to be amended in regards to this issue of unequal representation of all during the 1920s is the educational perspective this decade is viewed. Most individuals visualize “The Roaring Twenties” in the way they do because that is how they were taught to see the decade. Students are frequently taught in the classroom only about the wealthy urban lifestyle that was lived during the 1920s and associations are often made with places like New York City as well as works of popular media like The Great Gatsby. The issue with this comes in that the entire perspective of the working- or middle-class individual is completely lost and disregarded by educators and, in turn, by students.
Teachers, at least in New Jersey, are not even suggested to teach about rural nor small town America in History and Social Studies classes. The closest that they may come stems from NJ Social Studies Standard 6.1.12.D.8.b which falls under the “Perspectives” content strand and has students “assess the impact of artists, writers, and musicians of the 1920s, including the Harlem Renaissance, on American culture and values.” (New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies, 2014). New Jersey students are asked to study different artists, writers, and musicians of the 1920s and assess their impact on American culture, but these artists, writers, and musicians almost always have some sort of connection to an urban space, typically New York. The New Jersey Department of Education have laid the groundwork for students to learn about various perspectives of individuals from the 1920s with this standard, but the focus almost always falls onto and stays on the perspective of city inhabitants, with writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and authors who write about urban life, with F. Scott Fitzgerald. If the perspectives of all Americans from the 1920s continue to be ignored and disregarded in History and Social Studies classrooms, the country will eventually lose the historically vital stories, voices, and perspectives of a large portion of the U.S. population, altogether.
This leads into the devolution within History and Social Studies education which has, arguably, deteriorated greatly in terms of its quality. When asked in an interview “How do you think inadequate history education plays into what some describe as the country’s current “‘post-truth’ moment?” author James W. Loewen answered that “History is by far our worst-taught subject in high school; I think we’re stupider in thinking about the past than we are, say, in thinking about Shakespeare, or algebra, or other subjects” (Wong, 2018). High school students have been disserviced in the ways they are taught History and Social Studies. The reason for this is that “we historians tend to make everything so nuanced that the idea of truth almost disappears” (Wong, 2018). Most History and Social Studies teachers rely too heavily on fitting as much of the vast expanse of History into their classes so much so that important topics tend to simply be glanced over and taught subtly rather than being focused on intently. This is the disservice that is done onto students and it directly boils down to the textbooks used in schools, today.
History and Social Studies textbooks, that are uses in schools across the country, are incredibly biased and one-sided. They oftentimes omit certain facts regarding an individual, event, or concept or they simply omit certain individuals, events, or concepts altogether. Individuals like Willa Cather and topics like rural America during the 1920s are oftentimes omitted from History and Social Studies classes and textbooks because they are not as enthralling or appealing as individuals like F. Scott Fitzgerald and topics like cities during the 1920s. That determination, however, is made by the individuals writing the textbooks. This is a consideration that consumers of textbooks, especially schools, need to make as “perhaps we are all dupes, manipulated by elite white male capitalists who orchestrate how history is written as part of their scheme to perpetuate their own power and privilege at the expense of the rest of us” (Loewen, 2018, p. 304). Those who write the textbooks control the narrative of what readers learn from the textbook. Bias detection is vital for consumers of textbooks to utilize especially if the textbook is going to be used by students. Loewen highlights how “in 1984, George Orwell was clear about who determines the way History is written: ‘Who controls the present controls the past’” (Loewen, 2018, p. 304). This is what happens with modern textbooks as the major publishing companies responsible for our textbooks are the ones controlling the narrative of history that our students are consuming in their classrooms. Money and wealth dominate modern American society and since the individuals at the top of the corporate hierarchy for major publishing companies are presumably incredibly wealthy, they control the way History is written. What they find interesting is what is published in textbooks, but those individuals, topics, and concepts are not always the vital pieces of history that students need to learn while in school.
Cather, W. (1920). Coming, Eden Bower! Youth and the Bright Medusa (pp. 1-166)
Cather, W. (1922). One of Ours
Cather, W. (1923). A Lost Lady
De Leeuw, A. (1922, May 28,). New-York Tribune, May 28, 1922, Page 7, Image 53. New-York Tribune10.1093/nq/192.9.195e https://api.istex.fr/ark:/67375/HXZD0ZFBQHG0/fulltext.pdf
Farrar, J. (). The New York Herald, October 8, 1922, Section 7, Page 12, Image 96.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1920a). Flappers and Philosophers. Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (pp. 3-164). Barnes & Noble Inc. (Consulted)
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1920b). The I.O.U. In Anne Margaret Daniel (Ed.), I’d Die For You and Other Lost Stories (pp. 3-18). Scribner Inc. (Consulted)
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1920c). This Side of Paradise. Barnes & Noble Books.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1922a). The Beautiful and Damned. Barnes & Noble Books.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1922b). Tales of the Jazz Age. Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (pp. 167-398). Barnes & Noble Inc. (Consulted)
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1925). The Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby and Other Classic Works (pp. 853-965). Sterling Publishing Co.
Hansen, H. (). The New York Herald, March 19, 1922, Section 8, Page 11, Image 105.
Knopf, A. (1922, September 10,). The New York Herald, September 10, 1922, Section 7, Page 9, Image 93. The New York Herald https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/data/batches/dlc_deadnettle_ver01/data/sn830457740271744365/1922091001/0373.pdf
New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies (2014). New Jersey Department of Education.
The New York Herald, October 15, 1922, Section 8, Page 9, Image 97.
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Bechtel, D. E. (2017). Jay Gatsby, Failed Intellectual: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Trope for Social Stratification. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, 15(1), 117-129.
Cain, W. E. (2020). American Dreaming: Really Reading the Great Gatsby. Society (New Brunswick), 57(4), 453-518.
Drowne, K., & Huber, P. (2004). The 1920s. Greenwood Press Publishing Group.
F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896-1940. (2020). F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Retrieved from https://fscottfitzgeraldsociety.org/about-us-2/biography/
Garvey, T. J. (1984). Paul Manship, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a monument to echo the Jazz Age.
Jenkins, A. (1974). The Twenties. Universe Books.
Loewen, J. W. (2018). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press.
Murphy, J. J. (2021). Epilogue Why Willa Cather? A Retrospective. Cather Studies, 12, 300-323. Retrieved from https://rider.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=trudb=aph&AN=151747278&site=eds-live&scope=site
Quirk, W. J. (2009). Living on $500,000 a Year: What F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns reveal about his life and times. American Scholar, 78(4), 96-101. Retrieved from https://rider.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=truedb=lfh&AN=44180090&site=eds-live&scope=site
Ryan, E. J. (2018). When the World Broke in Two: The 1920s and the Dawn of America’s Culture Wars. ABC-CLIO LLC.
Squire, K. (2011). Jazz Age Places: Modern Regionalism in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Cather Studies, 9, 45-66. 10.1017/9781787446861
Zeitz, J. (2006). Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women who Made America Modern. Random House Inc.