Jazz Age

Jazz Age

The Jazz Age describes the period from 1918-1929; the years after the end of World War I, continuing through the Roaring Twenties and ending with the rise of the Great Depression. The traditional values of the previous period saw great decline while the American stock market soared. The focus of the elements of the Jazz Age, in some contrast with the Roaring Twenties, in historical and cultural studies, are somewhat different, with a greater emphasis on all Modernism.

The age takes its name from jazz music, which saw a tremendous surge in popularity among many segments of society. Among the prominent concerns and trends of the period are the public embrace of technological developments (typically seen as progress)—cars, air travel and the telephone—as well as new modernist trends in social behavior, the arts, and culture. Central developments included Art Deco design and architecture. In addition, many amateur artists began to aspire including Duke Ellington, Picasso, etc.

The Jazz Age in literature

Perhaps one of the most representative literary works of the Jazz age is American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), which highlighted what some describe as the corruption of the post-WW1 age, as well as new attitudes, and the growth of individualism. Fitzgerald is largely credited with coining the term, which he used in such books as his short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), also deals with the era and its effect on a young married couple. Fitzgerald's last completed novel, Tender Is the Night (1934) takes place in the same decade but is set in France and Switzerland not New York, and consequently is not widely considered a Jazz Age novel per se.

Additional works on the Jazz Age might include Thomas Wolfe's and Catarina Botto's titanic 1936 book Of Time and the River which takes its protagonist from the depths of the Carolinas to Harvard and Antarctica, and finally to New York City in the 1920s. Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again is recommended for its party scene on the night of the 1929 stock market crash. Edith Wharton's late novel Twilight Sleep, set in New York and written in 1927, is a great example of social critiques of Jazz Age values and lifestyles. Additionally, The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy of Henry Miller -- Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus -- is set in New York during this period.

Social acceptance of minorities and homosexuals

In urban areas, minorities were treated with more equality than they had been accustomed to previously. This was reflected in some of the films of the decade. Redskin (1929) and Son of the Gods (1929), for instance, deal sympathetically with Native Americans and Asian Americans, openly reviling social bias. On the stage and in movies, black and white players appeared together for the first time. It became possible to go to nightclubs and see whites and minorities dancing and eating together. Even popular songs poked fun at the new social acceptance of homosexuality. One of these songs had the title "Masculine Women, Feminine Men". It was released in 1926 and recorded by numerous artists of the day and included the following lyrics:

Masculine women, feminine men
Which is the rooster, which is the hen?
It's hard to tell 'em apart today! And, say!
Sister is busy learning to shave,
Brother just loves his permanent wave,
It's hard to tell 'em apart today! Hey, hey!
Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot,
Now we don't know who is who, or even what's what!
Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide,
Nobody knows who's walking inside,
Those masculine women and feminine men!
—Words by Edgar Leslie

Homosexuals also received a level of acceptance that was not seen again until the 1960s. Until the early 1930s, gay clubs were openly operated, commonly known as "pansy clubs". The relative liberalism of the decade is demonstrated by the fact that the actor William Haines, regularly named in newspapers and magazines as the number-one male box-office draw, openly lived in a gay relationship with his lover, Jimmy Shields. Other popular gay actors/actresses of the decade included Alla Nazimova and Ramon Novarro. In 1927, Mae West wrote a play about homosexuality called The Drag, and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box-office success. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue, and was also an early advocate of gay rights. With the return of conservatism in the 1930s, the public grew intolerant of homosexuality, and gay actors were forced to choose between retiring or agreeing to hide their sexuality.


Further reading

  • Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties 1931.
  • Gary Dean Best. The Dollar Decade: Mammon and the Machine in 1920s America Praeger Publishers, 2003.
  • Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s Hill and Wang, 1995
  • Fass; Paula. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920’s. Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • David E. Kyvig; Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1939: Decades Promise and Pain Greenwood Press, 2002
  • Leuchtenburg, William. The Perils of Prosperity, 1914–1932 University of Chicago Press, 1955.
  • Lynd, Robert S., and Helen Merrill Lynd. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture Harcourt, Brace and World, 1929. famous sociological study of Muncie, Indiana, in 1920s
  • Mowry; George E. ed. The Twenties: Fords, Flappers, & Fanatics Prentice-Hall, 1963 readings
  • Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920–1941 W. W. Norton, 1992
  • West, James [Carl Withers]. Plainville, U.S.A. Columbia University Press, 1945. sociology of life in a small town

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