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The Jazz Age and Cultural Conflicts

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Americans in the 1920s had new-found
wealth and more leisure time to
support expanding forms of mass
In the 1920s, movies became more popular than
regional forms of entertainment, contributing
to the rise of a mass culture. Publicity
departments turned actors and actresses into
national stars. The Musical becomes popular.
Because every seat in the movie palace
cost exactly the same admission price,
going to the movies helped level
differences among Americans.
With time, energy, and money to play, Americans
took to sports–tennis, golf, baseball, swimming,
and more.
Hard-playing Americans also provided huge
audiences for professional sports. The era’s
popular sports heroes became as newsworthy as
movie stars.
Individual feats of daring–such as Gertrude
Ederle’s swim across the English Channel–won
special acclaim.
Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic
generated more excitement than any single event
in the decade. Amelia Earhart matched his feat a
short time later.
The blues and jazz, both essentially African
American creations, helped define the 1920s. The
blues grew out of work songs and field chants of
enslaved African Americans. Jazz began in New
Orleans and moved north during the Great
Migration. It gave rise to new dances such as the
Charleston, which first appeared in an African
American revue in 1924.
While live music predominated in the 1920s,
electricity gave recorded music its start via the
phonograph and the radio.
With time on their hands and with more
education than any previous generation, more
Americans in the 1920s read.
The existence of a large national audience
encouraged the publication of new magazines,
the birth of several new publishing houses, and
the formation of newspaper syndicates.
Tabloids– newspapers with small pages and
large type–battled for readers with a steady
fare of gossip, scandals, and news on the latest
Some writers attacked America’s materialism. They
questioned a society that placed more importance on
money and material goods than it did on intellectual,
spiritual, and artistic concerns.
Some members of the “lost generation” such as
Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott
Fitzgerald left the United States and lived as
expatriates. They used their pens to expose what
they considered to be the shallow culture of their
nation. The argument: Buying on credit, the explosion
of advertising, or the popularity of fads and tabloids
prove that American culture was shallow and
When large numbers of farmers migrated to
cities during the 1920s, they brought with them
fundamentalism–a movement that affirmed the
literal truth of the Bible. The familiar religion
helped them make sense of their lives in
changing times.
At the same time, however, traditional
religions began to take on modern aspects,
such as the use of radio by some evangelists.
John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution in
the schools – but the trial ended up being a
conflict over evolution itself
The Scopes trial highlighted the tensions that
existed between traditional religious beliefs
such as the Biblical story of creation and new
scientific ideas such as evolution.
Today it is illegal to teach creationism in public
Like fundamentalism, Prohibition pitted smalltown residents against a newer, more urban
Prohibition succeeded in eradicating saloons, but
speakeasies sprang up
in their place.
Prohibition was hard to enforce because the
nation’s long coastlines and land borders made it
easy for smugglers to sneak alcohol into the
country, bootleggers could distill liquor illegally
almost anywhere, and druggists could sell liquor
legally on doctors’ prescriptions.
Prohibition led many Americans, particularly
in cities, to take a casual attitude toward
breaking the law. Big-city crime profited from
bootlegging, while liquor-related cases clogged
the courts.
The rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan pointed out many
of the conflicts that divided American society
during this period. When the Klan spread from
Georgia in the 1920s, it added new enemies to its
list–Mexican Americans in Texas, Japanese
immigrants in California, Jews and European
immigrants in New York, and French Canadians in
New England.
All over the country, Klan members directed
hatred at African Americans.
It became strong in some Northern cities affected
by the Great Migration.
The Klan prided itself on pure-blood
Americanism, but it shared many similarities
with German and Italian movements of this
period. It stressed nationalism and racial
purity, attacked alien minority groups,
disapproved of urban culture, and called for a
return to the past.
The Klan began to sink back into obscurity
after one of its leaders was convicted for the
kidnapping and second-degree murder of a
woman he brutally abused.
Many Americans associated immigrants with
radicalism and disloyalty. Rural Americans in
particular believed that immigrants had
somehow caused the erosion of old-fashioned
American values.
These fears led to new laws that restricted
immigration through a quota system that
favored immigrants from northern and western
Europe and, in the case of the National Origins
Act of 1924, excluded Asians altogether.
The tensions between the city and the country
erupted into national election politics for the first
time in 1928 when New York Governor Al Smith
made a bid for the presidency. Smith represented
everything small-town America feared: the big city
with sinful and foreign ways.
Hoover sold himself as a typical Iowa farm boy who
had helped engineer the prosperity of the 1920s. To
no one’s surprise, Hoover won in a landslide. Lost in
the excitement was the fact that for the first time in a
decade of Republican prosperity, a President had
failed to win the 12 largest cities in the United States.
The people in power–white, Protestant, and
male–still gave lip service to the small-town
virtues of the past, but in the 1920s the United
States was rapidly changing into a modern,
urban society.
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