Mary's Library

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Only Yesterday

While sorting through some of my books the other day, I came across my copy of Frederick Lewis Allen's classic Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931). This book was published as something of an instant history of the United States in the 1920s, when that era was still fresh people's minds. In this case, the "Twenties" is chronologically tweaked a bit. The book traces American life from the end of World War I in 1918 through the stock market crash of 1929. It ends with a coda covering the Great Depression years of 1930 and 1931.

Our local newspaper recently ran a story on "technology fatigue" -- the condition caused by incessant technological changes in our everyday lives. While this is a problem for us, the typical American of the 1920's certainly experienced similarly overwhelming changes in many aspects of life. The changes chronicled by Allen are stunning. In many ways, American life today reflects trends that largely started in the 1920s. With the coming of commercial radio broadcasts (nonexistent before 1920, but reaching the vast majority of Americans by the end of the decade), mass production of automobiles, and the seemingly endless increase in prosperity, the 1920s became the first decade of real mass culture and of instant communications. It was an era of celebreties, scandals, and crazes -- President Harding, Tea Pot Dome, Aimee Semple McPherson, Sinclair Lewis, Mah Jong, crossword puzzles. There has never been anything really like it before or since -- and it all came crashing down with a vengeance. The trends that the Twenties set in motion, however, proved unstoppable in future decades.

Many of the specific persons and events described in a thematic tour de force in Only Yesterday are now no more than footnotes to history. Nonetheless, this book is an invaluable resource (and a great read) for anyone wanting to know how the world got to where it is today. Even now, the 1920s is still only yesterday.

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