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We have long been fascinated by interpretations of American life in the 1920s. The historian Frederick Lewis Allen considered the era rather silly. In his popular chronicle Only Yesterday (1931) he painted a picture of fun-filled times whose flappers, booze, flagpole sitters, and jazz typified the spirit of release that at least some members of the post-World War I generation enjoyed. Other critics who assessed the period were gloomy. Malcolm Cowley wrote in his Exile's Return (1934) about young, carefree Americans who escaped to Paris in the 1920s and then returned home just before Daddy's money ran out in the Great Depression. He doubted that they learned very much during their self-indulgent odysseys. The literary critic Joseph Wood Krutch was even more dour about the decade in The Modern Temper (1929), being among the many who condemned the period as a moral disaster.
This view of the early twentieth century was not new. In 1920 William Butler Yeats famously wrote in "The Second Coming" that "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Even earlier, some late-nineteenth-century Amoses had observed, in the midst of an expansive age, that something of major importance had gone wrong in modern life. The great British social critic William Morris (1834-1896) traced the problem to the dislocation that had occurred with rapid industrialization and the growth of cities. He would turn back the wheel of history from the new consumer economy to the earlier producer economy, before the machine dominated people's lives. Like other idealists of his day, he envisioned returning to a simpler time, when hand labor presumably was pleasurable and people were not alienated from their work-or from each other. In architecture the Morrisites signaled their displeasure with modern society by advocating styles that seemed to them appropriate for the handicraft tradition. In Great Britain, this meant Gothic designs in public structures and the seventeenth-century country house in domestic architecture; in America, where Morris's ideas affected mainly domestic architecture, the Swiss chalet, the Japanese temple, and the Spanish mission epitomized the rejection of modernism.