Thursday, January 5, 2012

Anything Goes: A Biography Of The Roaring Twenties

by Lucy Moore

A popular history of the decade, zipping through the salient features of the cultural landscape (in America): Prohibition, gang violence, the rise of jazz, inchoate Hollywood and the talkies, Ford, flappers, the KKK and xenophobia, the Scopes trial, Lindbergh’s flight, and so on.

It’s a fun ride, readable and instructive, though at times it reads like a thesis, and there’s quite a lot of unattributed quoted material. Some of the spotlights Moore shines are questionable – an entire chapter on Jack Dempsey, but only a passing mention of Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb? An examination of the character, scandals, and death of Warren Harding, but nothing about Coolidge, who was president for the majority of the decade? There’s nothing wrong with the pieces she writes – I found both of those chapters illuminating and enjoyable – but I doubt a serious historical work would suffer the same omissions. Some of her less obvious choices are, on the other hand, instructive, such as the look at how The New Yorker got its humble start. Though there’s no overall argument to the book, I got the sense of a ‘20s in America that was a sort of amalgam of the ‘50s and ‘60s: post-war prosperity and disposable income, mixed with rumblings of civil rights and a fatalistic, hedonistic rejection of normalcy and routine. In all, I came away educated and entertained by the book, lightweight though it might be; it’s certainly a reminder that there was never one monolithic American culture. And no “good old days.”

three stars

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