My knowledge of 1920s America is based almost entirely on a youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dorothy Parker and repeated viewings of Some Like It Hot. Lucy Moore's "biography" proved to be an entertaining way to expand my limited awareness beyond the Algonquin Round Table and fictional cross-dressing jazz musicians. Moore's biography is chronological, but she does not attempt to squeeze in every aspect of such a potentially vast topic. Instead, she focuses on characteristic events, trends and individuals, constructing a profile of the age rather than an exhaustive history. Key themes include jazz, organised crime, modernisers and modernisms, the automotive and entertainment industries, and economics. Each chapter has a thematic focus but constructs a narrative around that focus, telling the story and drawing out the broader historical implications.
Some of the people Moore writes about are hugely famous - Al Capone, Warren Harding, Bessie Smith, Lindbergh - but she is also good at working the stories of background characters into her text. The chapter on the New Yorker focuses much less on its starry writers than on Robert Ross, the "homely" editor whose first wife said of him "he'd have to be good with that face and figure". The chapter on Lindbergh, which includes a marvellous evocation of his solo flight across the Atlantic, tells us about the Californian plane builders who constructed Spirit of St Louis, working unpaid overtime to do so. Moore is particularly good on showing how "business" and its methods acquired an almost religious significance, with the salesman the evangelising means by which consumption could be stimulated and profits increased. Religion itself co-opted business language through the publication of The Man Nobody Knows, which apparently depicts Jesus as a successful chief executive who picked twelve go-ahead types to join his senior management team. A recurring theme is the way in which notions of American-ness were promoted by the new mass media, particularly the cinema.
There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the impact of free-market economics and unregulated banking on the present economy, and the early roots of American thinking on this can be traced here. Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary throughout the 1920s, was committed to the free market and to the reduction of taxation, particularly for the rich. "By the time Mellon's new tax system came into effect in 1927 a few people were starting to worry about the effects of over-speculation and the over-extension of credit, but neither Mellon nor [President] Coolidge would countenance an interest-rate rise: they believed the market should be self-regulating. This would have grave implications in the coming years" (160). All depressingly familiar.
Despite the title, Moore also looks at some of the more reactionary elements of American society, including the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-Darwinist legislation passed by various states. Even the conservatives in this book seem to have a definite sense of being modern - while reading, I began to wonder if a sense of our own modernity is something we have lost now that nostalgia is almost a way of life, at least in the UK.
This is not a footnote-laden text, although there are suggestions of further reading for each chapter and an extensive bibliography. I slightly missed having footnotes - there is usually something juicy hidden there - but I think the book succeeds on its own terms as what Lucy Moore calls a "subjective survey" and as a stimulating introduction to a fascinating time.