Making It New in the Jazz Age
The writers who defined the Jazz Age almost a century ago still exert a pull on us: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Eugene O’Neill, Ezra Pound—to name just a few. They were at the vanguard of a cultural shift that was “revolutionary and disorienting,” said Ichiro Takayoshi, an associate professor of English who focuses on the literature of the Jazz Age.
In fact, Takayoshi argues, the writing of the 1920s is so important that it should be considered not just significant, but signposted as an exceptional literary era. Its “uniqueness, exceptional innovation, and energy needs to be recognized,” he said.
He’s done that now with American Literature in Transition: 1920-1930 (Cambridge University Press), a collection of essays he edited and contributed to. “What made this particular decade more innovative, more energetic, more rambunctious than, say, the 1950s or 1850s?” Takayoshi asked. “For a nation’s literature to produce exceptionally original, rich, enduring works of art, there are two necessary constants: the writers of a particular time must have a clear idea of what tradition is, and they must want to confront that tradition.”
The new book is one of ten volumes in the American Literature in Transition series. Cambridge University Press approached Takayoshi several years ago with an idea for a decade-by-decade review of American literature from 1910 to 2010, and he was game. He created an outline that would work for each decade, and took on editing not just the 1920s volume, but also the 1930s one, which should come out later this year.
Takayoshi has taught the course The Literature of the Jazz Age for seven years. And just like the variety in his course, his book covers a lot of territory: the rise of modernism; the focus on women, immigrants, blacks, radicals, and new trends in the publishing industry; as well as influences such as the Great War, secularism, Freud, Prohibition, the rapidly changing film world, and music—lest we forget it’s the Jazz Age.
A New Language
The writers who made their names in the 1920s were mostly born around 1890, a time when writing was mostly precious and pedantic and many racy topics were off the table for discussion—think Henry James. In contrast, Takayoshi points to the works of Hemingway, Hughes, and Pound, which were almost shocking in their style and content, and epitomized a new sensibility.
Hemingway may now be too famous for his own good, Takayoshi said, leading him to be, ironically, neglected as a subject of study. But “he changed American language more dramatically than his peers. His realism, his arrangement of simple, broad terms in a straightforward syntactical structure was very refreshing,” Takayoshi noted. Hemingway’s prose doesn’t stand out now simply because “that became the norm”—high praise indeed.
Takayoshi also points to Hughes, the poet, because “he changed how Americans think about black culture.” Before Hughes, whites and better-educated blacks saw white culture as ahead of black culture. “Their vision was vertical, but thanks to Hughes, that vision became horizontal,” according to Takayoshi. The norm became to see them as equal and parallel, and to celebrate and accept different ways of being. “And that transformation has stayed with us to this day—that’s how we talk about black culture today.”
Ezra Pound, Takayoshi said, fundamentally changed poetry. “Pound did what Hemingway did in prose: He changed the way poetry was written,” he said. “He made the texture of poetry look less dense, less composed; it feels as if it were spoken more freely, in a moment of passion. It’s more natural, more in tune with how we arrange thoughts using words in our head.”
What accounted for the all these changes? The writers grew up in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when America’s economic expansion made it “the fastest growing period in the nation’s history,” said Takayoshi. “That created a new willingness for these writers to separate themselves from what had been going on up to that point. They saw that they had to make their language match the tempo of the new age.”
While many see World War I as the pivotal event that shaped the era, Takayoshi points to the quiet but radical changes in daily life as equally important. In 1900, horse-drawn buggies, candle light, and lack of plumbing defined daily life in cities. By the early 1920s, cars, electricity, and indoor plumbing distinguished urban living—as they do to this day, our vaunted technological progress notwithstanding. “Those micro-transformations that were happening day-to-day on the factory floors, in homes, and on the streets ultimately were most significant in the formation of a new sensibility, even more than World War I and other seemingly cataclysmic events,” said Takayoshi.
That change in sensibility is most striking in two photographs that Takayoshi includes in his introduction in the book. One is Edith Wharton, primly sitting in a poofy dress and hat, two little dogs on her lap. The other is Edna St. Vincent Millay, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, sitting in slacks, her foot on the chair she’s relaxing in, casually smoking a cigarette. America had clearly made a quantum shift.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.