The 1920s were a time of dramatic change in the U.S. Some artists and intellectuals reacted by expressing their disillusionment with American society. Known as the Lost Generation, writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and John Dos Passos conveyed their hopelessness and despair by criticizing both the “new generation” and conservative reactions to the changes of the 1920s.
The Lost Generation was alienated by World War I and the events of 1919, particularly the Red Scare: the pervasive fear that communism and other radical ideas were infiltrating the United States
Many of these artists, authors, and intellectuals expressed their alienation by criticizing American society. A number of them moved to Paris, Rome, or Berlin to live as expatriates.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured below), one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, captured the mood of the Lost Generation. His debut novel, This Side of Paradise, portrays a generation “grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken”. In The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, millionaire Jay Gatsby lives an unscrupulous, profligate life while loving another man’s wife.
Writer Ernest Hemingway (pictured below) lived a nomadic and adventurous life in Europe, Cuba, and Africa.
Hemingway used his experiences with war and tragedy to great effect. In novels including The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway depicted characters who were resilient in the face of struggle and failure.
While Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other authors and artists developed characters who epitomized the excesses of the decade or struggled against them, more Americans turned inward, and venerated traditional values. Rural America, which was predominantly white and Protestant, responded to the rapid changes occurring in urban America by rejecting diversity and defending their religious values. In doing so, they included themselves in a group that historian Roderick Nash referred to as the “nervous generation”.
While members of the “new generation” embraced new hairstyles and listened to jazz, and members of the Lost Generation expressed their disillusionment and cynicism, the “nervous generation” venerated conservative values. Ironically, they used some of the new technologies and mediums of the 1920s, including advertising and radio, to promote their beliefs. They were also willing to use governmental power to suppress dissenting views.
Fear and anxiety over immigration and radicalism did not end with the Red Scare of 1919, but continued throughout the following decade. They were reinforced by some prominent legal cases, and the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan.
The concerns of the “nervous generation” were evident during the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who were accused of robbery and murder in Braintree, Massachusetts (south of Boston) in April of 1920. No direct evidence linked them to the crime. When Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in May of 1920, they assumed it was because they were immigrants affiliated with the anarchist movement.
Anarchists favored the destruction of capitalist society, through violence if necessary. Sacco and Vanzetti were active in the anarchist movement and knew several individuals who were arrested and deported during the Palmer raids of 1919.
During the trial, prosecutors introduced circumstantial evidence (e.g., Sacco and Vanzetti were armed when they were arrested) to imply their guilt. The prosecution also highlighted the radical political views of both men, and the immigrant community to which they belonged. On July 14, 1921, the jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of the robbery and murder.
Opinions on Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial and judgment were divided along ethnic lines, with immigrants claiming that the condemned pair was innocent.
EXAMPLEThe verdict sparked protests from Italian and other immigrant groups.
A number of authors and intellectuals in the United States and abroad also criticized the verdict. Protests in support of Sacco and Vanzetti took place around the world, from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to London.
Harvard Law School professor Felix Frankfurter was among the most articulate critics of the trial. In 1927, he wrote in The Atlantic that, “By systematic exploitation of the defendants’ alien blood, their imperfect knowledge of English, their unpopular social views, and their opposition to the [First World War], the District Attorney invoked against [Sacco and Vanzetti] a riot of political passion and patriotic sentiment; and the trial judge connived at — one had almost written, cooperated in — the process.”
Despite subsequent motions and appeals based on ballistics testing, recanted testimony, and an ex-convict’s confession, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.
(You won't be tested on this.)
The belief that white, Protestant Americans were being attacked by undesirable people (including immigrants) and ideas contributed to the emergence of the Second Ku Klux Klan.
Unlike the first Ku Klux Klan, which covertly terrorized African Americans and their white allies during Reconstruction, the second Klan was a nationwide movement that operated openly.
Months after the release of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed white southerners as the victims of Reconstruction and celebrated the role of the Ku Klux Klan, William Simmons declared The Klan's second incarnation. The new Klan publicly rejected violence and received support from many mainstream Americans for its embrace of Protestantism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and its appeals for stricter immigration policy.
By 1924, the Second Ku Klux Klan had six million members in the U.S., primarily in the West, Midwest and South.
To emphasize the organization’s influence, the Klan routinely organized marches in Washington, D.C. throughout the 1920s. Klan members dominated politics in the South, as well as in other states including Indiana and Colorado.
Although the Klan abstained from violence, it continued to use intimidation and terrorism against its victims. These activities included the burning of crosses and public denunciations of Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.
The Sacco and Vanzetti case and the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan occurred simultaneously with government efforts to restrict immigration.
To “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”, the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 applied numerical limits — quotas — to European immigration for the first time. Annual immigration from any country was limited to three percent of the number of U.S. residents from that country, as calculated by the 1910 census.
The National Origins Act of 1924 went further, lowering the quotas to two percent of the 1890 census. It significantly reduced the number of southern and eastern Europeans eligible for immigration, since immigrants from those areas had only begun to arrive in the U.S. in large numbers during the 1890s. The Act gave preference to skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens, and excluded Japanese and Chinese immigrants. It placed no limit on immigration from Mexico and other Latin American nations, to satisfy the demands of southwestern farmers who depended on migrant labor.
Members of the “nervous generation” participated in a religious resurgence during the 1920s, particularly a resurgence of Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism. One element of fundamentalism — the belief that the Bible is the word of God and, therefore, infallible — prompted debate over the roles of science and religion in society. One of the most well-known instances of this debate was the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.
Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection in 1859. By the 1920s, many of the standard science textbooks used in the U.S. included information about evolution. Protestant fundamentalists targeted the teaching of evolution as an example of what was wrong with American society. During the 1920s, fundamentalist groups supported legislation in several states that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools.
EXAMPLEThe anti-evolution law in Tennessee (the Butler Act), made it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals”.
To challenge the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and town leaders in Dayton, Tennessee (eager for an opportunity to promote their town) enlisted John Scopes, who indicated that he may have taught evolution while substituting for another biology teacher. Fundamentalist groups (as well as the newspapers) learned of Scopes' admission and descended upon Dayton. A carnival-like atmosphere was created around his trial, highlighting divisions between the “new generation”, which claimed to defend independent thought and free inquiry, and the nervous generation, which sought to reinforce traditional beliefs.
William Jennings Bryan, the former presidential candidate who had become a champion for Protestant fundamentalism, prosecuted the case. Clarence Darrow, a prominent lawyer and outspoken agnostic, represented the defense. The high point of the trial came when Darrow called Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible. Knowing Bryan’s fundamentalist faith in the literal truth of the Bible, Darrow peppered him with questions designed to ridicule his beliefs, and to highlight his ignorance of modern science.
Darrow’s questioning of Bryan illustrated the divisions between urban and rural America; between faith and science; between fundamentalism and secularism; and between the “new” and “nervous” generations. Those who supported the teaching of evolution saw Bryan’s testimony as foolish, and indicative of backward religious beliefs. Many Protestants saw Darrow’s actions as an attack on the Bible and their faith.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ca. 1921, PD http://bit.ly/1Lt9D2O, Female members of the Ku Klux Klan march in Washington, DC, PD http://bit.ly/2oRm4h1, Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C., September 1926. Retrieved from the Library of Congress http://bit.ly/2oCexU6, “The Only Way to Handle It,” 1921, Retrieved from the Library of Congress http://bit.ly/2oumM86, Derived from Openstax tutorial 24.2 http://bit.ly/2nPJF2w and 24.3 http://bit.ly/2ouvRgr Some sections edited or removed for brevity.