Last November I mentioned how lucky I am to have access to a great rural public library with a surprisingly large collection of books, many of which I’ve never heard of. Funny, no matter how much time I spend on Goodreads, Amazon and other cool bookish sites, there’s some books I’ve only been able to discover by meandering through the shelves of a book store or library. That of course is how I became acquainted with Nathan Miller’s New World Coming : The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. Even with the book’s no-frills cover art I still could not resist its allure. Later one, as I leisurely made my way through Miller’s 2003 book my modest exceptions were slowly but surely exceeded. There’s nothing flashy about New World Coming but nevertheless it taught me a heck of a lot about the 1920s.
I’ll start with the book’s subtitle Making of Modern America. The 20s saw the proliferation of automobile ownership giving Americans unprecedented mobility. This of course let to greater autonomy. Instead of spending Sundays in church mom, dad and the kids could pile into family car and embark upon leisurely drives throughout the country. As regular church attendance declined more and more Americans adopted a secularist outlook. By decade’s end movie theaters were in every midsize town and countless smaller ones. Radio stations blanketed the country giving even the most isolated Americans access to the latest news, music and consumer developments. Lastly, a growing number of picture-laden magazines with national readerships brought Americans up to speed on the latest fashions, celebrity gossip, news and opinion. Thanks to these new forms of media regional trends became nationwide trends. America became faster, more connected and increasingly homogenous.
One can’t write a book about the 20s and not mention Prohibition. According to Miller, yes there were glamorous speakeasies, but because they were so expensive most Americans if they drank at all avoided them preferring to drink at home. The rich and powerful just kept drinking. (Warren Harding, the first president of the Prohibition era hosted regular booze-fueled poker games in the White House.) With many Catholic and Jewish Americans seeing Prohibition as a Protestant creation New York City leaders didn’t lift a finger to fight illegal alcohol and all enforcement was done by the federal government, not local authorities.
Politically, the 20s belonged to the Republicans, certainly at the presidential level. (Even though Miller portrays the Republican Warren Harding as an underachieving glad-hander.) The Democrats were a fractious party, bitterly divided between conservative white Southerners and urban dwellers in Boston, New York and other cities in the North East. Every four years knock down drag out fights among delegates would erupt at Democratic Party conventions. Not until 1932 with the election of FDR would the Democrats put a president in the White House.
The third rate cover art of New World Coming belies the content that lies within. Never judge a book by its cover.