Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
Under the gleaming neon sign that reads HONEST JOHN, USED CAR SALESMAN you’re sure of at least one thing. Nobody advertises himself or his product as “honest” who doesn’t have very good reason to know that people will expect the contrary. Ann Douglas of Columbia University titles her new book Terrible Honesty; she is referring to New York City in the decade of the 1920s. That decade began with the Volstead Act, which provoked widespread hypocrisy and atrocious lawlessness throughout the nation; it ended with the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, which forced a profound reconsideration of all the values of the preceding decade. There were of course honesty and dishonesty aplenty during the 1920s, as there have been in every period of American history. Perhaps the eras that give us the greatest impression of outraged vociferous honesty were those that provoked it by the most shameless displays of dishonesty. Myself having lived through a lot of decades, including Ms. Douglas’s mongrel Twenties, I am not instantly persuaded by the thesis that they were marked by unusual honesty, either private or public.
There is no mistaking Ms. Douglas’s determination: she wants to “catch the American psyche in perhaps its most revealing moment, the decade after the Great War, when America seized the economic and cultural leadership of the West.” The details, to be sure, don’t quite check out. The three presidents who led the nation in this moment of ultimate truth—Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover—hardly lit up the intellectual skies. On the international scene we were represented by the likes of Senators Smoot and Borah, suspicious standpatters. A spectacular display of national boobery was provided by the much publicized Scopes trial. The country intervened, most unsuccessfully, in the affairs of Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Prohibition worsened the problem it was intended to solve.
The coming of the tabloid newspaper, the explosion of the publicrelations industry, and the advent of predigested books and magazines hardly offered much hope for terrible honesty. The career of Aimee Semple McPherson provided new chapters in the history of American hypocrisy, and Bruce Barton taught his readers to combine (however improbably) the principles of Jesus Christ with those of hucksterism. John P. O’Brien, exmayor of New York, charmed his way into the headlines by explaining that he got his unexplained wealth by taking the money out of “a little tin box.” Throughout the 1920s, Ulysses was banned from America, and birth control as advocated by Margaret Sanger had to fight a lonely war against puritanical censorship.
To do her justice, Ms. Douglas imposes no sharp definitions or limits on her “terrible honesty.” Her perspective is not limited to “intellectuals” like Edna Millay and the Algonquin wits; without hesitation she moves outside the limits of the five boroughs, a long way beyond the decade specified in her title, and up and down Tin Pan Alley. A core element of her argument is the coming together of modernism—with …