Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Only Yesterday. Frederick Lewis Allen.

New York: Bantam Books. 1931.

Why read it? Remember the 1920s? You will while reading this book, even though you did not live in the 1920s. Allen vividly re-creates the time that I think marks the beginning of modern society in the United States. You will recognize many of the practices in the 21st century that originated in the 1920s. The era of the 1920s, from the end of World War I to the collapse of the stock market in 1929, is one of the most colorful decades in U.S. history.

Sample Quotes and Ideas:

“Whether the human race gains in wisdom as time goes by is uncertain; the one thing we can be sure of is that its absurdities take changing forms.” p. viii. ………. “Shout as the crowds might for Wilson and Justice, they voted for Lloyd George and vengeance.” p. 17. ………. “As Ray Stannard Baker has well put it, Wilson was ‘accustomed to getting his information, not from people, but out of books: documents, letters—the written word’ and consequently ‘underestimated the value of …human contacts.’ ” p. 18.

“He [Wilson] fell into the pit which is dug for every idealist. Having failed to embody his ideal in fact, he distorted the fact. He pictured the world to himself and to others, not as it was, but as he wished it to be…. The story of the Conference which he told to the American people when he returned home was a very beautiful romance of good men and true laboring without thought of selfish advantage for the welfare of humanity.” p. 20. ………. Harding: “America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration…; not surgery but serenity.” p. 30. ………. Of Calvin Coolidge: The Governor of Massachusetts was an inconspicuous, sour-faced man with a reputation for saying as little as possible….” p. 37.

The KKK: “…the preposterous vocabulary of its ritual could be made the vehicle for all that infantile love of hocus pocus and mummery, that lust for secret adventure, which survives in the adult whose lot is cast in drab places.” p. 46. ………. “And every other man you met on the street buttonholed you to tell you how he had sat up until two o’clock the night before, with earphones clamped to his head and had actually heard Havana!” p. 55. ……….. “The tabloids, indeed, were booming—and not without effect…. They presented American life not as a political and economic struggle, but as a three-ring circus of sport, crime and sex, and in varying degrees the other papers followed their lead under the pressure of competition.” p. 57. ………. “The division of public opinion on the [Sacco-Venzetti] case was largely a division between those who thought radicals ought to be strung up on general principles and those who thought that the test of a country’s civilization lay in the scrupulousness with which it protected the rights of minorities.” p. 60.

“Meanwhile a new sort of freedom was being made possible by the enormous increase in the use of the automobile, and particularly of the closed car…. The automobile offered an almost universally available means of escaping temporarily from the supervision of parents or chaperones, or from the influence of neighborhood opinion….” p. 70.

“Each of these diverse influences—the post-war disillusion, the new status of women, the Freudian gospel, the automobile, Prohibition, the sex and confession magazines, and the movies—had its part in bringing about the revolution. Each of them, as an influence, was played upon by all the others; none of them could alone have changed to any great degree the folkways of America; together, their force was irresistible.” p. 72.

“Of far greater social significance, however, was the fact that men and women were drinking together. Among well-to-do people the serving of cocktails before dinner became almost socially obligatory…. The late afternoon cocktail party became a new American institution.” p. 77.

“The prestige of science was colossal. The man in the street and the woman in the kitchen, confronted on every hand with new machines and devices which they owed to the laboratory, were ready to believe that science could accomplish almost anything.” p. 140. .......... “To preface a statement with ‘science teaches us’ was enough to silence argument.” p. 141.

“Soon the mists of distance would soften the outlines of the nineteen-twenties and men and women, looking over the pages of a book such as this, would smile at the memory of those charming, crazy days when the radio was a thrilling novelty, and girls wore bobbed hair and knee-length skirts, and a transatlantic flier became a god overnight [Lindbergh], and common stocks were about to bring us all to lavish utopia…. They would talk about the good old days.”

Comment: If you want to immerse yourself in nostalgia, read Only Yesterday. You will find yourself re-living the days of the 1920s as if you were there. And you will be amazed at how much of today’s (2009) activities were initiated ninety years ago. The pattern of American life then is remarkably like the pattern of American life today, a time when a second Great Depression is almost upon us. RayS.

No comments:

Post a Comment