One morsel review: A comprehensive introduction to the 1920s and 1930s in the U.S. covering all aspects of life, if just shortly. Essential to get a first taste for these two eras of transformation in American history.
America in Prosperity and Depression – 1920-1941
Michael E. Perrish
Genre: social history
A presentation of America in the Interwar years. Two very different but equally important decades in the country’s history are presented in a very essential form. Only basic information is given, but it ultimately creates a big picture of an entire era.
I remember the night I picked up this book. The idea for my story (it wasn’t Ghost Trilogy at the time, but the story that came before that) had started to take form in my head. I had characters and situations. I had pinned down a few plot points. I knew it was time to start researching the setting, though, at that time, I still thought I’d set the story in the Thirties. I combed the Italian catalogues and came up with four or five titles about Prohibition America (really, there seems to be nothing in my language about this matter). I picked up this first of all because it sounded more introductory.
So I sat on my bed with this fat book in my lap and staring down at its cover, I asked myself, “You sure you want to do this?”
“Well… yeah…” I answered.
“You’re aware you don’t know anything about Prohibition America, now are you?”
“Sure. But everybody who knows started somewhere.”
Well, I can’t say this was a good choice, because it wasn’t a choice at all, since this was the only book on the matter I could find, so I suppose it was my good luck that this is a very good book. An excellent introduction to American society and history in the Interwar years.
Even if at the time I was more interested in the Thirties, I liked the first half of the book, concerning the Twenties, quite a bit better. There seem to be a lot going on in the Twenties. The world was changing, and life was changing, and people were changing. Life how we know it today took its first steps in the Twenties. Electric light, house plumbing, telephones, cars, all became commonplace – at least for the middle class – in this decade. The movies were a popular pastime. The first music recordings came out. Holidays became more and more common. Advertising transformed the way people thought about themselves and the way they wanted to live.
There was a substantial break from the past – many older people thought ‘a shocking break’ – in personal behaviours. Young people started dating each other in an informal way and showing their bodies. Relationships between men and women became more relaxed and companionable. Going out with friends to dance and drink (despite Prohibition) and coming home in the early hours of the day after became ever more common.
A lot of segments of society gain more freedom and recognition. Women won the right to vote in 1920, but that was just the first step toward a more fulfilling life where work and personal ambitions had a place alongside motherhood. Many African American communities burst with life and energy and demanded – and sometimes gained – more recognition. Many immigrant communities found their strength and cohesion, gaining weight in political and economic life.
This new society, which could offer so many new opportunities, allowed many individuals to find their way and became famous, rich and successful for a whole range of reasons. Their lives and achievements are briefly presented here.
Each topic is briefly covered, but the coverage is comprehensive. The book touches upon political and economic matters (Prohibition, the resurgence of the KKK, the many race riots, the Stock Market Crash). These events captured people’s attention, particularly the trials (the Scopes, the Sweet, the Sacco and Vanzetti) as well as social changes (the car, new home appliances, advertising and the new consumerism). There’s a brief introduction to everything, that’s why it’s so good for a first taste of the era.
If the first half of the book is a collection of little pictures that ultimately create a bigger picture of the Roaring Twenties, the second half focuses on one central protagonist: the Great Depression.
How it all started and what happened to people. The crashing stock market, the folding shops and activities, the dying out of the glittering life. The bread cues, the broken families. The book depicts a very vivid image of that era, and it’s kind of shocking after the lively, exciting things that happened in the Twenties.
Over everything, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s gigantic personality and his vision, his New Deal.
The first part of the book focuses on people’s lives and the social change involving them. The second part focuses more on political and economic matters, the Great Depression, the New Deal, how they affected people’s lives and how people reacted. The first one hundred days of Roosevelt’s mandate is looked at in details, as well as many of the agencies created by the New Deal. Special attention is given to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) project, which created work for hundreds of thousands of people and updated services for many communities.
So it is as if the book had two souls, but it presents what, in fact, were two very different decades in American history. And does an excellent job of it.