I have been delving into World War II! It is fascinating and terrible, horrendous and spectacular. A whole world at war (well, 35 countries involved, which is about half, if I recall correctly). But before I begin to discuss World War II, I’m going to share a recent paper on the Roaring Twenties, which I just finished studying. It was surprising, learning about this era–probably because I was so little informed about it. I always thought that the first half of the twentieth century (especially the twenties and thirties) was a peaceful, quiet time, safe and secure here in America, with not much going on and overall decent; I suppose I considered these decades as the “good old days”. Well, that opinion changed drastically. I’m now aware that the twenties and thirties does not exactly match my poorly-informed idea of that time period. But you can read about the Jazz Age, and what happened in the decade of the Twenties, in the essay below ↓
The devastating tempest of World War I preceded the whirlwind storm of the twenties—that happy-go-lucky decade wherein our country beheld a novel turn of morality, a sudden, rapturous change from the previous blood-stained years. The country embraced this Roaring age with the alacrity of a country yearning for an alleviation of the Great War’s blight. Women with their new-found rights and equality rose to the occasion and started breaking out from their former bonds as quiet and submissive wives and homemakers. Abruptly, the former image of the soft-spoken meek ladies of erstwhile years and centuries vanished, and the nation found itself startled by a whole new presentation of a loosely-dressed, cigarette-smoking, independent “flappers”. This happened to be only part of the issue, however. A prohibition could not discourage a nearly crazed obsession that led to a moral decline—the beginning of such an appalling ethical wilting that continues in greater amplitude to this day. In 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act, which many of our leaders idealistically believed would end the problems that alcohol caused. With the banning of that “Devil’s drink”, they assumed that a nation-wide prohibition would eject the dangerous alcoholic trend that has always existed–at least it would be expelled within the borders of the U.S. The creators of this seventeenth amendment—the Prohibition act—did not anticipate the thunderous reaction to this new law. When the Twenties arrived, J. Scott Fitzgerald’s accurate term “The Jazz Age” struck up a tempestuous era, never seen before its time. Verily, the Prohibition act had ushered in the roaring boom of the Twenties.
It seemed, surface-wise, that the various leagues with anti-saloon creeds had been duly satisfied, when shortly after the 17th amendment had been passed in both houses, drinking bars nation-wide shut down in obedient response to the newly inflicted law. Law-enforcers drained barrels, kegs and containers of gin into the lakes, rivers, and oceans. Apparently the act had carried out without much ado in this respect, though many citizens chafed beneath this law. They judged it a desecration or rights—or pleasure—for the Federal Government to enforce such an edict that wrested from the people one freedom, whether they consumed alcoholic beverage or not. However, the determined individuals—the audacious ones—acted upon their beliefs. Whether the amendment had been passed or not, bootlegging emerged in a defiance of the law. What mattered if the authorities had kegs of whiskey dumped out into the water sources across the country? Bootlegging became a popular, exciting career—an easy way to make money, considering the fact that businesses were springing up whose managers paid a good deal to receive imports of beer. These businesses soon retained the title of “speakeasies”, wherein beer was served as drink, where a wild, gleeful spirit consumed every person in attendance. It befell the term “fashionable” to visit these speakeasies, and the our new image of the “flapper” soon linked with these disreputable places, as was the novel, blustery type of music—Jazz. “Gin was the national drink” so stated the New York Times; an unfortunate fact undeniable in lieu of this added, voguish element to high society. But how did gin make its way past the authorities? The sudden development of underworld organizations—mafias. Just as speakeasies obtained their name from folks holding wild rendezvouses where they spoke easy so as not to attract unwanted attention, these criminal organizations crept by any federal police who desired to pinpoint illegal activity, wielding cunning tactics and shrewd strategies that kept these mobs functioning throughout the Twenties.
The Black Market struck up an audacious parade in the underworld system of bootlegging, slipping by the police by either cunning or bribery. With quick money made by importing whiskey into the borders and getting it to speakeasies, leaders of these brazen mafias possessed the funds and ingenuity to create a secret network even throughout the state police systems that allowed them to more easily achieve the bootlegging with prosperous success. Al Capone headed the most notorious of these organizations—the Chicago Outfit, and Capone earned millions off of his criminal business. One never felt quite safe—the police force had gone mercenary, thus, the law administration was no longer dependable, with the exception of Eliot Ness’s band of Untouchables—an incorruptible force determined to destroy Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit, and with it, organized crime. Eliot Ness succeeded in ousting many of these outfits, but traces of it remained—he could never rid America of this trend that began with the Prohibition Act. Incidentally, Woodrow Wilson who had left office just as all of this came into effect, had stanchly believed that such an amendment would inflict harm rather than what many hoped would bring renewed morality and temperance into the country. Their high hopes backfired, manifestly, as crime swelled throughout the U.S. The temperance leaders realized that the amendment had failed—had fallen flat, while the authorities that had not transformed into a corrupted branch of the mafia outfits perceived the felonious expansion as foreboding. Idealism transformed into a useless thing—Woodrow Wilson and a few others who went unheeded had foreseen this, and the current president, Warren Harding, found his administration rocked by scandal. With a weak Chief Executive and fraudulent law enforcement, America took a free fall as never seen before—a mad, hopeful leap to the green, blissful pastures of careless, jovial living that consumed the entire nation. No one thought about the stunning transformation from the prim, decorous and vigilant Victorian Age to the new-fangled, neoteric epoch of economic affluence and success.
As these years of extravagance passed the older men and women in our country glanced back into the calmer, more decent past days of yore with nostalgia and wonder. Abruptly, after the wartimes, everything had changed into a new, gilded thing of a strange, wild beauty and optimism that felt enormously relieving after the Great War that had devastated Europe and impassioned Americans with the desire for former isolationism. A younger, freshly sanguine breed of U.S. citizens whom Gertrude Stein called “the Lost Generation” was swept up in the cascade of new hope, dreams and progress. Styles changed from the tight, dignified corsets, high-necked, long-skirted dresses and the overall formal attire of men into loose, short garb for women and modish, relaxed outfits for men. The older generation watched, scandalized, as young voguishly-clad men and women sped out in automobiles to late-night parties where gin would surely be served, undeniably supplied by the mafias. Such parties were, forsooth, fashionable, superlative and pleasurable. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s immortal novel The Great Gatsby, he portrays, through the eyes of a somewhat inexperienced young man, these gaudy and elaborate revelries which he describes as “inappropriate”. One can only imagine what goings-ons transpired at these lurid fests as to denote such unseemliness, but apparently, though considered “high-society” as the American-upper class partook wholly in this madness of the Twenties, it had an alluring nature to it that drew even the well-bred and intellectual into the midst of these orgies. F. Scott Fitzgerald himself was entangled in this sophisticated cycle, though he wrote about it with cynical air. “Out with the old, in with the new” indeed befitted that happy dictum—out with the old, dull, convention and in with the new, roaring liberal age of Jazz!
What had the temperance-driven Prohibition act lured into this young country? It had ushered in debauchery and a free-for-all attitude, increased criminal activity and unforeseen decline in America’s formerly simple ethics. Innocence, as many say, had been lost in the tumult of the First World War, but the old striving for morality had become faded and antiquated almost. The Twenties marked the beginning of this decline throughout the 20th century, and well into the 21st. That waning is strikingly significant in that long-past decade, but the wildness of the Jazz Age compared with the modern outlook on morality is tragically minor when set up against contemporary leanings in culture and a looseness of behavior notably baser than that of the Roaring Twenties. With the Prohibition Act of 1919 the people of those times only saw the start of this new trend—a subtle one at first that gradually became more intensified as the decades passed. Organized crime has since worsened tremendously nation-wide, and in truth, corruption is all too common, in both government and police forces. Resolutely, Eliot Ness had attempted to purge the country of the mafias that had inflated in organized activity as a result of the Prohibition, but such a group as the Untouchables would have an overwhelming and realistically impossible job to, with single-handed force, eliminate delinquency and vice. That would take a renewal of patriotism and virtue nation-wide, a desire to return to the days of yore when men like George Washington and the Founding Fathers wrote their Christ-based and principled Constitution of 1789. Over two centuries passed since that day, and yet, Americans still dream, still hope and envision, as did the people of the 20’s decade. Perhaps the dream of our fore-fathers still lives, though sometimes ignored when things of this earth consume this nation. Americans still hold that God-given vision of opportunity, freedom, and hope that will never die out, even when the roaring of earthly diversions, war, and debauchery seems to cut it out into oblivion. Though the Prohibition, borne of that same hope and idealism, backfired, never can those sentiments be long disregarded, for they are indivisibly native to this One Nation under God.
By R. E. Williams
Do you see any trends in American society that parallel to the Jazz Age? Are we living in such an age as that? What would a good name be for this era? What parallels do you draw between the flappers and mafias of the Roaring Twenties with today’s culture?