Essay

Sex, Lies, and Literature

The words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, and others transformed the 1920s into a roaring decade.

Sex, Lies, and Literature

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To call the 1920s formative is something of an understatement. This was an age when entire baseball stadiums paused in prayer for the first transatlantic flight, when racial tensions were nudging the Ku-Klux Klan’s ominous promise of “pure Americanism” into power, and when prohibition had inadvertently triggered an entire industry and made Al Capone the unofficial mayor of Chicago. The boom before the bust, this roaring decade became a breeding ground for provocation, inspiring young writers across the nation to voice the audacious sentiments of their rebellious generation and transform the literary scene into one of striking power.

No one understood this as much as late historian Frederick Lewis Allen, who as writer and editor of the seminal Harper’s Magazine was entrenched in the literary and cultural events of his day. When in 1931 he published a definitive account of the preceding 11 years entitled Only Yesterday, he gave special consideration to his contemporary writers, emphasizing in particular the titles that shocked some readers, assuaged others, and above all influenced the canon with their stark depictions of a cataclysmic era.

The first author to do just that was the prodigal F. Scott Fitzgerald. His 1920 debut novel This Side of Paradise was an unprecedented revelation of what allegedly “nice girls” truly did after-hours, and Victorian parents everywhere were shocked and appalled to learn their daughters were attending “petting parties” and other late-night illicit activities that Allen says “caused a shudder to run down the national spine.” Counter attempts proved futile, since “bitterly the defenders of the Puritan code tried to stem the tide, but it was too strong for them,” with books like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover being met with critical and popular acclaim. And when “libido” entered the American jargon, so too did a proclivity for reading about it, as readers who “considered themselves ‘modern-minded’ . . . wanted the philosophical promiscuity of Aldous Huxley’s men and women.”

Sex definitely scandalized, but it is not the only thing that sold: readers also clamored after the scathing, highly influential societal commentary in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit and Main Street. As Allen explains, the “effect of these books was overwhelming. In two volumes of merciless literary photography and searing satire, Lewis revealed the ugliness of the American small town, the cultural poverty of its life, the tyranny of its mass prejudices, and the blatant vulgarity and insularity of the booster.” Other books were written in a similar vein, and John Dos PassosThree Soldiers and E.E. Cummings‘s The Enormous Room were archetypical products of this influential group of vocal intellectuals that came into fruition during the early 1920s. “Few in numbers though they were,” Allen says, these authors “were highly vocal, and their influence not merely dominated American literature but filtered down to affect by slow degrees the thought of the entire country.”

Towards the end of the decade, though, the nationwide fervor for any sort of radicalism had begun to wane, and writers’ works mirrored this collective digression. Even Ernest Hemingway in his 1929 Farewell to Arms said, “The young emigrés to Montparnasse in 1926 or thereabouts had hailed as a major prophet of the emptiness of everything, struck a new note, almost a romantic note.” A sharp contrast to his laissez-faire promiscuity exemplified just three years prior in The Sun Also Rises, by the end of the decade it seems even Papa had reverted (at least temporarily) to a pre-war mentality. Yet as Allen humbly concludes, if anything, the 1920s produced enough landmark pieces that “there was a new ferment working, and at last there was an audience quite unconvinced that American literature must be forever inferior or imitative.”

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