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'1920' is the lively, readable biography of a seminal year

1920 was the year that America 'flourished almost by default; it was rich and on the verge of growing richer than any other nation in history.'

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    1920:
    The Year That Made the Decade Roar
    By Eric Burns
    Pegasus Books
    400 pp.
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“Such a soundtrack, such a cast of characters, such an accumulation of deeds, admirable and otherwise,” Eric Burns enthuses at the outset of his sprightly and captivating new book 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, “such a time to be alive!”

That same note of enthusiasm is sounded throughout Burns's take on the year he views as America's first as a triumphant world power, in the aftermath of the First World War, when America “flourished almost by default; it was rich and on the verge of growing richer than any other nation in history.”

The cast of characters Burns mentions is indeed stellar, and he ticks off the famous names, from the presidents – Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge – to the plutocrats amassing fortunes that, when adjusted for inflation, dwarf any in private hands today, men like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan (and their dark mirror-image, Charles Ponzi, inventor of the original Ponzi scheme).

The arts world also flourished, sporting names like Louis Armstrong, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill, and the wits of the Algonquin Round Table. Burns likewise spends ample time on social activists like Marcus Garvey and proto-feminists like Margaret Sanger. Burns sifts through a wide array of secondary sources (it's not a work of original scholarship, but Burns doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over that fact, and neither will his readers) for the best quotes, the choicest stories, and the forgotten but fascinating incidents.

“Keyhole” popular histories like this one, books that impose the gimmicky structure of one calendar year onto a mass of data in an attempt to craft a narrative that won't intimidate history-chary readers, tend to have all the strengths and all the weaknesses of what is, essentially, a compromise move.

The main strength is accessibility, of course: a book like David McCullough's "1776" or Charles Mann's "1491" (and its sequel, "1493") can pull even the least-knowledgeable reader into a story that starts in January and ends at Christmas. The main weakness is equally obvious: overreach. Virtually no year in human history is sufficient unto itself, not even the perennial favorites: 1066, 1918, and 2001.

1920 is no exception, naturally, though Burns works very hard to offset that fact.

He starts his account of the year off quite literally with a bang: the anti-capitalist terrorist strike carried out on Thursday, September 16, 1920 against Wall Street's Morgan Bank, in which the detonation of “the equivalent of one hundred pounds of dynamite and five hundred pounds of cast-iron sash weights, which acted, in effect, like shrapnel” killed 38 people and injured more than 400 more.

Burns moves right on to the notorious Eighteenth Amendment and the short-lived reign of Prohibition, and from there to civil rights struggles and the extravagant crimes of robber barons.

He touches on the fact that the United States was not among the 42 countries that endorsed the League of Nations, which stunned the League's foremost champion, President Woodrow Wilson: “That his own nation, a nation that had elected him twice,” Burns writes, “would reject so nobly intended a peach proposal, one that was certain to go down in history and make every man who signed it a hero to posterity, was the greatest embarrassment of Woodrow Wilson's life.”

On a lighter note, he also gives a withering account of the Harding administration, “the least savory bunch of Americans ever to occupy the country's most prestigious address.”

Running underneath these big, dramatic items, Burns does a first-rate job of conveying the enormous spurts of growth the country was undergoing as the grip of the post-war recession weakened and the economy began to boom. The America of 1920 had almost 8 million automobiles, burgeoning air traffic, and more than half its households were by then electrified. It's a big, brawling, charismatic, ultimately optimistic story.

All the more odd, then, that such an optimistic story should so regularly elicit from Burns his only gloomy comments. When he first mentions the birth of radio and the mass culture mind frame, he sums it up as “the dumbing-down of its audience as they sank into vapidity with gleeful abandon, as delighted with their plight as if they were riding the newest attraction in an amusement park.” And he goes on to lament the transformation of the US into “a third-world nation in its tastes and values.”

Sometimes, in fact, this grumpiness borders on being a serious impediment. When he's writing about the Algonquin Round Table, for instance, he somberly notes that nothing like it would be possible in “today's post-literate society” where “true wit is as rare as true perception.” After which he goes into full Old Fogey mode: “Some of the writers in whom at least a number of Americans seem most interested have achieved their status because of the speed with which they can text, tweet, and twitter, two thirds of which I cannot define, much less accomplish.”

It's too bad these sour notes occasionally interfere with what is otherwise a well-snycopated narrative built around a lively melodic line. As any self-respecting flapper would have said, “Aw, applesauce! Don't be such a pill!”

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