Prohibition and prosperity

The decade that invented all that jazz about modern America

Think of the 1920s and several images come immediately to mind: flappers, speakeasies, jazz, and Jay Gatsby. But as Nathan Miller makes abundantly clear in this accessible and highly entertaining chronicle, the 1920s were also much like our own age. So much of what we take for granted today began in that long-ago decade. The cult of youth started then, as did the cult of celebrity. The 1920s media were gripped by Hollywood gossip and criminal trials involving the rich and famous. Sports stars and business leaders were revered as heroes. National politics was mired in scandal. The stock market was booming, but large segments of the population were left behind. The 1920s, Nathan Miller argues, was the beginning of modern America.

Miller covers it all, starting with the failed idealism of Woodrow Wilson. The president wanted to bring America's Jeffersonian ideals of equality and fairness to the post-World War I world. But when Wilson sailed home with the Treaty of Versailles, his Republican opponents killed it.

The nation was tired of grand causes and dealing with the problems of Europe. America wanted "normalcy," Miller claims, and Warren Harding gave it to them.

Harding was the first of three successive Republican presidents who believed that the true business of America was business. Miller paints a brilliant character sketch of the man many believe was the worst president in history. It wasn't that Harding was corrupt, Miller tells us, but that he put his corrupt cronies in high places. One such Harding "friend" was Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, who took large bribes when leasing government property to oil companies. The resulting Teapot Dome Scandal would forever taint the Harding administration.

When Harding died in 1923 (some said he was heartbroken by his corrupt friends), he was replaced by "Silent Cal" Coolidge, whose idea of the government's role was Jeffersonian in the extreme. Do little, say little: this was Coolidge's creed. He was the perfect president for the era.

Miller provides illuminating mini-biographies of some of the leading people of the decade. For instance, he examines the career of Henry Ford, who revolutionized American industry with his mass-production techniques. Indeed, Miller brings us inside the Big Three automakers, explaining how each built and marketed cars to a public that increasingly worshiped the automobile.

On the flip side of Henry Ford was Al Capone, who took advantage of Prohibition to build a criminal empire. Miller vividly describes Capone's rise and fall, and in the process shows how Prohibition engendered a more general disrespect for the law as police departments and city governments were systematically corrupted.

Perhaps the longest-lasting aspect of the 1920s was the epic clash between modernism and religious fundamentalism. The growth of conservative Christianity skyrocketed during this time that also witnessed a searing sexual revolution. Miller offers a gripping account of the famous Scopes "monkey trial," noting correctly that we're still fighting those "culture wars" today.

And through it all there was the business boom. Money seemed to be the universal language, as the nation was engulfed by get-rich-quick schemes such as the Florida real estate boom (and bust). Yet not everyone did well. Women still lagged behind, confined to certain professions such as nursing and teaching.

Even more disadvantaged, Miller emphasizes, were black Americans. The KKK was on the march early in the decade. Blacks began a hopeful migration north in search of better jobs and better treatment, but they were often disappointed.

Miller seamlessly blends politics and popular culture. He's equally at ease discussing Calvin Coolidge or Rudolph Valentino. He's adept at describing the literary merits of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the difficulties faced by labor unions.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better guide to the 1920s. Miller seems to have read everything about the decade, and he communicates his scholarship with a graceful, engaging tone. This was an unforgettable decade, and Nathan Miller has given it the book it deserves.

Chuck Leddy regularly reviews history books for Publishers Weekly.

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