Exam preparation materials


Many novels were written during the 1920s that supported the business culture of the decade. The most famous of these was Bruce Barton’s 1925 The Man Nobody Knows, which portrayed Christ as a businessman. Most famous novelists of the era, however, wrote of deep feelings of alienation from mainstream American culture. These writers, called by Gertrude Stein members of the “Lost Generation,” turned their backs on the business culture and the Republican political culture of the era. Some of these writers ended up in Paris, while others congregated in Greenwich Village in New York City.

The goal of these writers seemed to be to attack the notion of America that they had either physically or spiritually left behind. In novels such as Main Street and Babbit, Sinclair Lewis attacked the materialism and narrow thinking of middle-class business-types in small-town America. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio was another novel of alienation in small-town America.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was both a celebrant of the Jazz Age and a brilliant commentator on it; his novel The Great Gatsby dissects the characters of typical Jazz Age figures. Ernest Hemingway in works such as A Farewell to Arms express a deep dissatisfaction with American values, especially concerning war. Perhaps none was more direct in his criticisms of American society than journalist H. L. Mencken, who called the American people an “ignorant mob” and was especially disdainful of the “booboisie,” his term for the American middle class.

It should also be remembered that in the 1920s black cultural expression was being celebrated in a cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance. Writers of this movement, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, wrote of the role of blacks in contemporary American society; the theme of blacks “passing” into the white world and the importance of black expression were common themes among writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Many in the Harlem Renaissance studied African folk art and music and anthropology. The goal of many in the movement was reconciling the notions of being black and being American (and also to reconcile the notions of being black and being intellectual). Jazz was the music of the movement, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington playing this “primitive music” in clubs across Harlem.

When Herbert Hoover was inaugurated in early 1929, America looked to the 1930s with eager anticipation. The stock market was at an all-time high, and Hoover had continually promised during the campaign that the Republican goal was to wipe out poverty once and for all. All of this would make the events that would begin to unfold in the fall of 1929 even more cruel and devastating.

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