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Summary & Analysis

The 1920s have long been remembered as the "Roaring Twenties," an era of unprecedented affluence best remembered through the cultural artifacts generated by its new mass-consumption economy: a Ford Model T in every driveway, "Amos n' Andy" on the radio and the first "talking" motion pictures at the cinema, baseball hero Babe Ruth in the ballpark and celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh on the front page of every newspaper. As a soaring stock market minted millionaires by the thousands, young Americans in the nation's teeming cities rejected traditional social mores by embracing a modern urban culture of freedom—drinking illegally in speakeasies, dancing provocatively to the Charleston, listening to the sexy rhythms of jazz music.

The entrenched image of the 1920s as a sort of nationwide, decade-long party—à la the movable feast enjoyed by Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional character who remains the iconic figure of the age—obscures a very different reality for many Americans: the "Roaring Twenties" left nearly half the country behind. The 1920 Census revealed, for the first time in United States history, a majority of Americans living in cities. Still, throughout the decade well over 40% of the country's population resided on farms and in tiny rural communities, and down on the farm the 1920s were anything but roaring.

For American farmers, the Great Depression began not with the stock market crash in 1929 but with the collapse of agricultural prices in 1920. Thus the entire decade of the 1920s was a time of poverty and crushing indebtedness, leading to ever-rising foreclosures of family farms. More than 90% of American farms lacked electricity, and the proportion of farms with access to a telephone actually decreased over the course of the decade.8 Furthermore, rural Americans—overwhelmingly native-born, white Protestants—found the modern, sexualized, multi-ethnic culture of the cities deeply offensive to their traditional beliefs. Their antagonism toward the perceived cultural excesses of the "Roaring Twenties" fueled a political backlash that allowed a resurgent Ku Klux Klan—anti-black as always, but now also anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-evolution, anti-drinking, and anti-sex—to take over several state governments.

The story of the 1920s is thus embodied no more by Henry Ford or Louis Armstrong than it is by Ed Jackson, Ku Klux Klansman, and the Governor of Indiana. The 1920s roared with a clash of civilizations as Americans struggled to reconcile the prosperous modernity of the city with the impoverished traditionalism of the country.

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