My host was the late author Frederick Lewis Allen, who wrote his remarkably vital cultural history, Only Yesterday, as America was roaring off the precipice of the 1920s and into the free fall of what came to be called The Great Depression. Consequently, the tale he told was that of an eyewitness to calamity, and a cautionary tale it remains.
You might be put off by the idea of a “cultural history,” such words evoking must and dust and all manner of anachronism. Not to worry, for the lively Mr. Lewis, a quintessential New York writer, was as attuned to the zeitgeist of his times as, say, Jon Stewart or Bill Maher to ours. Because he was writing for that moment, he dropped names immediately recognizable to those readers, yet as obscure to us now as a census of Israelites in the Book of Numbers.
Nevertheless, that’s what makes Only Yesterday such a ripping yarn, because Allen’s iteration of the mundane details of American life gives dimension to the tragedy that befell the nation in 1929. That, in turn, provides a context for the economic malaise we currently endure.
To set up his story, Allen took his readers back a decade, to 1919 and the immediate aftermath of World War I. His charming prelude sketched a picture of an already vanished society, where women wore their hair long and their faces unpainted, men rode in open automobiles and everyone grumbled at the high cost of living, driving the price of eggs from 34 to 64 cents a dozen. (By contrast, compare 1999, a decade before our own stock market crash, to 2009 and note how that year is scarcely discernible from this one.)
Allen suggests that Woodrow Wilson, an idealist who’d led America into war after promising not to, had so wearied the nation with his high-minded quest to make the world safe for democracy that when the 1920 election came along, Americans were ready for change, even the kind embodied in Warren Gamaliel Harding.
Swept into office on a promise of restoring the country to what he called “normalcy,” the handsome, affable Harding dialed down internationalism and boosted business as he diminished its regulation. The problem was that, as Allen suggests, the 29th president was a complete doofus: “His inability to discover for himself the essential facts of a problem and to think it through made him utterly dependent upon subordinates and friends whose mental processes were sharper than his own.”
Many of the friends and cronies Harding installed in high offices turned out to be grifters and thieves, whose plundering of the public coffers led to a decade of scandal investigations generally known as Teapot Dome. Allen offers the most lucid explanation of this criminal mischief I’ve ever read, making me wish someone with his gifts were around today to parse the Bush Administration.
Harding’s untimely death in 1923 — until I read Only Yesterday, I did not know it was widely suspected at the time to have been murder — elevated the real architect of economic collapse to the presidency.
Calvin Coolidge is remembered, if at all, for having been taciturn and for presiding over a robust national economy. Allen, writing in that era, deconstructs posterity’s misunderstanding, showing that Coolidge Prosperity was derived in large part from easy credit and stock market speculation, “two new stimulants to purchasing, each of which mortgaged the future but kept the factories roaring while it was being injected.” He also names as primary agents of this impetus salesmen and advertising men, while describing the breathless beginnings of the consumer society in which we dwell today.
What Allen called “the Post-War Decade” and what we now call the Roaring Twenties set the tone for the American Century, and it is fascinating to read a contemporary observer’s take on how we got so modern. The author devotes whole chapters to the revolution in manners and morals, Prohibition and the rise of gangsters, intellectual revolt, the Florida real-estate bubble and what he calls “The Ballyhoo Years,” during which the populace distracted itself from serious issues with drivel. One of the characteristics of the age, Allen wrote, “was the unparalleled rapidity and unanimity with which millions of men and women turned their attention, their talk and their emotional interest upon a series of tremendous trifles — a heavyweight boxing match, a murder trial, a new automobile model, a transatlantic flight.”
Only the names of the trifles have changed in the present day. Allen even uses football legend Red Grange to describe a publicity arc we nowadays refer to as “15 minutes of fame.” You must read this book, if only to learn the amusing details of the history we seem doomed to repeat.
Speaking of details, Allen provides chilling ones to recount the Crash of 1929, a cataclysmic destruction of wealth presaged by what he calls The Big Bull Market, an orgy of gambling on stocks unprecedented in the American experience. Far from an instantaneous occurrence, the Crash was set up by months of giddy speculation, the story of which Allen tells in crackling style. You will see familiar names in this saga — the Fed, the Treasury Secretary, even Goldman Sachs — and you will wonder, even as we wonder about our present circumstance, How could they not see this coming?
There is a reason Only Yesterday is published by the Perennial Library, for, although it recounts events from 80 years ago, it’s as fresh as today’s headlines. If you’ve even a passing interest in why government seems impotent and why banksters seem to control our present destiny, you must read this fascinating book. As Frederick Lewis Allen smartly observed, “The stream of time often doubles on its course, but it always makes for itself a new channel.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.