Admittedly, when history geeks like myself are trying to get normals — like you, probably — interested in stories about people from a long time ago, we often try to appeal to contemporary interests. Yes, this involves a bunch of names you’ve never heard, belonging to people who are probably long-dead, we say, but it really has a lot to do with what you’re experiencing in the here and now! Sometimes, this is a defensible position; many other times, however, it is not. But we try.
Here’s the thing, though: The America of the 1920s, especially during the very first year of the decade, really was eerily similar to America today! The country was recovering from a war of choice that not only led to results far less inspiring than originally promised, but caused a toxic level of division and rancor within the body politic; the economy was turbulent, with new technologies and social norms wrenching an agricultural society ever-more toward the cities; immigration was changing the very face of the average citizen, often in a way American nativists could not stand; and terrorism was forcing a political culture built on dual loyalties to liberty and safety to engage in a precarious rebalancing. And I haven’t even mentioned the radical new role women took on both in civil society and the White House itself.
Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Eric Burns, the award-winning media critic and former correspondent for NBC News, about his new book on the era, “1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar.” In addition to discussing the parallels between our time and that of 95 years ago, we also talked about the glaring differences — and spent a moment or two on the phenomenon of Twitter, which, Burns wanted to make clear, he did not understand. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you want to take a look at 1920 in particular?
I read a lot of American history and, like a lot of people who are interested in American history, I find the 1920s an especially interesting time. 1920 was the year of the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it was the only year in which there have been two amendments to the Constitution, Prohibition and the Women’s Vote; for the entire year, we had a female president— not elected, obviously; she was the de facto president, not the president de jure— because of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke. Isn't it ironic that for the entire year of 1920, the year women got the vote, there was a woman running the country? Plus, I wanted to read something about [Charles] Ponzi around the time that Bernie Madoff was making the news and Ponzi’s entire career, from being a nobody to being a multimillionaire and then being in jail, that all happened over the course of about eight months in 1920.
I found that in concentrating on that year I found a tremendous amount of interesting material, largely material people didn’t know before, but also material that pointed to the present— for instance, there were debates in 1920 about Homeland Security after this terrorist attack. So the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the perfect year. The only problem is that when you write about anything, you need a certain narrative flow, and events in a year don’t do that for an author’s benefit. I was able— and this was the difficult part— after a while, to find ways to tie some of the events together, to find connections between the events that I hadn’t seen before, to make it a story as opposed to a bunch of anecdotes.
How did that organizing process go? What did it look like? How did you arrive there?
1920 was the most revolutionary year we’ve ever had in the arts. As far as literature is concerned, it was the end of the notion that virtue is to be found in small-town America; it was the publication of “Main Street.” Warren G. Harding, who was elected president that year, just struck me as a character from “Main Street,” so I pointed out that there were similarities between the fictional people that Sinclair Lewis was writing about and Warren G. Harding who was voted once, after there had been 29 presidents, the 29th-best president in the United States. There were also various connections to be made between women getting the vote and how that was interpreted by women. What I mean by that is shortly after that, they were wearing more lipstick than ever before, smoking cigarettes in public, dressing in a way that suggested that their bodies were readily available for male usage. I was able to demonstrate that the idea was just to give women the right to vote, but it in fact, empowered some women to the extent that they decided that they would enjoy all of the freedoms of men.
It was really a matter of just immersing myself in the material. As far as the terrorist attack was concerned, I didn’t really have to try to make connections there. Readers would see them and I hope that they will see that this fighting a war not with a country but with people who have an ideology, but who live in a variety of countries— well, that's happened before. I really enjoy an opportunity to point out to people that what seems new and startling, in fact, has been done before.
I’ve heard before that the world we live in now started either during World War I or in the '20s. In 1920, how large was World War I looming in the consciousness of the country?
Immensely. World War I was nonsensical, as I point out — historians are still arguing today about precisely how it got started — and yet the degree of tragedy was just appalling. Something like that was bound to linger when this terrorist attack occurred in 1920; people were more terrified than ever before because the Great War, as World War I was called then, took place abroad, but now it seemed as if maybe not only was it not over but it was going to be on American shores. So it was very much in the consciousness. It changed literature, it changed the theater, it changed all forms of art. To put it very generally, I think it inspired artists to look at the other side of reality, not the happy-go-lucky side that was represented by so many songs of the period and silly movies of the period but the lessons that the Great War taught them. Art and literature therefore became more pessimistic, although the word that was used at the time was realistic. I think it’s hard to exaggerate the effect that the Great War had, especially in 1920. Nineteen-nineteen was when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, so 1920 was actually the first year in which there was no war officially being fought.
A lot of people now associate Harding's term as president with a kind of "return to normalcy." Is that how he was seen at the time?
What Harding did was change the focus of the public eye, until the Nixon administration. The Harding administration was the most corrupt in our history. Even before the Teapot Dome scandal, there were two suicides attached to the Harding administration, both of them because of corruption. The leading bootlegger in Washington was an aide-de-camp. His name was Jess Smith, and Harry Daugherty, the attorney general, gave him an office so that he could supply the White House with booze. Harry Daugherty himself later on was tried for fraud! As you know, Nan Britton supposedly had a child by Harding. Harding never admitted it but he paid Nan Britton a check, all of her life, a monthly check, and he had an enormous reputation for that kind of thing, for womanizing.
The focus changed from the idea of normalcy to this emphasis on the Harding administration’s fraudulent behavior. It was a shift in the public consciousness from fear of terrorism to being appalled by the behavior of government. I would certainly think that the reaction to that was to deepen and give breadth to the notion that after World War I this world had changed for the worse and was never going to get better— terrorism on the one hand and corruption in our own government on the other.
Today, 9/11 is still thought of as if it were a totally new kind of experience for Americans. Was that the same response that people had back then to the Wall Street bombing, or was their response muted by the aftereffects of the Great War?
I would say it was an accelerant. The Great War caused our culture to put its collective foot down on the gas pedal and caused us to move at much greater speed in the direction we were already going.
Was there a similarly hysterical response to the bombings back then as there was in our era with regard to 9/11?
Oh yes, absolutely. 9/11 in a sense came out of nowhere— not that the world was a placid, peaceful place, but it didn’t have an immediate context like the Great War. We weren’t shivering in apprehension before this terrorist attack, before 9/11, whereas we were shivering in apprehension before the terrorist attack in 1920. So yes, I think it’s fair to say that the public reaction was even worse back then. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? It’s hard for many of us to imagine a greater horror than 9/11 because of the number of people who were killed, and certainly not nearly as many people were killed in 1920, but in terms of that fear...
Germany was already making sounds about how dissatisfied it was about the Treaty of Versailles, and the United States edgy, nervous. There hadn’t been enough time yet for the country to settle down into normalcy — Harding hadn’t even coined the word yet. It was within a year and a half of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that this explosion occurred, and that’s not nearly enough time for an entire country this size to lead a normal life again after an event like this. Back then, you were paranoid if you thought that somehow the Great War wasn’t over and it would somehow make its way across the ocean onto our shores. In this case, those who were paranoid ended up being right.
How aware were people in 1920 that the country was being governed, technically, by the wife of the president?
They weren’t. Albert Fall, who was the secretary of the interior, was first known for coining the phrase “petticoat government,” but the reason that it wasn’t known very much has to do with the fact that the American mass media didn’t exist and most newspapers did not have Washington bureaus. The whole running of the White House at that time was very secretive and it was known that the president wasn’t feeling well and so there had to be a knock-at-the-door if something was going to be presented to them. Well, no one saw Wilson lying in bed wasted away, and they didn’t see either Mrs. Wilson writing a response or her helping him holding the pen to write the response.
How do you think she did?
I think I agree with the consensus, which is that she did what he would have done. She was his confidante; she was his second wife. He had talked at great length in privacy with his first wife about political matters, and got into the habit of doing that, and immediately began to indoctrinate his second wife into political matters, so she knew more than the average first lady. She knew more than Mamie Eisenhower knew about what was going on in the country and in the world. Believe it or not, 1920 was not a politically tumultuous time except for worries about the terrorist attack. It was a time when not much was happening in this country, or when what was happening already happened. I think that there really weren’t issues of such great controversy that Mrs. Wilson had to make a decision that might have gone against her husband's wishes.
After spending so much time looking at the time period and specifically this year, would you want to be alive in the country at the time?
I think I would. The first thought that comes to my mind is because literature mattered so much, so I would be very happy at a time like that. I’d be very happy in the '30s because, actually I’d forgotten the year, maybe you remember when the New Yorker began to publish--was it in the '30s?
I think so — it might have even been the late 20s.
One of the first career goals that I had, which will reveal a certain impracticality, was that I wanted to write for the New Yorker in the '30s, so you see that my chances for success were slim. What I think is troublesome about this culture is in fact the mass media, which is to me getting worse. I realize we’re finding some very viable things because of Twitter— and I don’t know what that is, or tweeting— but we’re also a society that is just enveloped in trivia, a society that cares much more about what is not relevant than what is, a society in which all of the major networks and the cable news networks have just dropped foreign coverage down to a bare minimum because there’s just isn’t enough interest. The network news bureaus used to have their biggest staffs in Washington, and now that’s not true anymore.
I think that what would appeal to me about living 95 years ago is that it was a much more artistically serious time, think of the Harlem Renaissance, and what went on there. My God! It’s just amazing what happened in Harlem back then, and now we’re a society that cares about a family named Kardashian, and I don’t know the reason. I know the guy named Kardashian was one of O.J. Simpson’s attorneys, but does that make his family famous? We were concerned about much more important matters, certainly much more important matters of art. Art mattered. The 1913 Armory Show was a revolutionary event, the first major display in the this country of what we call modern art and it was an explosive story, a front-page story. Today, I can’t think of single television show that would cover it.