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May 12, 2021

PONTIN | Can’t Repeat the Past?

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“If you could travel backwards in time, where would you choose to go?” It’s a quotidian question, one we might ask across the dinner table in a breath of awkward silence or propose as an icebreaker in a discussion group on Zoom. Chances are, much like the dread-evoking “fun fact” inquiry, you probably have an established answer you tend to lean on in these hazy moments of social discomfort. Perhaps your era of choice is the zenith of the Italian Renaissance or the height of the Mongol Empire; maybe you have a more modern taste for the artistry and activism of the 1960s or the glory days of disco in the 1970s. 

For me, the answer is, and has long been, a resounding “Roaring Twenties.” I credit my fourth grade study of the period with the gestation of my infatuation, particularly the day we devoted to learning how to dance the Charleston. As we combed through videos of crowded social clubs, Charlie Chaplin and the lindy hop, the footage I saw crawling across the projector screen inspired a vehement and moving sense of awe unlike anything my eight-year-old mind knew how to comprehend. 

The energy, the animation and the passion of the scenes I was witnessing made me feel so undoubtedly yet vicariously alive. I could scarcely even digest the fact that this is what the country — or at least an exclusive, upper crust fraction of it — looked and felt and sounded like, that the black-and-white world I was watching unfold was the same one in which I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and played outside during recess. 

I suppose it’s no surprise that a great deal of the media in my personal hall of fame is either directly based on a clear nod to this epoch. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (as well as Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film rendition) is an irrefutable masterpiece, as is Damien Chazelle’s modern invocation of the period in La La Land. New-age portrayals of 1920s life make it possible for us to collectively imagine what this era may have looked like in color, adding a dimension that only builds upon the already-palpable effervescence of the moment. 

It seems, overwhelmingly, that the 1920s United States, and the East Coast in particular, is portrayed in countless artistic mediums as a sort of vivacious dreamland. It is romanticized to the point of being nearly incompatible with the limits of what we think a society could look like, yet it is at the same time a perfect culmination of the materialistic values wrought by industrialization itself. And in many ways, this romanticization was justified — technological advancement (cue the Model T) was stretching the limits of what people could do and where they could go, women were moving from the domestic sphere into the public one and buying on margin widely elevated the standard of living. 

Of course, however, hindsight is 20/20. For this reason, it’s imperative that we remember the 1920s for what they actually were. Let us not let the glamour of flappers and speakeasies distract from the fact that the decade was also teeming with social unrest. For soldiers returning from the European trenches of World War I, it was a time of bittersweet homecoming, grueling social adjustment and learning to cope with the horrors of post-traumatic stress. Nativism came to the forefront of the American political discourse as immigrants flowed into the country, with this fear of external forces only heightened by the Russian Revolution at the close of the previous decade. Similarly, the Great Migration incited a major demographic shift in the northern states, one that was not always welcomed amongst the largely white population they encountered. Across the country, people swarmed to the revived Ku Klux Klan in an inexcusable effort to restore the America in which they had grown up. Further, in economic terms, the new conveniences were by no means ubiquitous. Agricultural producers, for example, confronted plummeting prices in the face of excess supply, a trend only exacerbated by Prohibition. 

Why is it, then, that we are so committed to art that glorifies this decade — deeming it “The Roaring Twenties” in a way that we simply do not do with other decades — if it was so full of discrimination, hardship and bias? 

I would suggest that our predilection to concentrate on the explosion of arts and culture in the 1920s is not a means of purposefully concealing the decade’s true identity, but rather the result of a phenomenon in historiography. While the period was not entirely admirable, its likability is escalated by comparison. It is sandwiched between two unfathomably destructive world wars and a global economic depression, eras that we are (rightfully) quick to categorize as undesirable. To many people, the 1920s look almost like an Eden against this backdrop. As a result, we continue on with our 1920s-inspired television shows and films and birthday parties, unbothered.

This mode of reflection seems appropriate as we forge ahead into our own iteration of the Twenties a century later. Will writers and moviemakers exalt our current moment in the same way we did our predecessor? We are still grappling with many of the same conundrums: hostility to those not born within our borders, disdain for those who look different from what we see in the mirror and the mental health repercussions of our involvement in global conflict. Perhaps our dance moves are less enthralling, our instances of discontinuous innovation fewer and farther between. One thing, however, is for certain: our Twenties may not be roaring, but they certainly won’t be dubbed boring. 

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com. Rewind runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.