Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Learn from Literature: the 1920s in America

As readers we can learn a lot about history from literature of the period and the Roaring Twenties is an era often represented in literature. It saw a variety of social and cultural changes with which came a new kind of literature, expressed by the growth of the ‘Lost Generation’ as described by Gertrude Stein. This included authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and also other authors of the period like Virginia Woolf.

From the literature of this decade, we get to peek into what life was like in the 1920s and literature from this period becomes useful when looking at how things such as culture, society, politics, race, gender and sexuality changed. It is important as it allows us to look at the past from the experiences of those who were there, seeing qualitative experiences about how people were affected by social changes and how authors interpreted daily life.

The opulence of the period is evident in the lavish parties thrown by Gatsby

The classic novel of the 1920s is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel which gives the reader an insight into the elaborate culture and lifestyle experienced by those living in the boom of the era. The opulence of the period is evident in the lavish parties thrown by Gatsby, something also seen in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night by the luxurious holidays enjoyed by Dick and Nicole Diver.

Leading on from this, we can learn about social injustices of the period from Fitzgerald’s presentation of social hierarchy and the tension between old and new money in The Great Gatsby. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf shows the ignorance of bourgeois women who don’t understand the struggles of those in the working-class. This represents a trend towards starting to question social inequalities in literature. Fitzgerald draws inspiration from T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland in the ‘Valley of Ashes’, showing the vast inequalities between the blue-collar poor and the wealthy of the ‘Egg.’

Literature marked progress towards women occupying a new role in society

Representations of women in contemporary texts teach us about gender relations. In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley embodies the sexual freedom of the 1920s as a liberated New Woman who is sexually promiscuous and living in Paris where divorces were common. In Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa highlights the role of women as sexually and economically repressed, next to her friend Sally Seton, an independent woman who sold out to become a perfect housewife. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy is portrayed as selfish and fickle and Jordan as uncaring. We might question how representative these characters are, as many women were not sexually liberated and lived traditional lives of Victorian women. Nonetheless, literature marked progress towards women occupying a new role in society.

In The Sun Also Rises, we can see how Hemingway viewed sexuality, an important theme of contemporary literature, much like many people of the time. Some would call him homophobic because of the language he uses: he creates the character of Jake who is angry at homosexual men, filled with self-hatred at his inauthenticity and lack of masculinity. Virginia Woolf presents female homosexuality in Clarissa’s relationship with Sally, demonstrating how taboos around sexuality were starting to be explored in literature.

In a period experiencing so many societal and cultural changes, 1920’s literature can be a method for readers to learn. You are not short for textual choices, with some of the most famous and best literature having been produced in the period.


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