The outline of the period

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The outline of the period In many respects the period between the end of World War I and the end of World War II was one of sharp discontinuities. Few eras in American history present such vivid contrasts compressed into so short a time. Politically, the nation experienced what many considered a fundamental change after the election of 1920. For a full decade, the government remained in the hands of the Republican party and—for eight of those years at least—in the hands of two conservative presidents who rejected most of the liberal assumptions of the progressive era. An age of reform seemed to have given way to an era of reaction. Economically, the nation experienced equally profound shifts. Beginning in 1921 the American economy embarked on a period of growth without

precedent in the history of the world. The nation's industrial capacity grew rapidly; the income of its citizens soared; America's position in world trade became one of unrivaled supremacy. And the American corporate world, after having been on the defensive for many years, basked in a widespread public popularity that turned once-despised captains of industry into national heroes. Then, starting with a dramatic stock market crash in 1929, the imposing economic edifice collapsed, and the country entered the worst economic crisis in its history. Industrial production declined; new investment virtually ceased; unemployment reached epic proportions. Culturally, there seemed to be equally sharp contrasts. In the 1920s a bitter conflict emerged between the forces of modernism

associated with the new urban-industrial society and the forces of traditionalism associated with more provincial, often rural communities. On issues such as prohibition, religion, and race, the tensions between the new society and the old were vividly displayed. In the 1930s, by contrast, the nation's outlook appeared to shift dramatically. Cultural divisions now seemed less important than economic ones, and the controversies of the 1930s centered less on questions of values than on questions of wealth and power. Americans in the 1920s experienced a series of profound changes in the way they lived and thought. A new urban culture emerged that helped people in all regions to live their lives and perceive their world in increasingly similar ways; and it exposed them to a new set

of values that reflected the prosperity and complexity of the modern economy. To a generation of artists and intellectuals coming of age in the 1920s, the new society in which they lived was even more disturbing. Many were experiencing a disenchantment with modern America so fundamental that they were often able to view it only with contempt. As a result, they adopted a role sharply different from that of most intellectuals of earlier eras. Rather than involving themselves with their society's popular or political culture and attempting to influence and reform the mass of their countrymen, they isolated themselves and embarked on a restless search for personal fulfillment. Gertrude Stein once referred to the young Americans emerging from World War I as a "Lost

Generation." For many writers and intellectuals, at least, it was an apt description. At the heart of the Lost Generation's critique of modern society was a sense of personal alienation, a belief that contemporary America no longer provided the individual with avenues by which he or she could achieve personal fulfillment. Modern life, they argued, was cold, impersonal, materialistic, and thus meaningless. The sensitive individual could find no happiness in the mainstream of American society. This disillusionment had its roots in many things, but in nothing so deeply as the experience of World War I. To those who had fought in France and experienced the horror and savagery of modern warfare—and even to those who had not fought but who nevertheless had been aware of the