U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Round Table on Murphy’s The New Era: Entry 2–Kristoffer Shields

Review of Paul V. Murphy’s The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012). ISBN: 9780742549258. 267 pages.

Reviewed by Kristoffer Shields, PhD Candidate
Rutgers University

Mind the Gap

Too often in the high school and university U.S. History surveys of the past, the 1920s was taught as a “gap” decade: the gap between WWI and the Great Depression, between the Progressives and the New Deal, between the Volstead Act and the end of Prohibition. The time period merited little more than a chapter in a textbook, usually titled “The Jazz Age,” “The Roaring Twenties,” or, coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally), “The New Era.” Thankfully, more recent historians, picking up on the work of William Leuchtenberg (particularly in his 1958 book The Perils of Prosperity), have largely corrected this. These historians, led by Lynn Dumenil, present the 1920s as a significant turning point in American thought and culture and “work…with the premise that the decade of the 1920s illuminates fundamental issues of the 20th century.”[1] Paul Murphy clearly agrees and continues this project in his comprehensive and engaging new look at the intellectuals and intellectualism of the ‘20s, The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s.

In fact, Murphy in a sense brings the era full circle, assigning a whole new meaning to the term “gap decade.” He presents a framework that understands the decade as defined, in fact, by cultural gaps. Murphy recognizes and acknowledges the regional, class, gender, racial, and country/city gaps that existed, but he focuses on a different cultural gap—that between the growing mass culture and the intellectuals and artists attempting to guide, shape, and explain it. He describes a type of intellectual crisis, in which social commentators and elites struggled to come to terms with their changing roles in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Murphy writes, “However, first and foremost, modernism was an internal discussion among artists and writers about their own precarious social statuses, which resulted from a loss of a vital connection between themselves and the masses” (5). In particular, many of the intellectuals and artists Murphy discusses were concerned about the deleterious effects they saw in the growth of mass culture. “It was this hearty embrace of a commercialized mass culture, with its often cheap character and the seemingly crude and superficial pleasures it provided, that troubled intellectuals and widened the gap between them and the mass public” (12).

It is too simple to simply say that these elites were horrified by mass culture, though; they were also drawn to it. This was in part for practical reasons: “While modernist impulses set many American intellectuals and artists in the 1920s apart from society, the aspiration to become arbiters of cultural change promoted connection” (7). Many of these intellectuals displayed a clear desire to understand the new culture and connect with it. The gap mattered to them not just because they needed to bridge it but also because they wanted to understand it. To them, that was the key to shaping future cultural change. These intellectuals, particularly modernist liberals in Murphy’s account, refused to cede control of culture and instead fought to find ways to direct or at least impact it. Our hope as historians is that by better understanding these gaps and the intellectual and artistic responses to them, we can gain access to a better understanding of the cultural conflicts and evolutions of the decade. This may in turn help us better understand the social and political clashes of the 20th century. “After the 1920s,” Murphy writes, “culture became the essential terrain of social and political action” (10). Ultimately, Murphy is describing a battle to control culture, fought amongst conservatives, progressives, and modernist liberal intellectuals, a “battle…over what force would shape change—industrial and technological progress or culture” (10). Put another way, this is the battle over the gap and it is the battle that would define the intellectual decade.

It is difficult to do justice to the breadth of Murphy’s research and analysis in a short review such as this. He begins by analyzing the need for intellectuals to understand and conceptualize the changes they were experiencing and describes the growth of cultural anthropology to provide that service. He then discusses the ambivalent relationship between intellectuals and the mass culture in more detail. He focuses here on the difficulties intellectuals faced, distrusting what they saw as the conformist nature of mass culture and yet still recognizing its power. Murphy writes, “Attuned to the immense power of culture, eager to repudiate the role of moral guardians, and avid proponents of personal freedom, they were profoundly distressed when the choices audiences made failed to reflect their own values or advance their aspirations for America” (71). There were many ways in which to deal with this ambivalence and Murphy presents a number of divergent ones.

Having established the existence of the culture gap and some of the complicated ways in which intellectuals generally understood and responded to it, Murphy turns to a more specific look at how different groups of intellectuals attempted to bridge the gap—or, more accurately perhaps, find space for themselves within the gap. He begins with literary intellectuals, particularly the differing approaches taken by Young American critics and the Dadaists, ultimately locating the decade’s “dominant literary currents” as “the search for symbols from the American past with which to fashion an organic American culture and the elevation of modern technology and commercial enterprise to the level of a new folklore” (105). Next, Murphy discusses the role of race, ethnicity and immigration in creating and overcoming cultural gaps, specifically noting how “immigrants reflected the contest between conformity and personal autonomy that formed one of the chief features of modern life” (111). He then turns to an analysis of Pragmatism and the social sciences, situating them as efforts by intellectuals to drive Americans out of a “cultural abyss” before finishing with a chapter on the battles between and within religion and science.

It is difficult to find fault with the impressive breadth of Murphy’s coverage of the intellectual trends of the time period. We all bring our biases and backgrounds as readers, however, and I personally missed a discussion of the Legal Realists, primarily because the discussion concerning the role of law in society taking place in the legal community at the time fits Murphy’s conception of the culture gap so well. When discussing the Pragmatists, for example, Murphy writes, “The pragmatists presented their ideas—which challenged belief in a single, real, unseen, and unchanging world beyond our own that vouchsafed absolute truth—as the means of intellectual and cultural regeneration” (176). This is similar to the challenge taking place in the world of law, particularly in the conversation between Roscoe Pound and Karl Llewellyn concerning the tenets of true Legal Realism.[2] Legal intellectuals were dealing with their own version of a gap between intellectuals and mass culture in their attempts to re-think both the status and the role of law in culture. This is one manifestation of the gap that seems to be missing, though really, this may be more of a suggestion of a way in which Murphy’s framework could be used in the future than a criticism of the work itself.

More important, one of the challenges for Murphy is find ways to link such a wide assortment of intellectuals, artists, approaches, and philosophies and to deal with each sufficiently. Murphy works hard to ensure that this book is more than a list of biographical or ideological entries and he is mostly successful. Murphy’s discussion of Gilbert Seldes, for just one example, is fascinating, showing how we can read different intellectuals not just for the substance of what they said, but for how they can be read together to better understand the debate (69). But I admit that at times it feels as though just as one is drawn into the discussion of a particular person or concept, Murphy is forced to move on. He resolves this challenge in a couple of ways. Primarily, he continually brings the narrative back to his central theme of the gap these intellectuals were facing and reminds the reader of the long term impact of the differing approaches they took.

To me, though, another unifying concept Murphy suggests is even more interesting: the concept of authenticity. The intellectuals Murphy describes seem unmoored by the cultural changes taking place around them and are, to some extent, searching for an anchor. Most, if not all, turn to some aspect of authenticity to find that cultural stronghold. Much of the writing, playing, singing, talking, and “acting” that Murphy describes comes down to using authenticity as a way to carve out space within the cultural gap. From Murphy’s discussion of the commercial packaging of hillbilly records to his description of the attempts of Dadaists to create a usable modern “folklore” to the attempt by various groups to construct a “usable past” from which to create a new culture, authenticity is everywhere in Murphy’s account. Whether Dadaists, artists, Fundamentalists, immigrants, or intellectuals, much of the work to find space within the gap took the form of the search for (or creation of) an “authentic” self. Murphy often notes this explicitly, but at other times leaves the implication to the reader.

For just one example, Murphy writes of the Harlem Renaissance, “Much of the renewed racial consciousness in the Renaissance was similarly tied to a discovery of roots, whether a respectful attention to the southern black fold roots of Negro culture or the deeper African cultural tradition” (134). Similarly, as I noted above, Murphy elsewhere describes the dominant literary currents of the 1920s as “the search for symbols from the American past with which to fashion an organic American culture and the elevation of modern technology and commercial enterprise to the level of a new folklore” (105). Read one way, both of these approaches are a search for an authentic identity, one that could be used by these intellectuals to find authority within the cultural gap. The different intellectuals Murphy describes have different ways of trying to find what is “real,” but they are virtually all linked by the understanding that discovering or creating something “real” (or that simply appeared seemed real) was important. This is present in Murphy’s account, but I would love to see more discussion of the different approaches to the authentic self taken by these intellectuals and how they used the concept both to understand the changes and attempt to control them. For whom was the authentic self the true project, for example, and for whom was the creation of a seemingly authentic self simply a means by which to assert cultural control?

Ultimately, though, for me, the best test for any work of History is that it is both illuminating and thought-provoking, that it both clarifies and clouds one’s understanding. Murphy’s work passes that test with flying colors. There is much to learn in Murphy’s book; it is useful for any scholar of the 20thcentury, particularly any graduate student. More important, though, there is also much to think about here. Like the actors themselves, the historian of this time period can sometimes feel ungrounded by the contradictions, cultural changes, and shifting foundations of the decade. We, too, are sometimes attempting to describe a cultural gap even as we struggle to keep ourselves above it. Works like this—that meet the complexities of the 1920s head-on and do not back down from the difficult contradictions—help show us the way forward.


[1] Dumenil, Lynn, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 12.

[2] For a much more complete account of the culmination of this discussion, see Llewellyn, Karl, “Some Realism About Realism—Responding to Dean Pound,” 44 Harvard Law Review 1222 (1931).

One Thought on this Post

  1. The thirties tend to be seen as even more of a gap, but for both the twenties and the thirties, each has a unique melancholy unmatched by any other decade.

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