In 1920s Middle America, the Ku Klux Klan gained popularity not by appealing to the fanatical fringes of society, but by attracting the interest of “average” citizens. During this period, the Klan recruited members through the same unexceptional channels as any other organization or club, becoming for many a respectable public presence, a vehicle for civic activism, or the source of varied social interaction. Its diverse membership included men and women of all ages, occupations, and socio-economic standings. Although surviving membership records of this clandestine organization have proved incredibly rare, Everyday Klansfolk uses newly available documents to reconstruct the life and social context of a single grassroots unit in Newaygo County, Michigan. A fascinating glimpse behind the mask of America’s most notorious secret order, this absorbing study sheds light on KKK activity and membership in Newaygo County, and in Michigan at large, during the brief and remarkable peak years of its mass popular appeal.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the divorce rate in the United States rose by a staggering 2,000 percent. To understand this dramatic rise, Elaine Tyler May studied over one thousand detailed divorce cases. She found that contrary to common assumptions, divorce was not simply a by-product of women's increasing economic and sexual independence, or a rebellion against marriage. Rather, thwarted hopes for fulfillment in the public sphere drove both men and women to wed at a greater rate and to bring higher expectations to their marriages.
In this groundbreaking study, Julian Carter demonstrates that between 1880 and 1940, cultural discourses of whiteness and heterosexuality fused to form a new concept of the “normal” American. Gilded Age elites defined white civilization as the triumphant achievement of exceptional people hewing to a relational ethic of strict self-discipline for the common good. During the early twentieth century, that racial and relational ideal was reconceived in more inclusive terms as “normality,” something toward which everyone should strive. The appearance of inclusiveness helped make “normality” appear consistent with the self-image of a racially diverse republic; nonetheless, “normality” was gauged largely in terms of adherence to erotic and emotional conventions that gained cultural significance through their association with arguments for the legitimacy of white political and social dominance. At the same time, the affectionate, reproductive heterosexuality of “normal” married couples became increasingly central to legitimate membership in the nation.
Carter builds her intricate argument from detailed readings of an array of popular texts, focusing on how sex education for children and marital advice for adults provided significant venues for the dissemination of the new ideal of normality. She concludes that because its overt concerns were love, marriage, and babies, normality discourse facilitated white evasiveness about racial inequality. The ostensible focus of “normality” on matters of sexuality provided a superficially race-neutral conceptual structure that whites could and did use to evade engagement with the unequal relations of power that continue to shape American life today.
The Jazz Age of the 1920s is an era remembered for illegal liquor, innovative music and dance styles, and burgeoning ideas of social equality. It was also the period during which second-generation Jews began to emerge as a significant demographic in New York City. In TheirOwn Image examines thegrowing cultural visibility of Jewish life amid this vibrant scene.
From the vaudeville routines of Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, and Sophie Tucker, to the slew of Broadway comedies about Jewish life and the silent films that showed immigrant families struggling to leave the ghetto, images and representations of Jews became staples of interwar popular culture. Through the performing arts, Jews expressed highly ambivalent feelings about their identification with Jewish and American cultures. Ted Merwin shows how they became American by producing and consuming not images of another group, but images of themselves. As a result, they humanized Jewish stereotypes, softened anti-Semitic attitudes, and laid the groundwork for today’s Jewish comedians.
An entertaining look at the role popular culture plays in promoting the acculturation of an ethnic group, In Their Own Image enhances our understanding of American Jewish history and provides a model for the study of other groups and their integration into mainstream society.
Liberty, equality, and justice have long been treasured in American culture as core values. In Liberty, Equality, and Justice, Ross Evans Paulson studies social and intellectual changes in a critical period of American history—from the end of the Civil War to the early days of the Depression—and argues that attempts to achieve civil rights, women’s rights, and the regulation of business faltered because so many Americans ranked liberty for themselves higher than equality with others and justice for all. Surveying a crucial period in the formation of the modern state and society, Paulson examines the prevailing conflicts of the time and the limitations of various attempts to institute reform, radical change, or ritualistic renewal of American society. His reading of existing scholarship highlights contested social constructs, clashing priorities, changing meanings of key terms, and shifting institutional dynamics in light of their contributions to a complex tragedy in which all parties fell short of the demands for democratic mutuality. Along with discussions of the movements and manipulations of presidential, congressional, and judicial politics, he integrates the experiences of diverse populations—including African Americans, women, Asian immigrants, Native Americans, and working people—and offers a new interpretation of the ways in which social change and political events interact to reframe the many possibilities of American society.
Our Common Country is a collection of informal addresses, eighteen in all, given by Warren G. Harding as president-elect that defined his vision for the United States. What makes these addresses as relevant today as they were in 1921 is the unsettled mood of the country. Even though World War I is now a distant memory, today’s Americans have suffered through similar conflicts.
In 1917 when Americans went off to war, the red, white, and blue flew everywhere. Two million American soldiers went to France and fifty thousand of them died; the battle of the Meuse-Argonne was one of the costliest in American history. With the announcement by America’s allies that the United States’s contributions to the war were insignificant compared to their own, President Wilson’s leadership began to collapse. Also, the domestic economy’s boom was turning to a bust and the national debt was expanding. The general consensus of Americans was that “things had gone to hell in a handbasket.”
In an effort to ease the minds of troubled and confused Americans, President Harding tried to provide them with inspiration. Addressing different groups of the population—mothers, veterans, patriots, farmers, businessmen, the press—he sought to send a consistent personal message of reassurance. During his administration, he would bring a formal end to the war by signing the Treaty of Berlin and would limit strategic armaments through the treaties of the Washington Conference. He would also establish the Bureau of the Budget, thereby bringing order to the departmental and bureaucratic requests that had disgraced budget making for decades. He planted the seeds for a department of health, education, and welfare, which was finally realized thirty years later. Although the former president was much maligned after his death, his good works during his term of office speak for themselves and show concern for his fellow Americans. His warmth, strength of character, and intelligence are demonstrated throughout these addresses. Harding spoke to his own time, yet these addresses speak to our own confusing times as well.
Recent global security threats, economic instability, and political uncertainty have placed great scrutiny on the requirements for U.S. citizenship. The stipulation of literacy has long been one of these criteria. In Producing Good Citizens, Amy J. Wan examines the historic roots of this phenomenon, looking specifically to the period just before World War I, up until the Great Depression. During this time, the United States witnessed a similar anxiety over the influx of immigrants, economic uncertainty, and global political tensions.
Early on, educators bore the brunt of literacy training, while also being charged with producing the right kind of citizens by imparting civic responsibility and a moral code for the workplace and society. Literacy quickly became the credential to gain legal, economic, and cultural status. In her study, Wan defines three distinct pedagogical spaces for literacy training during the 1910s and 1920s: Americanization and citizenship programs sponsored by the federal government, union-sponsored programs, and first year university writing programs. Wan also demonstrates how each literacy program had its own motivation: the federal government desired productive citizens, unions needed educated members to fight for labor reform, and university educators looked to aid social mobility.
Citing numerous literacy theorists, Wan analyzes the correlation of reading and writing skills to larger currents within American society. She shows how early literacy training coincided with the demand for laborers during the rise of mass manufacturing, while also providing an avenue to economic opportunity for immigrants. This fostered a rhetorical link between citizenship, productivity, and patriotism. Wan supplements her analysis with an examination of citizen training books, labor newspapers, factory manuals, policy documents, public deliberations on citizenship and literacy, and other materials from the period to reveal the goal and rationale behind each program.
Wan relates the enduring bond of literacy and citizenship to current times, by demonstrating the use of literacy to mitigate economic inequality, and its lasting value to a productivity-based society. Today, as in the past, educators continue to serve as an integral part of the literacy training and citizen-making process.
In the 1920s, cultural and political reactions to the Red Scare in America contributed to a marked shift in the way Americans thought about sexuality, womanhood, manhood, and family life. The Russian Revolution prompted anxious Americans sensing a threat to social order to position heterosexuality, monogamy, and the family as a bulwark against radicalism.
In her probing and engaging book, Red War on the Family, Erica Ryan traces the roots of sexual modernism and the history of antiradicalism and antifeminism. She illuminates how Americans responded to foreign and domestic threats and expressed nationalism by strengthening traditional gender and family roles-especially by imposing them on immigrant groups, workers, women, and young people.
Ryan argues that the environment of political conformity in the 1920s was maintained in part through the quest for cultural and social conformity, exemplified by white, middle-class family life. Red War on the Family charts the ways Americanism both reinforced and was reinforced by these sexual and gender norms in the decades after World War I.