Peer­ing past the flap­per im­age

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Becky Krystal is a Washington Post staff writer. RE­VIEW BY BECKY KRYSTAL becky.krystal@wash­post.com

Blame “Down­ton Abbey” if you must, but the 1920s are hot right now. En­ter Eric Burns, a TV cor­re­spon­dent turned au­thor and media critic whose new book, “1920,” cap­i­tal­izes on this in­ter­est. Burns does not merely ar­gue that 1920 was an event­ful, in­ter­est­ing time. His the­sis is much broader: “Although the year that is the sub­ject of this book was a preview of a decade, it turned out to be more than that: it would be a preview of the en­tire cen­tury and even the be­gin­ning of the cen­tury to fol­low, the one in which we live to­day.”

Burns’s ter­ri­tory stretches far and wide across the realms of pol­i­tics, Pro­hi­bi­tion, pop cul­ture and more: com­mu­nists, suf­fragettes, Teapot Dome, birth con­trol, the ra­dio. He skill­fully builds por­traits of such fig­ures as con artist Charles Ponzi, Planned Par­ent­hood founder Mar­garet Sanger and cru­sad­ing U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral A. Mitchell Palmer. He brings to light events that have prob­a­bly re­ceived scarce at­ten­tion in stan­dard school cur­ric­ula. There’s the Wall Street bomb­ing of Sept. 16, 1920, which serves as a re­cur­ring theme in the book. The blast killed 38 peo­ple and in­jured at least 400 more. The case was never solved, in no small part be­cause of a rather blase ini­tial fed­eral re­sponse and a bun­gled crime-scene in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Equally ap­palling was the May 19, 1920, Mate­wan Mas­sacre, the cul­mi­na­tion of a la­bor-man­age­ment dis­pute in a West Vir­ginia coal-min­ing com­mu­nity.

For those en­am­ored of the trendy 21st-cen­tury speakeasies that are a dime a dozen, Burns has a sober­ing re­minder that their 1920s coun­ter­parts were not nearly as glam­orous as they’re made out to be. He also cov­ers the un­be­liev­able Pro­hi­bi­tion­era stand-ins and sup­ple­ments for booze— among them kerosene, ether, en­gine fuel and rub­bing al­co­hol — that in­jured and killed un­told num­bers.

Burns also, rea­son­ably, un­der­cuts the myth that flap­pers were em­blem­atic of the age. They were just more in­ter­est­ing to pho­to­graph and write about than their more con­ser­va­tive sis­ters, he says, and that’s why we re­mem­ber them.

He cer­tainly makes a com­pelling case for 1920 as sig­nif­i­cant, but was it a defin­ing year? De­bat­able. A lot hap­pened in 1920, but Burns of­ten re­lates events from ear­lier or later. You could cred­i­bly ar­gue that any of those years, or many oth­ers in the last cen­tury, were just as ground­break­ing, but of course, that wouldn’t have the same ring. Whether you agree with Burns’s the­sis or not, he has writ­ten an em­i­nently read­able, in­for­ma­tive book.

GE­ORGE GRAN­THAM BAIN COL­LEC­TION/LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHO­TO­GRAPHS DI­VI­SION

The un­solved bomb­ing ofWall Street on Sept. 16, 1920, killed 38 and in­jured at least 400.

1920 The Year That Made the Decade Roar By Eric Burns Pe­ga­sus. 348 pp. $27.95

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