Peering past the flapper image
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.
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