The Melting Of Those Little Town Blues

"We were the most powerful nation," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1931 essay "Echoes of the jazz Age," his attempt to sum tip the era between World War I and the Crash of 1929. "Who could tell its anymore what was fashionable and what was fun?" The question was purely rhetorical. "The Americanization of everything," to use Gertrude Stein's phrase, was already an accomplished fact. Whereas only a few years earlier America had looked to London and Paris for its cultural cues, now "the whole world revolves around New York," according to the composer and bandleader Duke Ellington.

New York's emergence in the '20s as the world's cultural arbiter is an old story. But to read Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (606 pages. Farrar Straus Giroux. $25), cultural historian Ann Douglas's absorbing account of the period, is to understand for the first time how it happened. Her investigation takes her from Freud to Charles Lindbergh, from Hemingway to the songs of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, from the dirt-dishing Walter Winchell to Manhattan's skyscrapers. But the most arresting aspect of this complicated, fascinating work is Douglas's eye-opening description of the wedding of black and white culture, a union that produced the mongrel culture we know today. "Terrible Honesty" is a long book, but Douglas needs every page to capture "the American psyche in perhaps its most revealing moment," to tell, in other words, how we got to be us.

In her last book. the classic "The Feminization of American Culture," she showed how in the last century women--as the leading novelists, temperance leaders, preachers and soft-minded spiritualists ran the culture. In the '20s, a more macho crowd took over. Led by the likes of Mencken and Hemingway. These writers, musicians and journalists despised sentimentality, questioned everv belief and "prided themselves on facing facts, the harder the better." The phrase "terrible honesty" was coined by Raymond (handler, the master of the tough-guy detective novel. The times were ripe for truth-telling. In the '20s, "for the first time since the Puritan era, the public bought more nonfiction than fiction." it was also an age of material girls and boys. The decade saw the perfecting of electric Victrolas, radios and the talkies. In their turn, these technological developments flipped another switch: the blues and jazz of African-Americans were suddenly available to millions, both black and white.

Rejecting Victorian matriarchal mores, white moderns embraced hitherto disreputable black-American culture--particularly in New York, where the Harlem Renaissance held sway. As Douglas points out, blacks and whites have traditionally swapped cultural goods throughout American history, but it was always under the table. Suddenly, the deal was public. Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters became stars, while George Gershwin and Irving Berlin were permitted to borrow freely from America's richest musical tradition.

Sadly (the baleful modernists would have started this sentence with 'Of course") it was a cultural boom too good to last, By the time of the Crash, American literature had found its voice and established a canon (as recently as 1891 The New York Times had run a cursory obit for an author it called Henry Melville), but the ranks of the literati-black and white alike--were already being decimated by alcoholism, madness and loss of nerve. The Harlem Renaissance folded its tent, and the Algonquin Round 'Fable crowd decamped for Hollywood, where goody-goody Shirley Temple waited in the wings, and where King Kong, that tall, dark and handsome paragon of the savage male ideal, would soon fall dead at the foot of the Empire State Building.

"Terrible Honesty" has its flaws. Only a neurotic could enjoy all that Douglas has to say about Freud's influence on the moderns. And she never fully develops a rationale for whom she includes or omits from her discussion. Charles Ives and Edward Hopper are barely mentioned, and Theodore Dreiser and Edith Wharton aren't mentioned a[ all. Still, while one might quibble with some of her decisions, it's impossible to argue with her rigorous book's central premise: that in the '20s, "the modern world as we know it," with black and white culture inextricably wed, had arrived for good. Were they around to read it, even those hard-bitten moderns would surely cheer this brilliant tale of their time.