Well, it has been three days since my debut party started but I finally got tired and left the party last night and went to bed because I always seem to lose all of my interest in a party after a few days, but Dorothy never loses her interest in a party and when I woke up this morning Dorothy was just saying goodbye to some of the guests. I mean Dorothy seems to have quite a lot of vitality, because the last guests of the party were guests we picked up when the party went to take a swim at Long Beach the day before yesterday, and they were practically fresh, but Dorothy had gone clear through the party from beginning to end without even stopping to go to a Turkish bath as most of the gentlemen had to do.
~An excerpt from the novel that this post is sort of about. It’s a novel of journal entries that kind of sound like this.
There are only three kinds of Americans: ones who idealize the 1960s, ones who idealize the 1920s, and ones who idealize the 1880s i.e. Americans either dream about hippies, flappers, or cowboys.
These eras in American history all have a lot in common. They were all times of immense prosperity, however in all the eras this prosperity largely accrued to the already-well-off and led to rising income inequality. All three of these fateful decades, this prosperity eventually led America into a series of rash and overconfident military adventures that did much to destroy said prosperity. And finally, all of these decades appeared to be times of immense social and political change, when a rising tide would sweep over the nation and bring the old structures crashing down…but in all cases, said tide receding and left things just a little better off than they were before.
Regardless of which decade you worship, you’re unlikely to be able to reconcile it with your moral or ideological beliefs. Attempts to try will make your head explode, and eventually lead to rants like this one on Catherynne Valente’s blog where she attempts to take down Steampunk.
Because there is nothing ideological in the impulse that gives rise to this worship (except for libertarians who idealize the 1880s, I guess that’s a little ideological). Or if there is, then that ideology is something buried deep within the heart of every American. Because this nostalgia is primarily aesthetic. Sure, the thing that these eras had in common was prosperity and inequality and American empire, but we only care about one tiny result of that.
In all three eras, increased prosperity led to a distinctive class of people who lived primarily by their wits. They were not artists, but they performed the same functions as artists, on a micro-scale. They entertained wealthy people, and, in doing so, managed to extract a little bit of that wealth to maintain their idle lifestyles. Now, this class of parasites exists in every age, but in these three eras, that class vastly expanded, and the increased ferment of the milieu led to more clever, more beautiful, and more baroque ways of entertaining those who possessed the money.
And in seeking to gratify their immediate needs, those carpetbaggers, revivalist preachers, grafters, con-artists, gentlemen, fortune-seekers, cowboys, vaudevillians, flappers, gurus, drop-outs, surfers, and all the rest of their cohort of parasites created modes of behavior that continue to entertain us long after they are dead.
The interesting question is not why we dream about being beautiful and idle, but what kind of beauty and what kind of idleness we find most appealing.
Personally, my heart lies during Prohibition, in the Roaring Twenties. It was the last time in American history that drinking to excess was dangerous and fun (well, the last time was actually freshman year of college, but, you know…) And, of course, it was the last time that a writer could actually be a celebrity. I’m a big fan of books about guys with no visible means of support getting really drunk in the 1920s: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway,…probably some other folks I can’t remember right now…
But I don’t think I’ve ever read a book written by a woman that was squarely about Jazz Age excess. Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a book that is about that. It’s a pretty funny book. I will let Anita Loos describe it herself, in words taken from the preface of the edition I read:
In fact if one examines the plot of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it is almost as gloomy as a novel by Dostoievski. When the book reached Russia, this was recognized, and it was embraced by Soviet authorities as evidence of the exploitation of helpless female blondes by predatory magnates of the Capitalistic System. The Russians, with their native love of grief, stripped Gentlemen Prefer Blondes of all its fun and the plot which they uncovered was dire. It concerns early rape of its idiot heroine, an attempt by her to commit murder (only unsuccessful because she is clumsy with a gun), the heroine’s being cast adrift in the gangster-infested New York of Prohibition days, her relentless pursuit by predatory males (the foremost of whom constantly tries to pay her off at bargain rates), her renunciation of the only man who ever stirred her inner soul of a woman, her nauseous connection with a male who is repulsive to her physically, mentally, and emotionally, and her final engulfment in the grim monotony of suburban Philadelphia
Given the above material, any real novelist such as Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, Faulkner, or Hemingway probably would have curdled his readers’ blood with massive indignation. Scott Fitzgerald would have, and indeed he did make his readers shed bittersweet tears over such sad eventualities. But I, with my infantile cruelty, have never been able to view even the most impressive human behavior as anything but foolish.