Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s
by Frederick Lewis Allen read by Grover Gardner
Prohibition. Al Capone. The President Harding scandals. The revolution of manners and morals. Black Tuesday. These are only an inkling of the events and figures characterizing the wild, tumultuous era that was the Roaring Twenties. Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday traces the rise of post–World War I prosperity up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 against a colorful backdrop of jazz, flappers, speakeasies, the first radio, and the scandalous rise of skirt hemlines. In this span between armistice and depression, Americans were kicking up their heels, but they were also bringing about major changes in the social and political structure of their country.
Hailed as an instant classic, this is Frederick Lewis Allen’s vivid and definitive account of one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating decades, chronicling a time of both joy and terror—when dizzying highs were quickly succeeded by heartbreaking lows. It is a fond, witty, penetrating biography of this restless decade—a delightful reminiscence for those who can remember and a fascinating firsthand look for those who have only heard.
Hard on the heels of a World War I era binge, I found myself interested in what followed. Just as I’d never known much about the Great War, neither had I taken much note of the culture and art of its aftermath. I picked up a few popular histories full of pictures and bullet points, but by far the most interesting text available was Only Yesterday.
It seemed sort of too good to be true. Written immediately following the decade in question and drawing on material collected and reported during its course, the book was perhaps the most immediate and unselfconscious take imaginable. Of course, I was never going to have time to read it. Luckily, the audio was excellent.
Some reviews call it irresponsible, biased and frustratingly colloquial. That’s all true. Especially the latter. Whether reading or listening, it’s difficult to believe what’s written at first. The tone is somewhere between conversational and bloviating. It is, as we say, a product of its time. One you get past that initial distrust, however, you’re transported back in time.
Grover Gardner skirts awfully close to the forced Mid-Atlantic accent as he delivers Frederick Lewis Allen’s words and the effect is fantastic. For however long you listen, you’re immersed in a newsreel unraveling a decade of innovation and upheaval. The United States comes to grips with new social realities and its emerging position in world affairs.
I learned a lot, or at least contextualized things I’d already known. Only Yesterday provides a solid picture of mainstream culture in the 1920s. If there’s a criticism to be leveled, it’s that jazz, indeed music in general, is unfortunately sidelined. There’s ample attention to literature, mass media, sports and even party games, but the inauguration of one of the truly American art forms apparently just wasn’t something Allen paid mush attention to.
Even so, looking at the other titles I picked up, it’s clear that this is the book you want to read if you’ve only got time for one. The rest are pretenders at best and virtual plagiarisms at worst. Admittedly not a proper history, any work addressing the broader trends of the decade owes the author a debt.
Perhaps the most striking thing about it is how little our politics, press, and popular culture have really changed since the 1920s. In some sections, Only Yesterday could describe the latest news on Wall Street or our current political campaign. Reading history is cumulative. The more you know, the less mysterious your world is.
Recommended for fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald, JNCOs, and VH-1’s I Love the [insert decade]’s.