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BOOK REVIEW – Only Yesterday

Recently while doing research for an exhibition on the 1920s, I purchased this fabulous little book called Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. Historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote it in 1931, before Prohibition was even repealed!

I bought it because I wanted a contemporary perspective on the decade from someone who was there. I was astounded at his insight into a decade that he not only lived through, but also did not have much distance from.

As a rule, historians generally wait at least a decade in order to examine the recent past. When you are still living through it, you often don’t have enough perspective to evaluate what the implications were or are going to be.

However, Allen was spot on with his analysis of the 1920s. He admits early in the text that he is not trying to make any sweeping historical observations, and he is keenly aware of the dangers of trying to interpret events that were so recent. Instead, he says he is writing to capture the spirit of the age, as he remembers it.

But I found that many of his statements were consistent with current historical scholarship of that era.

His analysis of the Red Scare was particularly insightful. He writes, “…upholders of every sort of cause, good, bad, and indifferent, all wrapped themselves in Old Glory and the mantle of the Founding Fathers and allied their opponents with Lenin…A cloud of suspicion hung in the air, and intolerance became an American virtue.”

Considering he was writing only 10 years after fear of communism swept this country, I was impressed with his courage to be honest about what was really going on. Although by the end of the decade, people were no longer concerned about a communist revolution, those who led the charge were certainly still alive.

His attitude toward Prohibition represented the common thought of the era that the “noble experiment” was indeed a failure. Yet, it would be two years after his book was published that the 21st amendment was ratified.

He accurately describes the spirit of the times, writing, “In those days people sat with bated breath to hear how So-and-So had made very good gin right in his own cellar, and just what formula would fulfill the higher destiny of raisins, and how bootleggers brought liquor down from Canada.”

The 1920s were of course a time of radical change in manners and morals. People rejected anything “old fashioned,” looking instead to what was current and up-to-date. “It was better to be modern – and everybody wanted to be modern – and sophisticated, and smart, to smash the conventions and to be devastatingly frank,” Allen writes. “And with a cocktail glass in one’s hand it was easy at least to be frank.”

Allen also writes about the Scopes “monkey trial” – challenging the teaching of evolution in schools – with a hint of humor that really captures the bewilderment of the locals: “It was a strange trial. Into the quiet town of Dayton flocked gaunt Tennessee farmers and their families in mule-drawn wagons and ramshackle Fords; quiet, godly people in overalls and gingham and black, ready to defend their faith against ‘foreigners,’ yet curious to know what this new-fangled evolutionary theory might be.”

When my book arrived, it was obviously a bit tattered. My copy was from the 1964 reprint, so it looked a bit dated from what you expect from modern history books (however, there is a 1997 and 2000 reprint available). The print was quite small and seemed intimidating when I first opened it.

But it turned out to be the most interesting read of any book I used for my research!

Allen is witty, extremely intelligent, and has the unique perspective that can only be achieved by living through these events yourself.

If you are a Roaring Twenties enthusiast, or only casually interested in the era, I highly recommend this book. It provided me with a wealth of information, and lots of snappy quotes that really added to my exhibition.


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