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Our Century: The Twenties | The Nation

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Our Century: The Twenties

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While New York City mourns, political opportunists point fingers—but we should really be talking about reforms that would keep everyone safe.

Angry protesters are seeking justice for Michael Brown—and much more.

The Shape of Things.

What really matters is how women will use the ballot. Will they carry on in the true spirit of Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott? Or will they consent to and by passivity connive at the disfranchisement of their colored sisters in the South--the acid test of understanding their new part? Stop with the ballot they cannot, nor short of full equality, economic as well as political. No office in the land but shall be open, no distinction of sex but shall be abolished. And from their struggle women ought surely to bring into our world of handicaps and disqualifications a fuller and more sympathetic understanding to destroy privilege, to remove inequality, and to transform democracy from a mummified fetish into a living reality.

--Editorial, September 4, 1920


So the President declines to pardon Debs [from charges brought under the Espionage Act in 1917] on the ground that it would "set a bad precedent and would encourage others to oppose the Government in the event of another war." Let us hope, charitably, that this decision, too, must be laid to the President's ill-health....

As for Debs,...he has the daily thrill of realizing that while his prosecutors have been rejected by the American people as has no other administration in history, nearly two millions of Americans voted for the man in prison garb behind the bars. Those voters did not believe Debs either disloyal or guilty.... No, Debs has nothing to destroy his soul's poise in Atlanta, where he has become the greatest influence for goodness and light.

--Editorial, December 1, 1920


Poems

AMERICA ONCE HAD HEARD that Mr. Sassoon was the poet of the war, had read him, and had found him dull. But Wilfrid Owen's poems come from England now, and they convince....

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitten as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

--Review by Mark Van Doren, May 25, 1921


Africa for the Africans--The Garvey Movement

Whatever may be said by way of criticism, this movement of the colored masses is anything but a joke. Neither Garvey nor any other human being could ever build up such a movement among the masses if it did not answer some longing of their souls. His particular movement may fail; the new racial consciousness of the Negro will endure....

It may take a hundred years or five hundred, a thousand years or five thousand, but four hundred million people can never be expected either to perish or forever to renounce their right to self-direction.

--William Pickens, December 20, 1921



In [President Warren G. Harding's] style there is pressure, ardency, effortcy, gasping, a high grunting, Cheyne-Stokes breathing. It is a style that rolls and groans, struggles and complains. It is the style of a rhinoceros liberating himself by main strength from a lake of boiling molasses.

--H.L. Mencken, "A Short View of Gamalielese," April 27, 1921


The Black-Shirt Revolution

Sunday, October 29, 1922, the strong state arrived with a bang. Its advent has been heralded in Rome by an ever-growing horde of hungry Fascisti armed with canes, table-legs from wrecked labor headquarters, burly tree-roots, rifles, and machine-guns. Its installation has been featured by the sacking of newspaper offices and Wild West shootings....

Down the streets still hurtle armed lorries, and every gutter-snipe is aboard with the tricolor, blood-lust in his eye, protected by his black shirt, his orange collar, his skull-and-cross-bones symbol, and his red fez. In the theaters the Fascist anthem is played deliriously, while "black shirts" climb upon the seats to spy out and maltreat all those who fail to lift their arms in the Fascist salute or to wear the proper smile of joy.

--Carleton Beals, on Mussolini's March on Rome, December 13, 1922



While civilization is effecting a dysgenic counter-selection of a mischievous kind, sterilizing the good stocks and encouraging the multiplication of the bad, we must be willing to make some sacrifice of comfort for the sake of eugenics.

--W.R. Inge, "Control of Parenthood--Moral Aspects," December 7, 1921


The Eruption of Tulsa

Amob of 100-per-cent Americans,...numbering more than 10,000, made a mass attack on Little Africa. Machine-guns were brought into use; eight aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section.... During the first two days...120 graves [were dug] in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No coffins were used.

--Walter F. White, June 29, 1921


Death of a Nation

Germany is today a kind of madhouse of embittered men and women.... Some readers of this paper are continually writing its editors begging that [we] be more optimistic. They are a little like Mr. [William Jennings] Bryan, who denies the principle of evolution because, as he puts it, he prefers not to believe it. These people demand optimism because they prefer optimism.... But we believe in facing facts.... [The French dismemberment of Germany] can kill the German republic. [It] can destroy German unity. [It] can starve Germans. In that sense we may witness the death of Germany.

--Editorial, October 10, 1923


A Jewish Manifesto to the Arabs

The Jewish National Council of Palestine has issued a second manifesto to the Arabs: "...We come not to dominate you,...nor yet to encroach on your own perfect and sacred rights.... [S]hall we debase our thoughts by having intention to exploit a whole nation, our very kindred, with whom we are dwelling in one country?"

--Document, December 13, 1922



Now the Presidency sinks low, indeed. We doubt if ever before it has fallen into the hands of a man so cold, so narrow, so reactionary, so uninspiring, and so unenlightened, or one who has done less to earn it, than Calvin Coolidge.

--Editorial, on the occasion of President Harding's death,
August 15, 1923


Why I Earn My Own Living

My parents declined to accept my man as a son-in-law. I would not marry him without their consent because "a bad daughter makes a bad wife"; yet I wouldn't give him up because life without him was too utterly dreary. The outcome was that he went back to the city to make a fortune as a substitute for "character," while I returned to teach school in my home town....

My man actually did make a fortune. But he married a woman who...had been working and living with him during his long, hard pull.... I had been a good daughter but had lost my lover thereby....

Then and there I renounced my allegiance to ready-made codes. I again left my home town and went away to work out my salvation or destruction....

Intense curiosity awoke in me. Always I had repressed questionings because they led to criticism of the fundamentals of society.... I got a job reading in libraries, gathering material for a writer. Seven hours a day I put in on assigned subjects and the rest of the time I read about anarchy, sex, votes-for-women, education, divorce, and similar topics. I read till my eyes puffed out and my head was splitting. I went to university lectures and also met soap-box orators. I gobbled ideas.

--Anonymous, "These Modern Women" series, December 8, 1926


The War in Passaic

The strike of the textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey, is a strike of hunger. It is the direct result of a 10 per cent slash in wages already...the lowest in American industry...cut by companies whose mills are among the richest in the country.... That is what has sent ten thousand textile workers streaming out of the mills. That is why after weeks of strike the picket line numbers thousands.... Never has a strike of such small numbers shown such mass picketing and such parades....

...[F]ourteen years [after the Lawrence strike] we see people whose real wages are but little higher.... In Passaic we have the spectacle of hundreds upon hundreds of women, the most overburdened of all the population, the mothers of large families, forced by their husbands' low wages to work in the mills. These women, who may have six, seven, and eight children, go to work at night. They work for ten hours a night, five nights a week.... Most of them have children under school age as well and these they must attend to during the day--rest or no rest....

A law was passed by the legislature of New Jersey forbidding night-work of women. A group of women mill workers appeared at Trenton and begged to have this law repealed. Of course they did. How can a family of nine people live on $20? Of course these women will clamor to be allowed to kill themselves with night-work rather than forgo the pittance which they make.

--Mary Heaton Vorse, March 17, 1926



The entire weight of a modern flapper's garments, including her shoes, totaled about 22 ounces.

--Editorial, "The Female Form Divine," November 13, 1929


Mass Movies

We photograph an echo and the rat-tat-tat of a machine-gun. The impression is physiological. Our psychological approach is on the one hand that of the great Russian scholar Pavlov,...and on the other, that of the Austrian Freud.... Take the scene in "Potemkin" where the Cossacks slowly, deliberately walk down the Odessa steps firing into the masses. By consciously combining the elements of legs, steps, blood, people, we produce an impression--of what kind?... [A]s the soldiers' boots press forward [the movie goer] physically recoils. He tries to get out of the range of the bullets. As the baby carriage of the crazed mother goes over the side of the mole he holds on to his cinema chair. He does not want to fall into the water.

Our mounting method is a further aid in achieving such effects. [In conventional films] a sled rushes down a snowy toboggan and you merely see it sliding and skidding to the bottom. We photograph the bumps, and the movie goer feels them, and hears them, too, from the orchestra pit.... Mounting--the interlacing of close-ups, of side-views, top-views, bottom-views--is the most important part of our work. A picture is either made or unmade by it.

--Sergei Eisenstein, November 9, 1927


We hail the bathing suit.... It never bags at the knees and rarely shines on the seat.... It reveals feminine softness and manly muscle. It puts the daughter of a subway motorman on the same sartorial plane as the daughter of a Pennsylvania politician.

--Editorial, July 21, 1926


Georgia: Invisible Empire State

Georgia is beautiful. Yet on its beauty rests something disturbing and strange.... Nobody seems wholly frank--neither white nor black; neither child, woman, nor man. Strangers ask each other pointed questions: "What is your name?" "Where are you going?" "What might be your business?" And they eye you speculatively. Once satisfied, the response is disconcertingly quick. They strip their souls naked before you; there is sudden friendship and lavish hospitality. And yet--yet behind all are the grim bars and barriers; subjects that must not be touched, opinions that must not be questioned. Side by side with that warm human quality called "Southern" stands the grim fact that right here beside you, laughing easily with you and shaking your hand cordially, are men who hunt men: who hunt and kill in packs, at odds of a hundred to one under cover of night. They have lynched five hundred Negroes in forty years; they have killed unnumbered white men. There must be living and breathing in Georgia today at least ten thousand men who have taken human life, and ten times that number who have connived at it.

--W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, January 21, 1925



Sacco and Vanzetti are condemned to death. Around the earth the news has winged its way as fast as light and...millions of workers now believe that justice does not exist in America, that two innocent men are going to their doom in order that a social system may be upheld, a tottering social order may triumph.

--Editorial, "Justice Underfoot," August 17, 1927


Sissified Sex Literature

Literature is becoming emasculated by being written mainly for women and largely by women. The majority of men in this country, having been co-educated by women-teachers, are unaware of this directly, but become vaguely impressed that something is the matter later in life. I call it the sissification of literature and life. The point of view of the modern "important" novel like "Ulysses" is feminine in its preoccupation with the nastiness of sex.

--William McFee, Letter to the Editor, July 20, 1927


Decree to the Army of Art

Stop marching slowly, Futurists,
Into the future--leap!

...

The streets shall be our brushes,
Our palettes shall be the squares.
The thousand-paged Book of Time
Revolution's songs shall know:
Into the streets, Futurists
Drummers and poets, go!

--Vladimir Mayakovsky, November 11, 1925


Isadora Duncan Is Dead

A ll the bare-legged girls, and the poised and natural girls with strong muscles, and strong free steps wherever they go--the girls that redeem America and make it worth while to have founded a new world, no matter how badly it was done--they all owe more to Isadora Duncan than to any other person. And the boys too that have a chance to be unafraid of beauty, to be unafraid of the natural life and free aspiration of an intelligent animal walking on the earth--all who have in any measure escaped from the rigidity and ritual of our national religion of negation, all of them owe an immeasurable debt to Isadora Duncan's dancing.

--Max Eastman, September 28, 1927


With Sandino In Nicaragua

Carleton Beals was the only foreign journalist to interview Gen. Augusto Sandino during the 1927-33 war against US military occupation. He filed regular dispatches to The Nation while traveling with the guerrillas from February 22 to April 18, 1928.

Sandino discussed the campaign.... "Yes, we owe all to our enemy.... From him we have taken everything we possess. If we had not been attacked, we would have no clothing and no ammunition, and we would have perished, for we are incapable of living by banditry. We have taken nothing from the peasantry, save that which has been tendered to us voluntarily. In El Chipote the entire countryside used to toil up to the heights with food and animals for our soldiers, laying what we needed at our feet.... [T]he countryside is with us, to almost a man. Do you think we could have existed in one fortified place for half a year with all the might of the United States against us, if we had been merely bandits?..."

At this point Sandino ordered brought in to me the various weapons taken from the American forces: Browning, Lewis, and Thompson rifles, airplane machine-guns, etc. "We now have thirty machine-guns," he declared. "Does a bandit travel around with thirty machine-guns, except in Chicago?"

--Carleton Beals, March 21, 1928



Logic is not a vice of the fundamentalist. He is against birth control. He detests the very words.... Birth control can hardly be considered without considering sex, and sex should be suppressed and ignored as far as possible.

--Freda Kirchwey,"Out of Bondage," November 21, 1928


The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

Jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul--the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world.... Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals.... Let Paul Robeson singing Water Boy, and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem...cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists...
intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.... If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

--Langston Hughes, June 23, 1926


Take Every Empty House!

In a crisis such as now confronts us, no man has a moral right to close the doors of a building which he does not use; and if he will not rent at a fair rate, the municipal government should not hesitate to take possession, fix a fair rental, and let the people in....The crisis is too acute and too near to wait for slow and formal processes. The emergency is as great, and calls for as prompt and energetic action as any that could arise out of a war. Let every empty house be opened for people who have no homes.

--Editorial, August 28, 1920


Einstein's Latest

Einstein's latest contribution is, so far as we can learn, as abstract and as "pure" as a medieval metaphysician's proof of the existence of God. It starts from certain established formulae which have reference to the electro-magnetic field and by a manipulation of these symbols, so ingenious that only four or five persons can understand them, it demonstrates that the original formulae are identical with others which refer to gravity; but never once does it emerge from abstractions....

In all humility we bow before Einstein, but if this sort of thing goes on much longer science is going to find itself ruling a realm as autonomous and remote as that of theology itself.

--Editorial, February 13, 1929



Is the country headed for calamity, with the stock market carrying the flag? We think not.

--Editorial, "After the Whirlwind," November 27, 1929

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