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The power of the pen

The sharpest pen of the 1920s belonged to H.L. Mencken, who was the Jon Stewart of his generation. As a Baltimore newspaperman and editor of the American Mercury magazine, Mencken took on the backward establishment of America. He defined a puritan as someone with "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy."

Other writers stirred the dark coals of the happily roaring '20s:

- F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby (1925) about the hopeless social climbing of an also-ran who could never reach success because glamor isn't life.

- Theodore Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy (1925), a novel about the murder of a pregnant girl by her social-climbing boyfriend.

- The poet e.e. cummings wrote verse so direct that it didn't need capitalization.

- Ernest Hemingway stripped away all the Victorian prose and wrote in deceptively simple English. His A Farewell to Arms (1929), a novel paralleling his own experience in World War I, combined toughness with feeling.

- Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919) contained the touchingly pathetic stories of small-town Americans lost in their own private suffering.

- Sinclair Lewis wrote Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922) about the limits of sophistication in early 1900s America. The character Babbitt became a synonym for the shortsighted, self-serving boosterish encountered in any club or city.

- William Faulkner described the South, prejudices and all, in The Sound and the Fury (1929).

On the whole, the writers of the 1920s were surprisingly gloomy for a roaring decade. Maybe they saw trouble coming, or perhaps they just valued honesty more than uplift. So did the many Americans who chose to read their books. Many 1920's authors were called the Lost Generation (1925) because they had lost their innocence in the fires of World War I. In a sense, the writers of the '20s were the worthy successors to the early-1900s muckrakers. Unlike the early muckrakers, however, these writers were living in a political world that, for the time being, valued wealth more than progress.


Question: What was the spirit of critically acclaimed writers of the 1920s?

Answer: Writers generally reflected a gloomy questioning of society.


Frank Lloyd Wright (1928) was something of an architectural poet. If architecture is frozen music, he made that music new, stripping off tired classical references to build for a new world.

The soaring Chrysler Building and Empire State Building in New York were further proof of late-1920s architectural exuberance. The International style began to emphasize glass and light as modern building techniques allowed more openness.

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