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Book Review – Rebellion Against Victorianism – The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920’s America

Book Review – Rebellion Against Victorianism – The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920’s America

The 1920s in America was a decade of rebellion, reform, and reaction as traditional Victorian values came under attack from all sides. When various groups of intellectuals, blacks, feminists, and dissatisfied economic and political groups assaulted on Victorianism.

Through a descriptive writing style, Stanley Coben goes through the reasons for the tremendous cultural changes during the 1920s and explains them historically. He begins with the concept of Victorian “character,” which is a familiar concept for Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A character that, as Coben himself defines, was dependably self-controlled, punctual, orderly, hardworking, conscientious, sober, respectful of other Victorians’ property rights, ready to postpone immediate gratifications for long-term goals, pious toward a usually friendly God, a believer in the truth of the Bible, oriented strongly toward home and family, honorable in relations with other Victorians, anxious for self-improvement in a fashion which might appear compulsive to modern observers, and patriotic.

In the following chapters, he illustrates how intelligentsia developed, how intellectuals’ values were changed over time and how it led them inevitably into conflict and then he describes vividly the events that supported the growth of this intellectual subculture. Making it easier to understand he puts the events in a frame of four particularly consequential ones.

The book pays a special attention to cultural matters, showing how art forms of the ’20s-like jazz or the novels of Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis-were part of the rebellion. It devotes one whole chapter to describe how the steady flow of black migrants north caused demographic changes and suggested opportunities to them to improve their status and enforce their activities. And then Jazz as one of the most destructive activities of blacks was there to stay as Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, asserted in 1924:

“Jazz has come to stay …and it is useless to fight against it. Already its vigor, its new vitality, is beginning to manifest itself.

The Negro musicians of America are playing a great part in this change. …They are not hampered by traditions or conventions, with their new ideas, their constant experiments, they are causing new blood to flow in the veins of music. In America, I think, lies perhaps the greatest hope in the whole musical world.”

Going through feminist movements and the changes in economic and political order of the country that set the scene for the rebellion, at the end there is a fascinating chapter about the Ku Klux Klan which reveals the Klan as the most visible and powerful guardian of Victorianism during the 1920s.

What makes the whole more thoughtful is the new perspective that Coben brings to show how the contradictions that were the trigger for the rebellion in 1920s still exist, the ones that brought together workers, farmers, socialists, ethnic groups, intellectuals, black leaders, and many feminists.

Coben’s study is of great value particularly for its perfect historical analysis. In fact it has got a refreshing change from most boring history texts. Illustrating the relationship between culture and politics through describing the process of a phenomenon happened in the history of a country like America, he gives the reader a real example that can be contemplated and compared with similar issues. The process through which Coben leads the reader to come to some conclusions and think about present-day issues is designed skillfully and at the same time the way he addresses the existing problems forcefully is appreciable. However it could be better if the idea suggested at the end was developed more to give more evidences to the readers and let them make better judgments. Nevertheless, Rebellion Against Victorianism certainly receives careful attention from scholars and students interested in the intersections between culture and politics, as well as the wider concern about the similar contemporary problems. It can also be a good supplementary text for use in undergraduate courses on 20th-century American history or in American studies courses focusing on twentieth-century cultural development. It will be unfortunate if it doesn’t trigger or contribute to a discussion about the effective role of cultural changes in politics and examining the same issues in the present society.

Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America. New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991. 242 pp.