Clash of Cultures

United States History

Some Americans expressed their discontent with the character of modern life in the 1920s by focusing on family and religion, as an increasingly urban, secular society came into conflict with older rural traditions. Fundamentalist preachers such as Billy Sunday, for example, a professional baseball player turned evangelist, provided an outlet for many who yearned for a return to a simpler past.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of this yearning was the fundamentalist crusade which pitted biblical interpretation against the Darwinian science of biological evolution. In the 1920s, bills to prohibit the teaching of evolution began appearing in Midwestern and Southern state legislatures. Leading this crusade, improbably, was the aging William Jennings Bryan, who skillfully reconciled his anti-evolutionary activism with his earlier radical economic proposals, saying that evolution "by denying the need or possibility of spiritual regeneration, discourages all reforms."

The issue came to a climax in 1925 in Tennessee, when the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the nations's first anti-evolution law. A young high school teacher, John Scopes, went on trial for teaching evolution in a biology class. In a case that drew intense publicity, Bryan, representing the state, was subjected to a withering examination by defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Scopes was convicted but released on a technicality, and Bryan died a few days after the trial ended.

Another example of a fundamental clash of cultures -- but one with far greater national consequences -- was Prohibition. In 1919, after almost a century of agitation, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted, prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition, although intended to eliminate the saloon and the drunkard from American society, served to create thousands of illegal drinking places called "speakeasies," and a new and increasingly profitable form of criminal activity -- the transportation of liquor, known as "bootlegging." Prohibition, sometimes referred to as the "noble experiment," was repealed in 1933.

The common thread linking such disparate phenomenon as the resurgence of fundamentalist religion and Prohibition was a reaction to the social and intellectual revolution of the time -- variously referred to as the Jazz Age, the era of excess, the Roaring '20s. Many were shocked by the changes in the manners, morals and fashion of American youth, especially on college campuses. Among many intellectuals, H.L. Mencken, a journalist and critic who was unsparing in denouncing sham and venality in American life, became a hero. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the energy, turmoil and disillusion of the decade in his short stories and novels such as The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald was part of a small but influential movement of writers and intellectuals dubbed the "Lost Generation," who were shocked by the carnage of World War I and dissatisfied with what they perceived to be the materialism and spiritual emptiness of life in the United States. Many of them -- such as their most celebrated member, writer Ernest Hemingway -- traveled to Europe and lived as emigrés in Paris.

African Americans also engaged this spirit of national self-examination. Between 1910 and 1930, a huge black migration from the South to the North took place, peaking in 1915-1916. Most settled in urban areas such as Detroit and Chicago, which held greater opportunities for jobs and personal freedom than the rural South. In 1910 W.E.B. DuBois and other intellectuals founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which helped black Americans gain a national voice that would grow in importance with the passing years.

At the same time, an African-American literary and artistic movement, termed the "Harlem Renaissance," emerged. Like the "Lost Generation," these writers, such as Langston Hughes, rejected middle-class values and conventional literary forms, even as they addressed the realities of American life.

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Source: U.S. Department of State