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Monday, July 30, 2007

Two Things about Google

posted by on July 30 at 10:21 AM

1) Google was a well known word back in the 1920s: Barney Google was a popular comic strip. *

2) It works on my cell phone’s predictive text without any futzing and editing. It just comes right up.

* I am reading a great history book about the 1920s called Only Yesterday (recommended to me by my friend Martian Face Jenny.)

The book was written in 1931 by a sarcastic, casually intellectual Harvard grad named Frederick Lewis Allen. (He was a staffer at the Atlantic Monthly and editor in chief at Harper’s.)

President Warren G. Harding was the original G.W. Bush. Allen trashes the aww-gee-shucks Harding for his habit of butchering the English language (“Normalcy” is the most famous example, but there’s also “brigadier generalcy,” “non-involvment” in European affairs, “adhesion” to a treaty, and “betrothment” for betrothal).

More noteworthy are Harding’s endless, nearly incomprehensible string of corruption scandals: Secret, no-bid government oil contracts for pay offs to Harding’s GOP etc.

And my God, check this (eerily familiar) passage on Harding’s corrupt AG, Harry Daugherty:

Could there be more deliberate implication that Harding’s Attorney General could not tell the truth for fear of blackening the reputation of [the President.] Call Daugherty’s silence, if you wish, the silence of loyalty.

Allen’s sophisticated account (he knowingly condemns the plagues of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and the Red Scare’s attack on the First Amendment as if he were a 1990s grad student ), makes it clear that our modern world (mass culture; fashion as a commodity; aggressive advertising; chain stores; buying on credit; abstract Wall Street capitalism; tabloid sex scandals; prepared food; do-me feminism; teenagers; sexual liberation; movie stars; pop psychology; car culture; and reactionary moralism) emerged in the 1920s in an unprecedented jump cut from the previous, provincial and comparatively static decades of U.S. history.

I used to think contemporary culture began in the mid-1960s, but the radio is the Internet and the 1920s are the template where we still live like mice.

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our modern world ...(snip)... emerged in the 1920s in an unprecedented jump cut from the previous, provincial and comparatively static decades of U.S. history.

Dare I suggest that the "provincial and comparatively static decades of U.S. history" only appear so to you because you know less about them.

I think the first historical era I really dug into was the Restoration, and I was immediately struck by how many Restoration analogues there were for contemporary West Coast American culture. I actually argued in a response paper that several of the periodicals of the day actually ran close parallels in content and tone to the Stranger. But then as I went further into various periods I found similar parallels in any era I bothered to look closely at. So, for example, you can call New York City in 1860 a lot of things, but "provincial and comparatively static" would not be on the list.

Posted by Judah | July 30, 2007 10:36 AM

Yes, the return of Martian Face Jenny. Bring that strip back!

Posted by Paulus | July 30, 2007 10:38 AM

What Judah said. What makes Allen special -- and that book was a huge bestseller in its day -- is his breezy style, from just about the pinnacle of snappy American journalistic style. He's as good a writer as Hemingway, in his milieu. Be sure to read his followup, Since Yesterday too.

Next you'll be reading Bernard DeVoto, another Harper's editor, whose essays there are collected in The Easy Chair, long out of print but cheap to find. Then Mencken, then Mark Twain, and you'll finally start to understand what an American is.

Posted by Fnarf | July 30, 2007 10:47 AM

Dude, have you read Trow, yet? The template may be 20s (I think you're right about that) but TV changed the meaning of everything within it.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | July 30, 2007 10:58 AM

Wow, that sounds like an awesome book. Thanks for the heads up!

Posted by arduous | July 30, 2007 11:25 AM

There's also the 1920's Laugh-Out-Loud Cats.

Posted by Aexia | July 30, 2007 12:50 PM

Not to mention that Prohibition created a permanent criminal industry in this country that exists today.

Posted by --MC | July 30, 2007 1:43 PM

Aexia- Thanks for the '20s LOLCats! It's teh rad. And the rest of you thinky cats- Congratulations on the successful display of your practiced intellects! I am impressed!

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