Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Originally published in 1931, Only Yesterday has aged remarkably well. This cultural portrait of manic Twenties America as seen from the depressive early Thirties remains an essential text for anyone who wants to understand the texture of life among (mostly white, mostly middle-class) Americans in the 1920s. And within that parenthesis is the rub. For Allen largely concerns himself with the white urban bourgeoisie, and his book seriously slights African-American culture, completely ignoring the Harlem Renaissance writers and only superficially mentioning jazz. The white working class is likewise marginalized, portrayed alternately as an either too-violent or too-complacent mob. This is not a work of 'history from above,' and Allen should be commended for breaking with that long-standing tradition, but nor is it Zinn-like 'history from below'; it's definitely written from and to the Oreo-white 'middle' of Twenties and Thirties America.  These blind spots are mostly outweighed, however, by the book's journalistic immediacy. Penned soon after the facts it records, this is a 'first rough draft of history' that effectively puts the reader inside the 1920s, when Prohibition reigned and Al Capone ruled, when business boosterism reached levels of comic absurdity and 'Babbittry' became a word. Allen does a surprisingly large amount of debunking, for the myth of the 'Roaring Twenties' seems already to have been well-established by 1931, but Only Yesterday, with its manic energy--this is a work of nonfiction as readable and fast-paced as a best-seller (at least until the latter pages bog down in the minutia of the 1929 Wall Street crash)--also plays a part in the solidification of that myth. Yes, Lindbergh is debunked as a mere "stunt flyer," but the discussions of fads and fashions read like a long series of footnotes to Fitzgerald--and remain highly valuable as such. Long shelves of books have subsequently been written about topics that Allen (often rather impressively) dispatches in a page or paragraph, and as a popular history of the decade, Allen's work has been superseded by Geoffrey Perrett's amazingly good 1982 book, America in the Twenties, which deserves to be considered the standard comprehensive book on its topic, but Allen's book is valuable today not so much for its pioneering role in history writing (Perrett writes that "Only Yesterday virtually created popular social history in the English-speaking world."), as for its telling anecdotes and its inclusion of details that other historians exclude, such as the detailed description of how to start a Model T Ford, a complicated process that involved two controls on the dash, a crank on the front end, and a lot of luck. It's been almost a century since Allen's 'yesterday,' but in passages like this his book still has the power to take us there.

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