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Classic Recommendations: Tales of the Jazz Age

By Megan Powell, Lucy Carr, Yagmur Dur and Hannah Spruce

The Jazz Age, also referred to as the ‘Roaring 20s’, had an enormous impact on culture, art and literature across the United States. This infamous movement began at the end of WW2 and lasted until 1928, before the onset of The Great Depression, and was precipitated by the migration of African American jazz musicians from New Orleans to major northern cities which led to the spread and popularity of Jazz music. Literature from this period reflects the duality of the age; the exhilaration, fast-paced indulgence and relative prosperity of the period, but also the equally rife rising inequality, racism and hedonism. Below we have some of our favourite novels which masterfully capture the complexities and nuances of what it was like to live through the Jazz Age.

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, published in 1922, is primarily set during the 1910s leading up to the United States’ Prohibition era and the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. The Beautiful and Damned follows the story of Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert's turbulent and complicated marriage. Both Anthony Patch, a socialite and presumptive heir to a tycoon's fortune and Gloria Gilbert, a professional beauty and the darling of the Jazz Age, fall victim to the glittering decadence of their era - a mistake made by their successor, Jay Gatsby. The couple's relationship reveals the most prevalent theme of the post-war period and early twentieth century, wealth and waste. Fitzgerald's characters are entangled in romantic ideals birthed by a dangerously blinding hope to achieve the American Dream. Anthony and Gloria's turmoil exemplify the depressing cycle of dissatisfaction and the inevitable failure of the American Dream. The Beautiful and Damned exposes the corruptness of the post-war decadence, dissipation of the rich and the decline of social values – all in the name of possessing the flourishing wealth of the booming decade. Thought to be inspired by Fitzgerald's tumultuous marriage to his wife Zelda, Anthony and Gloria evoke a brilliant portrayal of life without purpose, a generation without a moral compass and the personal indulgence and self-destructive excess of the rich.

The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein reinterprets the autobiographical form, with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by offering a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective of the vibrant and transformative art scene of Paris from the early 1900s to after the First World War. The reader follows Stein and her partner Alice, as they travel around Europe and offer interesting perspectives of these countries during this period. However, the text is largely rooted in the fascinating setting of 27 rue de Fleurus, which brings together the talents of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott. Fitzgerald and Henri Matisse, among others. Discussions of key paintings and the emergence of Cubism represents the societal shifts which were occurring through the medium of art before the impact of these individuals were fully appreciated. The autobiography offers stark and personal reflections of these meetings and Stein’s relationships with these illustrious artists, yet a distance is maintained between the reader and the narrative which conserves the elusiveness of this period. The non-linear narrative and the myriad of people who Stein meets and engages with, emphasises the transformative nature of the early 1900s, yet despite her many acquaintances, Stein is not always popular, and she often ignites arguments due to her honest opinions of the art and the artists in her social circle. Stein’s writing is often blunt and intertwined with sarcasm and humour which elevates the text and solidifies its position as a non-fiction classic.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises was a major novel by the infamous Ernest Hemingway. Set in 1920’s Europe, the novel follows a young group of expatriates, advocating the Lost Generation group. Hemingway presents strong themes of emptiness, insecurity, emasculation and destruction while commenting on the evolving nature of generations. World War I paved the way for a generation of despair and cause of individuals to enter the lifestyle of partying, epitomising the prosperous 1920’s. Hemingway uses the characters Jake and Brett and the pair allow for much of the novel's themes to be highlighted. Hemingway transports readers to 1920’s Paris, vividly exploring the Jazz Age in the Roaring Twenties. The coming-of-age story depicts the reaction of the war and the disillusionment of the Lost Generation. Due to the sensitivity, profanity and promiscuous themes, The Sun Also Rises was banned in Boston 1930, Ireland in 1953 and CA in 1960. The most significant ban came from the Nazis in 1933 Germany, who burnt the book. However, Hemingway’s classic remains one of the most influential pieces of literature.



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