Cynthia Haven: Two novels from the same year. One ends with marriage, the other with death – the comic and tragic sides of an era. Can you give us a little of the historical context that would help us understand the 1920s?
Gavin Jones: The decade began in turmoil, with the end of World War I and with a mood of socialist revolution in the air. It ended with the Stock Market crash of 1929.
It was very much a boom time. A time of intense competition as well. In a way, American society began to look like it does today in the twenties.
Business became a kind of religion. By the end of the twenties, over 40 percent of the world’s manufactured goods came from the U.S. The U.S. became an enormous global power during this decade.
Mass advertising campaigns began to dominate people’s lives. The most famous advertisement was for Listerine. Its slogan has become a cliché: “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” In other words, halitosis was pitched as the cause of people’s social failure.
The salesman became a key figure. Fitzgerald’s father had been a salesman for Proctor and Gamble, and was sacked when Fitzgerald was 12. Fitzgerald described it as the central crisis of his youth, and became very interested in male failure in his writings.
Henry Ford became the cultural hero of this new business culture. He claimed to make a new car every 10 seconds. The road began to take over from the railroad. There were 23 million cars in 1929, up from 7 million in 1919. Perhaps the most important development was rise of the closed car. It led to all sorts of new freedom – it provided a space where young people could become free from parental supervision.
Haven: Much like the internet has created a new social space today.
Jones: Kind of like that, yes. It’s a good comparison.
Haven: I remember a rather so-so movie about the era, The Yellow Rolls Royce, written by the playwright Terence Rattigan. The plot turned on an illicit affair that took place in the car of the title.
Jones: Religious figures and social leaders saw the car as “a house of prostitution on wheels,” according to one judge. It was a huge cultural shift to suddenly have all of these automobiles buzzing around society.
Haven: And wasn’t there a yellow car in The Great Gatsby?
Jones: The authorities are able to track Gatsby down because of his yellow car. Initially all cars were black. By the mid-20s, however, new finishing processes for cars led to a rainbow of colors.
Haven: The Great Gatsby ends with a car accident. Oddly, the era marks the beginning of the car accident, and car fatalities, as a commonplace occurrence.
Jones: It is very much a new thing. It’s the emergence of modernity. These novels describe a certain kind of modernity in which the fate of humans is intertwined with machines. You can see it just the role of the accident – people are very much more prone to accident rather than intention. There’s a loss of agency with the growth of industrial power.
Meanwhile, a self-conscious, isolated intellectual class came to the fore in America: H.L. Mencken was a huge figure. Debunking popular myths was a popular pastime in the era, so intellectuals like Mencken would criticize bankruptcy of mass culture.