The roaring '20s represents one of the most dramatic and energetic decades in American history. Arriving at the start of Prohibition, the '20s were a time of significant economic growth and urban development. As World War I soldiers still trickled home from overseas through the first few years of the decade, in the center of this chaos and bustle were the novelists, playwrights and poets who faithfully recorded the excesses and intrigues of the jazz age.
Age of Miracles, Age of Excess
One of the most iconic American writers of the '20s is F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose depictions of lavish parties in the novel “The Great Gatsby” became synonymous with the era. Although from lower middle class origins, Fitzgerald gained access to the privileged world of the wealthy and elite thanks to his military service and compelling personality. This gave him a unique vantage point for capturing some of the decadence of the age in his own novels and stories, says Sarah Laskow of the Smithsonian Magazine. In writing the character Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald recreated a common stereotype of the time -- namely the profiteering bootleg gangster who made millions distributing illegal alcohol during the prohibition. Thinking back on his experience of the '20s years later in his story “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald described it as “an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess…"
The Lost Generation
For both soldiers and American society as a whole, the First World War represented a horrific revelation on the destructive powers of new technology. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who served during the war, were known as the so-called “lost generation” in part because of their disillusionment as a result of serving during the war. Hemingway in particular was a major writer during the '20s, during which he authored two of his most famous novels, “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms.”
Babbitts and Bohemians
While several writers of the '20s wrote about the electric atmosphere of city life, Sinclair Lewis turned the lens on small-town life in his novel “Main Street.” Published in 1920, “Main Street” offered an unwavering look at small-town America at the time based on Lewis’ own experiences growing up in a small Midwestern town. In his work throughout the decade, Lewis developed his critique of materialism in middle-class American life with a sardonic eye in several novels, such as “Babbitt.”
The roaring '20s were also a thriving period for women American writers, who enjoyed increased visibility as a result of the efforts of the women’s suffrage movement. Willa Cather -- whose novels about American frontier life established her as a leading author of the early 1900s -- won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her war novel “One of Ours." The poet and essayist Gertrude Stein was also influential to the development of literature of the era, encouraging not only American writers but also several international painters from her salon in Paris.