Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941.

Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. – book reviews

John Robert Greene

Those teaching survey courses in modern U.S. history were glad to see the release of the Norton’s Twentieth Century America series. Previously released volumes by John Cooper, John Patrick Diggins, and John Morton Blum proved to be workable and worthwhile syntheses of the Progressive Era, World War II and the Cold War, and the sixties. Michael E. Parrish, author of a biography of Felix Frankfurter and a study of securities regulation during the New Deal, has completed the series with his Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941.

There is no great innovative thesis to be had here. The closest that Parrish comes is in setting up the cause-and-effect relationship between the prosperity of the 1920s and the disaster of the 1930s: “in these years, Americans had to cope both with unprecedented economic prosperity and the worst depression in their history. Which condition produced the greater collective anxiety remains an open question” (x). This thesis does not pervade the book as a unifying theme and it is presented much better in its original form, in William Leuchtenburg’s landmark Perils of Prosperity. There is no scene setting, no attempt to try to offer an argument as to how World War I caused the “Anxious Decades.” In terms of interest groups, labor gets fuller treatment than women, and black nationalism gets only a few disappointing pages. More important, Parrish offers his reader little evidence that he is aware of the new ideas put forth by historians of the 1980s in any of these fields.

Despite the fact that the book is not a weighty tome expounding on the historiographic complexities of the period, Anxious Decades is worthwhile. Parrish’s forte is in his storytelling about the picturesque personalities of the period. Presenting little that is new for the specialist, this is, nonetheless, a fascinating, often gripping read. The overstudied characters of Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and – finally, for a survey text – Hoover actually come alive for the reader. In his chapter titled “Cult of Personalities,” clearly the best and most innovative in the book, he offers a fascinating viewpoint of how the people of the twenties turned all of these people into media celebrities – the United States’ first foray into the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” The analysis of the New Deal is as thesis-neutral as they come and Parrish’s clear rundown of the alphabet soup agencies will make sense to the beginner. The specialist will be grateful for the superb index and the up-to-date bibliographical essay.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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