Friday, July 22, 2016

Mount TBR #32

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1900-1950 – Frederick Lewis Allen

Frederick Lewis Allen edited Harper’s Magazine from 1941 to 1953. In the early Thirties, he found a formula: writing pop history by the decade. His big seller Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Twenties persuaded more than one generation to divide history in terms of decades. Only Yesterday was so readable for the general audience that it was assigned in high school history classes, at least up the early 1970s. Then Since Yesterday: America in the 1930s was in print for a very long time as well, though not quite as successful. Both books covered big social and economic trends along with fads, customs, ideas and inventions in accessible journalistic prose. Allen modestly avoided calling himself an “historian” and preferred “retrospective journalist.”

The Big Change was his last book, written before he passed away in 1954. Allen describes the economic and social changes in the first half of the busy American 20th century. Having written a book about plutocrat Pierpont Morgan, Allen starts this one on familiar ground, describing the lavish lifestyle of the upper tenth of one-percent and their predictable ways of blowing through money, mainly with building and furnishing tasteless houses with gaudy ornamentation. His thesis is that a “momentum of change” occurred mainly through the advent of a really big federal government, in addition to private car ownership, the Depression, WWII, and the mixed responses to the US becoming to be the only superpower.

Always his lively prose sparkles. His stance is as objective as a middle-class, eastern, urban, educated (Groton and Harvard, no less) journalist is going to be for that time. Given that time, he devotes not much attention to religious, racial, ethnic, geographical and cultural tensions and grievances in US society. He relies much on secondary sources. He likes FDR like a Democratic liberal should. He boosts the free market system like a Republican nationalist. I think for thoughtful readers who want an informal primer on this slice of US history, this would be a worth-while book. Just cut slack for sweeping generalizations and flimsy evidence.

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