Saturday, May 23, 2015

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen

Why I Read It: History of any kind is always a potential read, and the 1920s are certainly an area worth wading through.

Summary: A narrative history of the 1920s.

My Thoughts: There are those books that come along once in a while that simply make you feel unworthy. I don't think I'm qualified to review this book, but I'm going to do it anyway.

The book starts in the waning days of World War I. We walked through the next decade with the author, alongside the presidents, from the red scare, to Charles Lindbergh, through the murder trials, the flagpole sitters, the biggest scandals. What I find most remarkable is how the author was able, in such a quick turnaround, to recognize the trends of the decade and report on them from the early days of the 1930s.

But he doesn't just report on them. He narrates them like they're a poem. He takes us up and down the knees of the young women of the 20s, right along with their fashion-dictated skirt lengths. He takes us up into the big bull market and brings us crashing down. He introduces us to H.L. Mencken, teaches us to love him and hate them at the same time. He picks up on the malaise of the '20s, an era we look back to as "roaring." There were high times, yes. There was a reason The Great Gatsby was produced during this time. He educates us on our America was really prepared for Prohibition, how most people even thought it was a good idea. And then he explains how it led to open gunfights in the streets of Chicago. We see the causes, we see the effects. We better understand how the 1930s began, and how our world of today was shaped.

If there was one literary tool I thought the author misfired on, it was not utilizing the wonderful picture he drew at the beginning of the book with a juxtaposed ending. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Middletown, Anywhere, USA, and join them at the beginning of the decade. We learn what they eat. We learn what they look for when they pick up a newspaper. We learn about what their daily lives are like. Bringing the book to a close in a similar fashion would've been a wonderful reading experience. Perhaps though, considering how the book ends, with the stock market crash, it simply wasn't a good idea.

And there are those funny twists of history, that make such a book such a beautiful snapshot in time. As the book ends, Charles Lindbergh is still a hero. He has married Ann Morrow, but there is no mention of a baby or a kidnapping. Lindbergh hasn't returned from Germany telling us all that the Nazis aren't all that bad. The moment of perspective makes the book. The title is perfect. When Frederick Lewis Allen was writing his epic history of the 1920s, to him it was only yesterday.

I read an old dusty paperback version of this book. I kind of wish I had a hardcover copy, one that I could pass on to my boys. The first time they get into their history studies and tell me it's boring, I plan to pull out this book and read excerpts to them to prove that no subjects are boring, only writers can be. The right author, like Allen, can make history seem not only like it was just yesterday, but that it was right here in front of you.


  1. This sounds interesting. It might be worth reading Bill Bryson's "One Summer" and comparing.


  2. I have that one, too, and am already reading it. The biggest difference is Allen's experiences, having been there in the 1920s, and Bryson looking way back through a different lens. But as they say, when we write most history we stand on the shoulders of giants, and Bryson certainly pays homage to past writers when he finds them to be useful.