This ‘Vanity Fair’ Retrospective Reveals the Spirit of the Early Decades of 20th Century America

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells is a celebration of progress, of progressives, prophecy, and prescience.

If age begets vanity, Vanity Fair is well named. It just turned 100 (well, in 2013) and celebrated the fact with a recently published anthology of pieces from its first three decades in print.

Vanity Fair was among the first magazines purchased by the soon-to-be publishing magnate Conde Nast. Originally a fashion magazine, he handed the editorial reigns over to his friend Frank Crowninshield, who quickly reshaped it into one of the preeminent magazines of literary and cultural commentary in the country. The wide range of talent it attracted – and Crowninshield solicited – is aptly reflected in this collection, which features over 70 selections from the likes of Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, Djuna Barnes, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, and many more.

There’s more to a collection such as this than its whimsical entertainment value, however. It offers an unparalleled popular chronicle of social change, dictated not through the dry narration of a historian or the skewed lens of a politician, but through the real-time reflections, fears, dreams, hopes, cynicism and satire and inspirational creative content of those living and imbibing daily the spirit of a different era.

There is the ascent of New York as a city worthy of the global arts community, its maturity from provincial backwater to cosmopolis ably chronicled in dramatic prose by Frederick James Gregg (“The World’s New Art Centre”). There is women’s equality, embraced, in typically paternalistic fashion, by the likes of Hyman Strunsky (“Are Odd Women Really Odd?”) and, more empowering, Dorothy Rothschild Parker (“Why I Haven’t Married”; “Men: A Hate Song”). There are surprises for the contemporary reader. Stephen Leacock, taught to Canadian schoolchildren as a quaint, jolly satirist, pens a militaristic ode to war and Canadian empire, thinly hinting that the US should join the manly war effort against Germany (but don’t worry, there’s a sampling of his satire here, too).

Period-works are valuable insofar as they reveal the spirit of their age, and the spirit of this age was expansively accepting of a tongue-in-cheek, biting, satirical irony. Today’s world, by comparison, suffers from a sanctimoniously sclerotic seriousness. Robert C. Benchley’s “The Art of Being a Bohemian” or “An Afghan in America” (attributed to Syyed Shaykh Achmed Abdullah) would have no place in today’s world. They would be called out on Twitter for working with stereotypes; memed by ThinkProgress; castigated for false class consciousness by Occupy Wall Street’s lingering malingerers, run through the racial lens by somebody purporting to be dangerous, and then the whole drama would be recycled IN BIG CAPS by PolicyMic.

No, today’s world is undoubtedly too sensitive for the wit of the past century. A collection such as this reveals something more than just the ideas and concerns of a previous era – it depicts the very sensibilities and zeitgeist that shaped it.

It’s a celebration of progress, of progressives, of prophecy, of prescience. Robert E. Sherwood’s speculations on what it would be like to live in a society of people whose primary source of education is television, intended as humour, proves to actually not be far off the mark. Arthur Symons soberly compares and contrasts the effects of opium and hashish (not bad for 1918!). Articles such as this offer a useful reminder that the moralistic drug panics and prison-industrial complex were yet decades away, so it was still possible to discuss drugs with the same artful poise with which today’s generation discusses the relative merits of merlot versus malbec. One is tempted to wonder whose era was the more enlightened.

And there’s poetry – stirring, beautiful poetry. There’s Dorothy Rothschild Parker in the early years; Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes in the later years. There’s also E E Cummings, but here he offers satire, not poetry (then again, after reading his piece “When Calvin Coolidge Laughed” one can’t help but wonder whether satire is poetry, after all). Then there’s John Maynard Keynes writing about the value of money and the banking system; and Thomas Mann writing about motion pictures, for which he feels both love and contempt (“They are not art, they are life and actuality.”). There are intellectuals (Bertrand Russell on behaviourism theory), there are writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marvelous piece depicting a bantering conversation between the various articles in a magazine), and there are movie stars (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., writing a character sketch of his then-wife Joan Crawford).

With such a collection, it’s hard to pick favourites. For prose, mine would be a toss-up between A. A. Milne’s (yes, of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) hilariously self-deprecating piece about the difficulty of writing a bio for his press agent (“My Autobiography”), or Thomas Wolfe’s moving narrative “The Bums at Sunset”, which chronicles the gritty reality of 1930s transients on the road, while at the same time painting of them a beautiful and romantic portrait of the stoic virtue of freedom.

The collection is one for those who are fans of the era, with selections ranging from 1914 to 1936. In 1936 the magazine folded, or more accurately was folded into Conde Nast’s other very successful magazine Vogue. In 1983 it was relaunched as a distinct publication, and since 1992 has been published under the editorship of Graydon Carter, who also edited this anniversary collection of the magazine’s earlier material.

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells is an entertaining read. The short selections make it an easy book to dip into here and there as time permits; the pieces chosen are usually entertaining, although one must appreciate their era and style. In this respect the book offers an excellent glimpse into the popular culture of a previous age, and often reveals that not so much in fact has really changed. Writers will be writers – and satirists, and poets, and essayists and more – and this collection ably conveys the creative and intellectual drive that underpinned an era, and which continues to influence, in many ways, the present day.

RATING 7 / 10