We’re living in trying times, but they’re not entirely unknown, or even all that new. Almost exactly a hundred years ago, our world went through another pandemic: the Spanish flu. But following that dark period came the Roaring 20s, a time of thriving economies, endless opportunities, and of course, excellent literature.
As the end of the COVID-19 pandemic looms closer and people wonder whether we’re about to enter a boom era of our own, we’ve decided to take a look back at the best books set during or about the Roaring 20s.
The Sun Also Rises
Jake Barnes is a journalist living in Paris. He’s constantly pickled, forever impotent, and his adoration for Lady Brett Ashley is rarely reciprocated. Through boozy trips to the French countryside and the Spanish plains, they encounter a series of misadventures that question their own morality.
Most place Gatsby top of the Roaring ‘20s list, and with good reason, but Hemingway’s debut makes a strong argument for being the most expansive novel of the era. By taking in both sides of the Atlantic through American expats in Europe, we’re privy to the traumas of WWI and the heady expat lifestyles of Paris and Pamplona; the wanton disregard for emotions; and the ennui that eventually gets us all.
The Great Gatsby
At a time when the country is booming, drinks are flowing and sex is everywhere, the mysterious Jay Gatsby is throwing the most lavish Roaring 20s parties at his Long Island mansion. But who is he, really, and where did he get his wealth? And when the gorgeous Daisy Buchanan returns, conflicts between the old and nouveau riche come head-to-head.
Oft-considered the quintessential novel of the Roaring 20s, Gatsby pulled the lid back on the overly-excessive Jazz Age, painting a picture of the American Dream gone rotten and the superficialities of sybarite lifestyles. It’s still without parallel, although Fitzgerald’s further Roaring ‘20s works The Beautiful and Damned and Tender Is the Night give it a run for its money.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Lorelei Lee is a little girl from Arkansas who just so happens to be the perfect woman for her times. From her gold-digging antics and flapper sensibility, to her champagne and precious stone obsession and her jaunts across Europe and Hollywood, there’s nothing this strong-willed yet achingly innocent lady won’t do to keep herself forever in the spotlight.
Both a pastiche and celebration of the then-current era, Blondes was a raging success at its time, spinning out sequels, big-screen adaptations with Marilyn Monroe—and of course, inspiring a new breed of empowered women by telling them it’s alright to be feminine while also staking your claim to the world.
Stuck between the slump of a failing empire and the optimism for a new century, a group of British society types stumble their way through the lavish parties, gossipy newsrooms, strapping sport events and teeming hotel lounges that defined the London Mayfair set. From struggling artists to snooty aristocrats, Waugh spares no expense in this biting satire.
The title is no joke – these are some of the vilest bodies you’ll encounter; depraved, superficial souls with not a care for anything but climbing that social ladder. The Roaring 20s weren’t resigned just to the US, and across the pond, the British experienced their own rollicking era, torn between the ingenuity of the time and the frivolities that dared destroy it.
The subtitle "A Biography of the Roaring ‘20s" should tell you a lot here. Lucy Moore isn’t interested in the bigger picture; she’s a social person and is endlessly fascinated by those that gave the era its incandescent spirit: Chaplin and Fitzgerald, Capone and Dempsey, the big-hitters and major players who paved paths during the Jazz Age, or died trying.
It’s far from a scholarly analysis, but rather a series of anecdotal snippets that form synecdoche of the era. If you’re looking for a gossipy recap of all that happened, the highs and lows of the age of invention, plus all those juicy tales of the debauched, you’ve come to the right place.
The stereotypical image of the Roaring ‘20s: a confident woman in a strapping, low-cut dress, flapper hat worn proudly, dancing erotically to a jazzy beat. Women came to the forefront during the age of invention, with names such as Coco Chanel, Zelda Fitzgerald and Clara Bow still whispered about as lifelong inspirations.
Historian Zeitz examines how frustration with Victorian ideals gave birth to Jazz Age rebellion, bucking the system and creating a new breed of strong, empowered females. It sadly didn’t last, falling under its own weight during the Great Depression, but those feminist ideals created a spark that still burns, an inspiration to contemporary women everywhere.
Alcohol fueled the 1920s, but the reality is it shouldn’t have – Prohibition in the United States was introduced in 1920 and didn’t end well into 1933, meaning anything that was consumed during the era was in fact, illegal. But maybe that’s what made it so appealing?
Last Call delves deep into that question, examining both sides of the story, from the temperance obsessed to the bootleggers who established the first speakeasies. Highly readable, Okrent masterfully weaves a narrative that examines the contradictions of the early century, offering up hope in the many achievements that came about from such a strange crusade.
New World Coming
The birth of Hollywood and highways as far as the eye can see; a car in every garage and planes sailing overhead; there was no better time to be alive, an age when inventions were birthed literally overnight and celebrity was just a step away.
Miller’s non-fiction tome is the preeminent history of the Roaring ‘20s, showcasing how a minor movement in America eventually influenced on the world. Easily readable but peppered with footnotes for those who like to obsess, the narrative-like form spins a tale that takes you through every year in the decade and its fascinating ramifications on modern day.