- - Sunday, June 14, 2015



By Eric Burns

Pegasus, $27.95, 348 pages

Pick a year, any year, and it will likely contain a goodly number of eventful happenings. If that year ends in zero, that likelihood increases, not least because it is the start of the decade. But in picking the one that set off the fabled Roaring Twenties, former NBC correspondent and “Fox News Watch” host Eric Burns has really hit the mother lode. The onset of Prohibition in January, then continuing on in April to the murders for which anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti would be executed seven years later — surely the decade’s radical cause celebre — and much, much more before an election in November which would usher in the most scandal-ridden administration Washington has ever seen. Yes, if ever a year could deserve that overused sobriquet seminal, 1920 was it.

Like all good writers, though, Mr. Burns does not allow the confines of his chosen year to be a straitjacket. So although he begins with 1920s violent bombing of the Morgan Bank right in the heart of New York’s downtown financial district, which killed 38 people and injured more than 400, he puts it in context by describing two explosions in as many months in the spring of 1919 on the R Street NW Washington porch of President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, R. Mitchell Palmer.

These assassination attempts, both of which killed the perpetrator rather than the intended victim, led to the so-called Palmer Raids against American Communists and Anarchists. Mr. Burns shines a valuable light on the beginnings of domestic terrorism in the United States, a too little remembered chapter in our history, which continues to resonate: “What happened on Wall Street during the noon hour on September 16, was the first terrorist attack ever to occur in the United States and it would be the most destructive until the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, when 168 people lost their lives and more than 600 others were injured.”

Mr. Burns details a convincing case that throughout his chosen year and into the first quarter of the next, the de facto president of the United States was a woman. Due to Wilson’s incapacity following his stroke in September 1919, the first lady’s fierce loyalty to her husband and determination to protect his privacy as well as his health led her to assume in all but name those presidential functions that were absolutely necessary.

With a nice sense of irony, Mr. Burns puts a particular twist on the first election in which a constitutional amendment had given American women the right to vote: “On November Second, women in all forty-eight states joined men in voting Mrs. Wilson out of office. Most of them didn’t know that’s what they were doing, but it wouldn’t have mattered regardless. Her husband was not one of the candidates.”

But he informs us that there was an actual female candidate that year: “Carrie Chapman Catt was on the ballot in 1920, as the vice-presidential candidate of the Commonwealth Land party. It finished fifth, with a mere 5,750 people marking their ballots in its favor.”

Not enough to break the glass ceiling, but perhaps the first tiny chip in that enduring barrier.

Mr. Burns‘ “1920” is by no means all about politics. We read about the fabled Cotton Club, with its owner-enforced policy of a whites-only audience becoming “the premier Harlem night spot” and, once again, reaching beyond the eponymous year, tells us how it came to spotlight Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, putting them on their road to stardom. The author describes Harlem as “a city of almost 200,000 within the five largely white boroughs of New York City, population 5,621,000,” and points to the writers nurtured in its Renaissance “like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and countless other young black artists lionized by wealthy white patrons.”

But Caucasian Americans did not only “go to Harlem in ermine and pearls” — to quote Lorenz Hart’s lyric — they also invested large amounts of money that Mr. Burns credits “for the refurbishing of Harlem, its rise from ghetto to hot spot.” He notes that many of these entrepreneurs were Jewish, notably Joel Elias Spingarn, later chairman of the board of the NAACP, and Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears, Rosebuck.

This book rightly heaps praise on Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 novel, “Main Street,” which began the extraordinary quintet of great novels he published during the decade and which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, the first American writer to be so honored.

Mr. Burns is absolutely correct in pointing to its timeless quality, which has kept it a bestseller for almost a century. But it is disturbing to read here that Lewis “refused to accept” his Nobel, when in fact he traveled to Stockholm to receive it that year and gave a memorable and much-quoted lecture expressing his pride and praising his country’s literature and many of his fellow writers. It is always distressing to come upon a flaw like this, because it calls into question all the other facts that readers have to take on faith. And it reminds one that the unfiltered Internet, so maligned as a source of inaccuracies, is not unique in this regard. Works that have been published — and presumably edited — can also enshrine errors for others to cite as sources.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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