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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Who Were the Babbitts and Bohemians?

Introduction

"It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire."
F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Echoes of the Jazz Age" (1945)

The 1920s, also known as the "Roaring Twenties" or the "Jazz Age," was a decade of stereotypes. In fiction and on the front page, writers used labels like "rumrunner," "flapper," "red," and "radical" to make sense (or nonsense) of the time. Two of the most significant of these types were the Babbitt and the Bohemian. The Babbitt (named for the title character in Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel) was a well-meaning but small-minded civic booster. The Bohemian was a glib and glitzy non-conformist. While Bohemians viewed Babbitts with disdain, Babbitts were sometimes intrigued but often repelled by the unconventional bohemian lifestyle. Throughout the decade, these curiously opposed types flourished and helped define society's extremes, one as the American businessman and the other as the American artist.

Changes in the American landscape reinforced these classifications. As writers and artists moved out of small towns to the rapidly expanding cities, they attacked the dullness and uniformity of the small towns they had found so confining. Their critiques became personified in the stereotype of the ever-conforming and materialistic Babbitt. Some of those who fled what they viewed as the limitations and repressions of "Main Street" inhabited the bohemian areas of the larger cities, particularly New York City's Greenwich Village. The free, wild, and colorful Village "idea" was modeled on the bohemian lifestyle of Paris at the turn of the century.

The Babbitt and the Bohemian emphasized and exaggerated the quickly changing mores and manners of American society. At one end of the spectrum was the stifling solidity of the small town, and at the other end was the wild and loose life of quite another Village. Both stereotypes resonated with Americans and were influential in literature and culture for several decades to come.

Click Image to Get a Closer Look
American post card depicting the intersection of Old South Church and Washington Street in Boston, Mass.
American post card depicting the intersection of Old South Church and Washington Street in Boston, Mass.

Post cards from around the 1920s capture various perspectives of America's small towns and big cities.

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