by Frederick Lewis Allen (1931)
"Beyond the limited scope of his political experience, he was 'almost unbelievably ill-informed'.... His mind was vague and fuzzy. Its quality was revealed in the clogged style of his public addresses, in his choice of turgid and maladroit language . . . . It was revealed even more clearly in his helplessness when confronted by questions of policy to which mere good nature could not find an answer."
If I told you the above paragraph was written about a president, you'd probably know which one. But the words were written in 1931, and spoke about Warren G. Harding. This is one of the many delights of Frederick Lewis Allen's classic social history, Only Yesterday.
The book was something new when it came out: a social history of a very recent time period (1919-1929, published in 1931). Histories previously had tended toward writing about big events of many years before. This one covered events that were well-known to much of its readers, and managed to become a best seller.
Allen was not a trained historian, but rather an editor for Harper's Magazine who wrote as an amateur.* The writing is clear and easy to read, with a gentle mocking tone that is very entertaining.
Allen didn't just write about big events; he touched on ephemeral items and fads. The chapters of the books are not strictly chronological, but rather thematic, and several chapters begin by going back to 1919 to trace a particular thread. The politics are there, of course -- Allen's talk of the Teapot Dome scandal is very entertaining -- but he also talks about things like the Great Red Scare (long before McCarthy), the Florida Land Rush, the Scopes Trial, the flapper phenomenon, and the Hall-Mills trial.** He also nicely documents the rise of radio and mass media, and the Great Bull Market and Stock Market Crash.
His section on the Crash is just great writing. It puts you into the shoes of an investor on Black Thursday -- the first day of the crash -- demonstrating how uncertainty led to fear. How it was impossible for an investor to know what the price of a stock was. And how you'd realize that the prices you saw were an hour and a half late -- and things had continued to drop! How you'd hear people in a brokerage trying to sell stock at prices far below what the ticker was saying. Allen makes the panic real, and turns the book from a history lesson into a novel.
The book was a major success and still remains in print. Allen followed it up with Since Yesterday, another successful history covering the 1930s. These are among the most entertaining history books written, and one of the best ways to get the flavor of the roaring twenties.
*There was enough interest in the field those days for several other authors to make a name for themselves writing history despite being from outside academia.
**Probably surpassed only by the O.J. Simpson case in sensationalism. The Pig Woman testifying from a hospital bed in the middle of the courtroom is an unforgettable image.