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The Devil in Babylon : fear of progress and the birth of modern life /
Allan Levine.
Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 2005.
ix, 436 p., [16] p. of plates : ill.
0771052731 :
More Details
Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 2005.
0771052731 :
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
First Chapter
Flappers Are Brave and Gay and Beautiful

Many young women were not content merely to dance – although they soon made the Charleston their trademark jive. They began wearing looser and shorter dresses, using cosmetics, smoking in public (which could have led to an arrest in some states before 1912), driving alone in their automobiles, attending hops, proms, and ball games, and talking openly about sex. And like Bernice in one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most admired short stories from 1920, they “bobbed” their hair.

“Do you think I ought to bob my hair?” Bernice asks Charley Paulson.

Charley looks up in surprise. “Why?”

“Because I’m considering it. It’s such a sure and easy way of attracting attention.… I want to be a society vampire, you see.”

In Winnipeg, Vivian Maw, a young and single stenographer who worked at the Inland Shipping Company, impulsively bobbed her hair one lunch hour in December 1922. Her return to her office with her new coiffure sent shockwaves through the Winnipeg Grain Exchange Building that lasted for days. Her female friends soon followed her lead. Their short hair – a visible challenge to traditional styles and authority – underlined that real change was in the air.

Such women as Vivian or the fictional Bernice were more independent than their mothers and determined to enjoy life’s pleasures. “What a gulf separates even two generations,” claimed sociologist William Ogburn in his 1929 book on changing American morality. “Mothers and daughters often understand each other’s viewpoints so little that it seems as though they [are not] speaking the same language.” The daughters modelled themselves after silent film stars Gloria Swanson, whose “bob” was adroitly “pressed around her head and not carefully curled,” and Louise Brooks, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, whose “sleek look and signature bob” were made famous in advertisements, photographs, and magazine sketches. Swanson and Brooks were the antithesis of “Gibson Girls.”

As depicted in LIFE magazine by Charles Dana Gibson in the 1890s, “Gibson Girls” were full­figured and tightly corseted, secure of their social position, and happy to be their husbands’ chief adornment. By the twenties, they were a vanishing breed. The new modern women were flat­chested, and in the words of London’s Daily Mail “as slim as a lamp post.”

Writer H.L. Mencken took note of this radical transformation in fashion, look, and attitude as early as 1915. He called these new women “flappers” (although the term was likely used earlier than this to describe women who wore slit-skirts and rode in auto­mobiles). “Observe, then, this nameless one, this American Flapper,” he declared. “Her skirts have just reached her very trim and pretty ankles: her hair, newly coiled upon her skull, has just exposed the ravishing whiteness of her neck.… She is opposed to the double standard of morality and favours a law prohibiting it.”

Or, put slightly differently a few years later by Fitzgerald’s fun­loving and debonair wife, Zelda, a flapper if there ever was one, “I think a woman gets more happiness out of being gay, light­hearted, unconventional, mistress of her own fate, than out of a career that calls for hard work, intellectual pessimism and loneliness,” she said. “I don’t want Pat [her daughter] to be a genius. I want her to be a flapper, because flappers are brave and gay and beautiful.”

Excerpted from The Devil in Babylon: Fear of Progress and the Birth of Modern Life by Allan Levine
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2006-01-23:
In a lucid though not terribly original account, Canadian historian Levine (Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Ten Portraits) charts the reform efforts of the early 20th century. Woman suffrage, prohibition, organized labor, regulation of the sex trade-these political movements don't fit neatly into today's red state/blue state categories, but they were each part of the fin-de-siecle vision of a society rid of physical and moral ills. Cities took on great symbolic value: some activists believed cities to be seedy and dissolute; others saw the urban landscape as a place of promise and cultural experimentation. New immigrants flocked to North American cities, and reformers like Jane Addams helped them assimilate into American culture and learn American values (which, as Levine points out, were white, middle-class values). Eugenics was also on the rise; scientists and policy makers alike sought to breed better citizens, in part by sterilizing the supposedly unfit. Levine's rendition of this familiar history is made fresh only by his integration of the U.S. and Canada into one story. Canadians, he argues , often "studied American solutions" to problems that both countries faced. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Globe & Mail, April 2005
Quill & Quire, May 2005
Books in Canada, August 2005
Publishers Weekly, January 2006
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Introduction : the cityp. 1
Strangers and reformersp. 21
Suffragettesp. 61
Survival of the fittestp. 103
The red scarep. 151
Boozep. 195
Innovators and innovationsp. 229
Sex, flappers, and a shimmyp. 273
The sins of Hollywoodp. 311
Conclusion : fear and progressp. 345
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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