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The year that roared

The modern world, and modern literature, came of age in 1922.

Almost exactly 90 years ago, on 23 April 1922,  the New York Times printed a list of “The Spring’s Literary Landmarks”. It included The Beautiful and Damned by F Scott Fitzgerald (“young Mr. Fitzgerald continued his flippant mood,” the Times judged later), Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton, Aaron’s Rod by D H Lawrence (“should arouse a deal of discussion”), and a new volume of Eugene O’Neill’s plays, including Anna Christie, which won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize. In poetry, there was William Carlos Williams’s Sour Grapes, while Claude McKay, “a negro poet,” was offering Harlem Shadows (“there appears to be a run on the negro in literature this season . . . the new spirit is treating the negro with the utmost seriousness”; that spirit would eventually be called the “Harlem Renaissance”). Then there were books that “defy classification,” including e e cummings’s The Enormous Room. That was just the spring. 

In November that year, the New York Times reported in its “Books of the Year” that 1922 had also brought James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in Paris on 2 February, as well as the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (“another subjective rendering of a man’s mind”), Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Willa Cather’s One of Ours, Rebecca West’s The Judge and Cytherea by Joseph Hergesheimer. Meanwhile the Times ignored Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age (which includes “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the great satire “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”), Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, Jean Toomer’s Cane, Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, D H Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, the first of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and the less lofty but infinitely more influential Reader’s Digest. And then there was T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in magazines that month and as a book, complete with footnotes, in December.
“May one offer in exhibit the year 1922!” Scott Fitzgerald suggested in his 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age”. Reading just the list of books produced that year, one can see why 1922 was, for Fitzgerald, the year in the Roaring Twenties that roared the loudest. Willa Cather concurred, less happily, declaring: “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” 
Nor was this sense of 1922’s significance only a matter of hindsight. Although he wrote The Great Gatsby in 1924, publishing it on 10 April 1925, Fitzgerald set his novel in the summer of 1922 – when the first glimmerings of his masterpiece had begun to stir. In July of that year, Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Max Perkins: “I want to write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned” (signing it, wonderfully, “As usual, F Scott Fitzgerald”). The final result begins in June 1922 and ends that autumn, as Nick Carraway invokes the coming of winter. 
Three months later, across the Atlantic, Virginia Woolf also began thinking of a great modern novel about parties. On 6 October she jotted down some “Thoughts upon beginning a book to be called, perhaps, At Home: or The Party”; it would consist of “six or seven chapters, each complete separately . . . And all must converge upon the party at the end.” Woolf would publish her novel, eventually called Mrs Dalloway, in May 1925, exactly a month after Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby
It should come as no surprise, then, that 1922 has long been recognised as the annus mirabilis of literary modernism. But the mirabilisness of 1922 did not end – or begin – with literature. It was the year the Irish Free State was founded, and Smyrna burned in the Greco-Turkish War; when King Fuad declared Egypt’s independence and Mahatma Gandhi was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for sedition in India; when Stalin became secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party and Mussolini premier of Italy. On 30 May the US dedicated its Lincoln Memorial; in August the first world championship athletics for women were held in Paris; in September the British mandate for Palestine was confirmed. In November the US swore in its first female senator, from Georgia; she was 87, and served only one day. As she was also a prominent supporter of lynching, during the year in which the US was trying (and failing) to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, this was no bad thing. 
Amid this political turmoil stirred a great deal of discovery and innovation. On 4 November, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. Five days later, Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity – much of which he’d developed during his own annus mirabilis of 1905. On 8 February, the White House received its first radio (by all accounts its technology has not advanced much since), and on 18 October the BBC was formed. 
The coming of radio was the great technological revolution of 1922, its effects remarkably similar to those of the digital revolution today.  Before 1922, radio was strictly a military device; by the end of that year, there were an estimated 1.5 million radio sets in American homes alone and they were spreading with equal speed through Europe; before long the US and Britain were meeting up with China to discuss sharing the new technology. That year, the papers reported a plethora of inventions inspired by radio: engineers predicted that one day there would be wireless movies on trains; a French inventor created a mobile radio device to fit in parasols, enabling women to phone home and listen to music while out “promenading”; another inventor patented a “reading machine”, designed to “enable anybody to carry with him many copies of books without even bulging out his pockets”. 
In September 1922, the US began talking about talking: an inventor had patented the first mechanism for recording sound on film. It would take five more years for “talking pictures” to be realised, but the invention belongs to 1922. Meanwhile F W Murnau was showing what silent film could still do in Nosferatu, released in Berlin that May. At the same time, Hollywood appointed its notorious film censor, Will Hays, whose reign over the movies would prove so influential for the next 40 years. Dorothy Parker wrote of the Hays office in her 1922 poem “Reformers: A Hymn of Hate”: “The motion picture is still in its infancy – they are the boys who keep it there.” 
That year Parker had written another poem, “Flapper”, which also commemorated the spirit of the age:
The Playful flapper here we see,
The fairest of the fair. 
She’s not what Grandma used to be, 

You might say, au contraire. 

Her girlish ways make you stir, 

Her manners cause a scene. 

But there is no more harm in her 

Than in a submarine
She nightly knocks for many a goal 

The usual dancing men. 

Her speed is great, but her control 

Is something else again. 

All spotlights focus on her pranks. 

All tongues her prowess herald. 

For which she well may render thanks 

To God and Scott Fitzgerald.
Her golden rule is plain enough –
Just get them young and treat them rough.
And four years later she singled out 1922 again, albeit ironically, in a poem called “Autobiography”: 
Oh, both my shoes are shiny new, 
And pristine is my hat 
My dress is 1922 . . . 
My life is all like that.
It is impossible to define just why 1922 was such a remarkable year: energies and economies were churning after the First World War and not always for the better: by 1922, Hitler was doing jail-time and thinking about Mein Kampf. That year was, in many ways, the birth not just of modernism but of modern life, the clarion call of the 20th century. So much of what would come after is suggested embryonically in a catalogue of that remarkable year.
Some say this sort of timekeeping is arbitrary, just a glorified coincidence. After all, Eliot and Joyce wrote their masterpieces before 1922; Fitzgerald and Woolf published theirs in 1925. The effects of the Palestine Mandate, or of the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini, would not be felt for decades. But we should learn to be more thoughtful about coincidences: as Einstein showed, you can change the world if you think hard enough about simultaneity. 

Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master