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The Jazz Age & Harlem Renaissance



                                                                                                   Archibald Motley


The Literature and its Music


This wiki site is dedicated to the particular cultural eras known as the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance. Following key texts from the time period, I will be making connections back to American society at the time using the authors' own references to the music of their period. I will also analyze the added meaning of the songs referenced in many of the texts written and how they serve to further expound major themes that came out of the eras. Music is a reflection of the social norms and issues such as love, power, success and emotions. When authors infuse their works with musical references, it is for a reason. It also helps to tie their work to the time period that they are a part of. The flow and importance of naming songs and styles of music popular during the time of the literature's creation deliberately serves to illuminate the life and times during the 1920-1940's. Music during at this time was also going through a great number of transitions and saw the development and emergence of jazz music as a strong force. The combined value of both the art of writing and the art of listening will hopefully paint a fairly accurate and all encompassing view of the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance.


Jazz Age Literature


The Jazz Age can be described as the writing period from 1920-1929. This time period saw a number of big changes in society with technological advances that pushed Americans to see the potential for efficiency and speed in old ways of doing things. This coincides with the revolutionizing of the Model T. Looking towards technological advancement led to a detachment from the land and the past to make room for a new future. The social scene was also changing as women's roles were re-designed with the archetypical flapper, new sexual freedoms and more opportunities afforded to women. This independent woman deviated from the traditional American values of women before. This abandonment of old American values left a void between the generation of the twenties and all other generations that came before it. Such a detachment eventually created a sense of fragmentation. They lost and/or rejected the old manner of things and were guided by their newly socialized definitions for success. This time also saw the rise of pop culture. This was a time when people developed an exclusive club which wsa informed by art, music, film, advertisements and technology.

Prohibition and its utterly unsuccessful attempt to limit the individual created a disonance between the people and their government. There was a lack of respect and questioning of laws at this time. World War I was also a huge influencing factor for the 1920's as it created an unstable reality for people. They lost faith in ideals and the structures that are often taken for granted during peace time. The world was shifting in big ways and the people were unable to escape that fact.


Simultaneosly, Americans become deeply interested in the traveling with an infatuation with the East. Pop culture embraced the discovery of King Tut's tomb and immigrants. Though this interest in immigrants was often contradictory. In the 1920's they were interested in other cultural ways but only as long as wasn't threatening to American ways of living. Along this line people were interested in African-American culture and there was a great deal of borrowing from this culture by white artists. This is later noted in the development and success of the Harlem Rennaisance that began to pick up speed alongside the Jazz Age.


This time period is particularly noted by the concepts of Modernity and Modernism. Modernism was percieved as the expression of uncertainties about the humans and their relationship to the world. Characterized by a protest of individualism and mass production. It seemingly diregarded the past but wanted to recapture certain nostalgic values from the past. Modernity on the other hand was all about seperation from the culture. The ability to self-conceptualize by stepping away and examining the whole with a critical eye rather than simply accepting the culture and participating in it.


Looking at the historical context of the time it was of no surprise then that the writers of the time would clue into many of these ideas in their writing. The fragmented and seperated mind set led to Jazz Age writing that embraced modernity and modernism. Some of the major elements found in the writing include fragmentation wherein things are disconnected but together manage to paint a coherent picture. The concept of stream of consciousness where we are able to read the inner dialogue and feelings of the characters. This draws from the influences of Sigmund Freud and his psychological analyses. The infusion of these elements with the hugely powerful popular culture at that time led writers to convey the mood that everyone was feeling. The music, advertisements and future-driven mindset of writers and everyday Americans alike was influential to the period of work in the Jazz Age.


Harlem Renaissance


The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of creativity and time of extreme interest in African American culture through music, writing, art and style. Characterized by the time period of 1922-1934, the Harlem Renaissance was brought about by historical changes happening with the African-American community. Similar to the dynamics of the Jazz Age there was a loss of conncetion to the land and past with the Great Black Migration from the south to the North. There were demands for social change and an end to racism. African-Americans during this time began to embrace the past and cultural history with Africa. They pushed the idea of an inherent connection to their race and primitive roots. This can be tracked in music with the drums, and emphasis on the bofy and its knowledge of a lost past. Africa was imagined as a beautful and yet dangerous place.

The theories of WEB DuBois and his notions of racial uplift were also important to the times. He believed in the idea of the talented tenth in that all it took was 10 percent of the African-American population to do well in order to raise the station of the entire race and its treatment in the United States. This booming movement towards positive and accurate self-representation was embraced by white America as a part of thier fascination with the exotic and different. They were interested in the creativity coming from Harlem and the black art community and came in droves to witness the growth of the movement. This was both and good and bad thing for the black community because on the one hand it created a viable source of income and success for African-Americans at the time but it was also risky because there was now a battle over what image African-Americans should fit into. Dubois and his racial uplift wanted to show that blacks were respectable and capable of fitting into white culture whereas most of the acts and entertainment that whites were interested in seeing by blacks was the primitive aspect. At this time there was also the huge success for distinctly orignal musical movements such as Jazz, Blues and Ragtime. The Harlem Renaissance attempted to legitimate these types of music as orginal art forms and their continual references to singers and musicians in these genres has helped to do so.


Authors from the Era


I will only be able to cover a few of the authors from these two time periods. Some of the more notable connections were present in the works of the following authors:




          F Scott Fitzgerald                                                                           Dorothy Parker 






           Langston Hughes                                                                                Rudolph Fisher








Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Beautiful and Damned. New York: Oxford Univerity Press. 1998.


First World War



Lewis, David Levering ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin Group. 1994.


Meade, Marion ed. The Portable Dorothy Parker. New York: Penguin Books. 2006.


The History of Jazz Before 1930; The Red Hot Jazz Archive










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