Know anyone who was really excited to greet the new year last night? Me neither. Plenty of us were happy to see 2021 out the door but we still couldn’t help hearing Clint Eastwood’s ominous query at the stroke of midnight: “Feeling lucky?”
And that’s despite some real good news out there. This past Christmas was the first in twenty years that American troops were not engaged in warfare somewhere. GDP is smokin’, wages are up, unemployment’s way down, and Wall Street has been very very good to those of us living off IRAs. The United States has decided to start redressing forty years of neglect in its infrastructure, and rapidly developed vaccines have, for those with access and the will, blunted the worst consequences of a global pandemic. Still, the nightly news trumpets inflation rates and supply-chain snarls and labor shortages in lousy jobs and all those omicron breakthrough cases (though not their surpassingly low mortality rates). Meanwhile, the prospect of elections in November casts a chill on the heart already ten months out. And if Wall Street’s that good, it’s gotta go bad sometime, right? The next letters in the Greek alphabet are waiting patiently for the variants now brewing among the many who lack vaccine access and the others who refuse treatment.
The last two years seem to have turned the world upside down and we don’t know how to wait for it to turn right-side up again, if it ever will. I’m not a big C.S. Lewis fan but as a historian I can’t help sharing his advice to let “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” blow through our anxious present-mindedness. So let’s jump back a century and see what 1922 had to offer by way of events and auguries.
In North America, the great influenza epidemic (proportionately far more lethal than COVID-19 to date) was by then two years in the past, and the severe post-World War I economic downturn (caused by rapid deflation, not inflation) was gone for good. People had determinedly forgotten the first but were less certain of the second. Yet we can see in retrospect that the Roaring Twenties had indeed started to roar for business in August 1921 and would continue to do so for eight straight years, until the fateful autumn of 1929.
The cultural side of the equation was signaled by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, out in March, followed in September by his short-story collection, Tales of the Jazz Age, naming the epoch. Ernest Hemingway was newly arrived in Paris with Hadley Richardson, wife #1, and began to mingle with Ezra Pound and James Joyce at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore and Gertrude Stein’s salon. Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps the ultimate Modernist text, came out in February. Certainly the ultimate Modernist moment occurred that May when Joyce sat down for dinner with Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Serge Diaghilev, Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, and Clive Bell.
But chic cities and Modern art were only one side of the story. In the American countryside the economy had already entered its Great Depression as the wartime boom in production and credit collapsed. With commodity prices and land values tumbling, farmers were hard-pressed to pay on their loans. Bankruptcies multiplied and migrations to the city ensued. The tide of African Americans to the urban North and West, begun during the war, continued despite the vicious racial assaults of 1919. But if migration merged positively with Modernist culture in the Harlem Renaissance, down the street at Riverside Church Harry Emerson Fosdick’s landmark sermon of May 1922, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” worried that on the white side things would turn out worse.
Internationally, Anglo Christendom had great reason for hope. With the acquisition of present-day Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and the last third of Ghana, the British Empire now reached its greatest extent ever, surpassing even the Mongol Empire at its peak and claiming one-quarter of the world’s population. In 1922 Britain granted Egypt nominal independence but still controlled its finances and foreign policy. A similar gesture closer to home blew up, as British recognition of the Irish Free State early in the year triggered a ten-month civil war among long-time comrades in the nationalist struggle, between those who would accept partition of the island and dominion status within the British Empire and those who held out for the entire island as a completely autonomous republic. Some 2000 died in the struggle with 12,000 imprisoned. Foreshadowing a reprise of this conflict on a much larger scale, Mohandas Gandhi was arrested in Bombay that March on charges of sedition. He would serve two years of a six-year sentence.
The greatest tumults of the year occurred among those who had lost the war. The German Weimar Republic signed a treaty with Russia in April to formally end hostilities, but the concessions granted therein triggered the assassination of Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau by right-wing terrorists two months later. German moderates, like Rathenau, who were trying to hold things together were swimming against a torrent of inflation. The deutschemark to dollar ratio went from 263:1 at the start of 1922 to 563 by the end of July to 7000 at year’s end. (Gruesomely, that was just the beginning. At a 20.9% daily rate over the next year, the dollar cost 4.2 trillion marks by November 1923.) Under such pressure, Weimar suspended the reparation payments levied by the Treaty of Versailles and saw France kick off 1923 by invading and occupying the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr.
On the other hand, over the course of 1922 the Russian Red Army finished its conquest of counter-revolutionary elements in central and northeast Asia. That ended a civil war that had erupted after the 1917 revolution and wound up costing at least eight million lives, most of them civilian. Everyone noticed when the USSR was formally constituted on December 30; fewer had noted Joseph Stalin’s installation as party secretary in April.
The worst of the year’s violence occurred in Turkey amid the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. Greek troops had invaded in 1919 to assert (500-year old!) claims in Anatolia but had stalled after some initial success. On August 23, 1922 they met their decisive defeat at the battle of Afyon; two weeks later the Turkish army entered Smyrna and four days after that the city’s Greek and Armenian neighborhoods were in flames. Tens of thousands died; hundreds of thousands were raped, deported, or barely rescued for relocation. There followed the great population exchange by which half a million Turks and Greek Muslims were forced out of Greece and three times that number of Orthodox Christians had to leave Turkey.
So how do you define a year? By a portentous episode of ethnic cleansing across the Aegean or by the take-off of consumerist frenzy in the United States? Consider just the month of October. T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land in his new magazine, The Criterion, and Virginia Woolf published Jacob’s Room. The BBC started a century of broadcasting, the Red Army took Vladivostok, the Ottoman Empire ended its 600-year run, and Benito Mussolini led the March on Rome to inaugurate Europe’s first Fascist regime. American courts rejected appeals to reverse women’s suffrage, and in November Rebecca Felton served a symbolic day as the first female member of the United States Senate. Was the book of the year Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha or Baroness Orczy’s Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel? At the movies, was it the pioneering German Expressionist Nosferartu or Rudolph Valentino’s sultry Blood and Sand? In intellectual history, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or Hendrik van Loon’s triumphalistic tripe, The Story of Mankind? How does T.H. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom mesh with Albert Einstein’s Four Lectures on Relativity? Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” with e. e. cummings’s The Enormous Room?
Perhaps instead we should measure the year by those who were born in it. Future titans of the civil rights struggle, including Fred Shuttlesworth and Floyd McKissick, Ruby Dee, and Charles Evers, Nicholas Katzenbach as attorney general and Dorothy Dandridge on stage and screen. Political eminences like Mark Hatfield and George McGovern at home, Norodom Sihanouk and Yitzhak Rabin abroad. Historians Thomas Kuhn and Howard Zinn, novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac, journalists Jack Anderson and Helen Gurley Brown, cartoonist Charles Schultz. And look at future stars on or behind the screen: Telly Savalas and Paul Scofield, Doris Day and Betty White, Bea Arthur and Norman Lear, Blake Edwards and Ava Gardner.
It’s tempting, this week of Joan Didion’s death, to end by invoking rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, a phrase originating in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (published 1920). But the names immediately above are a roster of the 1960s and 70s, half a century on from 1922, a roster of some failure but also of triumphs, noble intentions, and downright fun. All that is being born this day too, to bear fruit fifty years from now. Let’s seek out its bearers and help them along.