The Jazz Age has one of the most enduring legacies of any decade in terms of design and culture. Images of flappers drinking gin cocktails, wild parties, and hedonism are what we usually think about. However, as with most eras, we often look back wearing rose-tinted glasses, forgetting the issues and problems that were also present.
One of the most enduring parts of this era is its literature. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Waugh are still read and lauded today. As cinema was still in its infancy, the Jazz Age is best experienced through its wealth of literature.
The literature of the 1920s has always held a fascination with me. I focused both my undergrad and postgrad dissertations on writers of this era. My biggest love is F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have read all his novels and they are some of the most beautifully written prose in the English language, at least in my opinion! Fitzgerald is one of the first authors who comes to mind when discussing the Jazz Age. However, there are a wealth of other writers who discussed this hedonistic epoch who are fantastic reads for anybody looking to be transported back to a time of prohibition, Jazz music, and Coco Chanel.
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Here are my 6 recommendations:
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This book list wouldn’t be complete without Fitzgerald making an appearance. While the most obvious choice would be The Great Gatsby, this novel isn’t my favourite. Instead I push people to read Tender is the Night. Set in France during the 1920s, the novels drips with the sun-soaked villas of the French Riviera, carafes of red wine, and Parisian parties. But this novel is so much more than that. With a strong autobiographic element, it discusses the process of ageing and relationships. I read this book almost yearly, usually lounging in the sun on holiday. If you enjoyed The Great Gatsby, I would highly recommend Tender is the Night for a weightier read.
Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
Once I finished this list I realised this is the only novel set outside of Europe. It perhaps shows my bias for American expat writers (indeed, it was the focus of my dissertation!) Published in the same year as The Great Gatsby, it presents a far more visceral image of the 1920s to Fitzgerald’s. Taking place around Manhattan, Dos Passos tells a number of stories around the city. The novel is clearly influenced by the rise of cinema as Dos Passos uses montages and fragmentation. Dos Passos depicts an image of society in the Jazz Age, something that gives the novel great life and scope.
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Another fragmented novel, Vile Bodies is a portrayal of a group of British socialites during the 1920s. Mostly from the upper classes and landed gentry, the novel is often comical in tone. Waugh follows them around London and England and their ridiculous escapes. While Waugh was part of this party-going elite, he also positioned himself on the outside. This allows him to gently poke fun at the characters he writes about. Indeed, many of his characters are based in reality, and many of the events seem too ridiculous to be true. The book has also been made into a great film by Stephen Fry in Bright Young Things.
Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Another novel about rich Americans living flamboyant lifestyles in Paris, Hemingway was a personal friend of Fitzgerald so often portrayed similar scenes. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises follows Jake on his adventures in Paris and Spain, in various states of drunkenness. Hemingway is often referred to as a ‘masculine’ writer in comparison to Fitzgerald’s more poetic writing style. While this seems a little reductive there are far less adjectives and poetical writing in Hemingway, which many people appreciate. Hemingway also presents one the most famous female characters of the Jazz Age in Brett Ashley. This is great read for anyone with an interest in Spain during this period and not too smitten with Fitzgerald’s writing style.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Tropic of Cancer (and its sequels) is not for the faint-hearted. Originally published in 1934, it was banned in a number of countries its obscenity, not published in the US until 1961. Written in the first-person, many have assumed the narrator is a version of Miller himself. Living in Paris, he rarely works, instead focusing on his writing. He moves between apartments, often relying on the hospitality of others. He portrays a number of sexual relationships, often in very stark detail. Many of these women are denied a name, with him often referring to the by the anatomical parts. While this novel is incredibly misogynistic, it is an interesting read and takes you to the heart of the artist lifestyle in the Jazz Age.
Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
I blindly picked up this book without realising it was the inspiration behind one of my favourite movies, Cabaret. Isherwood’s stories detail his life living in Berlin during the 1930s. He meets Sally Bowles, who epitomises the carefree attitude of the era. Indeed, Sally rarely has a serious conversation throughout the book, portrayed beautifully by Liza Minelli in the film. This hedonistic way of life is set against a sinister backdrop of the Nazi Party’s rise. This gives the novel weight and has ensured it is still worth reading today.
What books do you read to dream about gin and flappers?