25 September 2008
Erenberg, Lewis A. Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930
At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was undergoing a rapid socio-economic transformation; nineteenth century Victorian idealism was giving way to twentieth century individualism. The question of this era was how to reconcile the changing social landscape that was pushed by rapid urbanization and industrialization, and bring it back toward a more conservative, “moral,” center. It was “the growth of public nightlife…” and the “changes in nightlife institutions and entertainments over the course of the first forty years…” of the twentieth century, that were responsible for the “transformation of social and cultural attitudes and behaviors.”(xii) Lewis Erenberg examines the topic of New York nightlife in order to trace the social evolution of the United States. He argues that New York should be the focal point because it was the “nation’s financial, commercial, and theatrical center.” People were free to pursue and self-fulfillment, and sexual love” with an “urban anonymity,” and find “outlets for their desires,” and “representations of themselves.”(xiii) For Erenberg, the early twentieth century was an era of social redefinition and self-identification that emphasized personal freedom left a legacy that we follow today.
Part I: “Victorian Culture and Amusements.” Erenberg begins by outlining traditional Victorian social norms. It was “an age of gentility, combining a moral fastidiousness and cultural refinement to discipline the will, replacing a waning evangelical faith.”(5) Morality and hard work differentiated the classes in Victorian society, and this premise dictated the forms that entertainment took. Leisure had to be set firmly in “familial and class values,” (5) and public life was divided along these lines. The virtues of hard work and self-discipline were the hallmarks of a successful business man, and his public persona was defined as such. The domestic role of women was to “teach men duty and the channeling of their passions through willpower.”(7) The unrestrained pursuit of passions was perceived as a detriment to society. As a result, Erenberg notes, interactions between men and women had become artificial, and ultimately hollow. The control of these passions was put on display at exclusive private parties and balls and, later, at public places like Delmonico’s in New York. Indeed, the nightlife of the late Victorian age was first manifested in restaurants, where the upper classes could display their decorum.
Part II: “Breaking the Bonds.” Erenberg sketches the changes in nightlife by describing how the “lobster palaces” on Broadway and the hotels, like the Waldorf-Astoria, became dynamic meeting places for the upper and lower orders of society. By the late 1890’s restaurants had begun to lose their role as social indicators. Around the theater district, new “public arenas…” that “gave men and women the opportunity to display their monied and powerful position and a chance to watch others doing the same,” (35) began to emerge. Restaurants and nightclubs soon catered to the late-night theater crowds, providing a more raucous social environment. It was the dawn of celebrity culture as patrons scanned the room to spot the rich and famous. What was important about this atmosphere was “the money and the gratification it could buy, not disciplined self-denial.”(42) The nightclubs projected a “regal and aristocratic” air (45) that played into the mentality of the age which valued consumption over production. The old Victorian ideals of self denial were eroding and evidenceed in the changing roles of women in this era. In the 1890’s, “new trends” emerged that altered the traditional “sex roles” of society.(61) Numerous reformers decried the new amusements of the age and aligned themselves with the Progressive movement.(63) They believed that society was in “decline and anarchy”(63) and formed various alliances like the Committee of Fourteen to stamp out the new amusements and suppress “prostitution, liquor in dance halls, and the salacious side to movies.”(65) They wanted create civic minded activities to substitute virtue for vice. The increasing leisure “undercut” (66) the more traditional roles of women and they began to seek out their own passions and desires. They began to go shopping, go to movie houses and vaudeville theaters for entertainment for by themselves. The modern cabaret emerged, and women participated by taking dance lessons, during “tango teas,” with swarthy tango pirates.(85) The urban world changed people’s perception of themselves; the influence of the “tango pirate, white slaver, the city, the factory…,” led to the breakdown of the family because it led women astray.(86)
Part III:”The Cabaret and the Decline of Formalism.” This part of Erenberg’s study discusses the structure of the cabaret, the celebrity of Irene and Vernon Castle, Sophie Tucker, and the “Broadway babes.” The structure of the cabaret “encouraged the sharing of vitality and spontaneity between the patrons and the performers that was once reserved for the stage and the performer.”(113) It “broke down the formal barriers…,” (113) allowed a greater mixture of social elements and increased intimacy not only between the performers and the audience, and men and women, but also people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. It created a type of “institutional spontaneity,” (133) which allowed men and women to be themselves and shed the formal, public, platitudes that had restricted individuality. The pre-World War I ballroom dancing craze, personified by Irene and Vernon Castle, also changed social norms; moving away from the upper class formals and their winter balls, to a public forum.(148) There were new dances and music to keep up with the craze, and some of the dance steps were “borrowed from black American dance, music and culture, rather than from formal European steps.”(151) The dance craze most importantly “reflected an emphasis on the primacy of the intimate couple instead of the group.”(155) Women like Irene castle began to freely express themselves through dance, and it demonstrated the willingness of women to not restrain their impulses. It brought a “reevaluation of women of the prosperous classes and the institution of marriage.”(155) The demographic of marriages began to “shift away from the traditional economic and childbearing functions” (155) and was more focused on the personal dynamics of a relationship. The success of Sophie Tucker, and other women entertainers like her created a “new aristocracy”, that “made success connected with personal liberation accessible to much wider audiences.”(177) Sophie was a revolutionary symbol for women, she could marry whom she wanted to, she had her won wealth, and she was not reliant on men for her successes. The chorus girl revues of the age created a more “informal identity for women.”(226) It showed women “acting in a world of leisure and fun…,” and they were “healthy, coy playmates…”(226) This argues Erenberg provided a way in which “men and women could solve the separation of sex roles.”(226) Here men and women could enjoy each other in leisure, and as well as the home, creating a healthier environment.
Part IV: “The Fragmentation and Flowering of American Culture.” Here Erenberg argues that the 1920’s were a “culmination” of the “social and sexual life since the 1890’s,” as opposed to a reaction to the war and prohibition which led to a “moral debauchery.” The reformers had never stopped trying to stop the new amusements; and when prohibition was passed, it only pushed entertainment underground, and it became more individualistic and private, as opposed to being out in the open. Prohibition had a profound effect on the moral attitudes, making nightclubs illegal and more disreputable, and at the same time making them more “intimate.”(248) Jazz clubs began to fill the void and whites became exposed to black music, and dance styles. Jazz was an even more “personally expressive,” and it offered white musicians a “further” escape from their cultural norms.”(251) Overall, Erenberg concludes that these activites provided a release in American popular culture, and it helped people “expand their home and family life,” and helped develop personalities more capable of self-development, self gratification, and self adjustment.”(258)