James H. Shideler examines the sharpening rural-urban tensions in the 1920s America in his essay “Flappers and Philosophers, and Farmers: Rural-Urban Tensions of the Twenties” published in 1973. He begins with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers that represented the “age of wonderful nonsense” and reflected the rapid modernization in the 20s. The essay is an agricultural history piece that primarily focuses on the rural experience, reactions, and transformations in a period of increasingly sharp and unequal rural-urban contrasts that favored the cities.
Shideler argues that the 20s “was a time of cultural conflict, of polarization not merely interesting, but portentous, a time that determined succeeding development. ” He is not satisfied with merely telling what happened but keen to discuss the event on a larger scale by pointing out the alarming significance, in his opinion, of the transformation of America. The essay is structured subtly chronologically from the buildup of the rural-urban tension before and around the 1920s to the manifestation of the tension during the twenties, and finally to the release of the tension.
For evidence, Shideler uses mostly quotes by various critics and spokesmen at that time as well as other historians’ works on the subject. In the first part, Shideler argues that the causes of the rural-urban tension were the cultural, social, and economic differences between the city and the country. Culturally, rural people were conservative, individualistic, and cherished hard work and integrity. On the other hand, urban people “praised change rather than tradition”. The city culture encouraged exploitation and manipulation which rural people frowned upon. Shideler shows this cultural distinction effectively by quoting critics supporting ither side such as Reinhold Niebuhr, who criticized that in urban situations, “people are spiritually isolated. ” However, the rural lost the competition ultimately because it was disadvantaged economically and socially.
Economically the postwar depression reduced farm product prices. Socially the cities had better education, infrastructure, and health systems. Also importantly, the 1. 4 million out-migration of young people from the farm to the city during the decade disturbed the older generation. All of the above caused the rural-urban strain, as argued by Shideler. His use of primary-source quotes and statistics is convincing.
Next, he presents the manifestation of the tension. Shideler agrees with historian Merle Curti that certain aberrations of the twenties were results of the ruralurban tension. The prohibition enforcement was an attempt to restore a socially healthy nation and immigration restriction and KKK were both based on rural prejudice. He explains how these events were rural resistance to urbanization but says that they were also “backward-looking rather than reformist”. Shideler in this part mostly cites other historian’s works on these events, which is fine, but additional primary sources would strengthen his arguments.
In the last part of the essay, Shideler argues that despite all the distractions, urbanization of the rural world happened in the twenties concurrently with the “rural revenge”. Economically, agriculture was mechanized and commercialized. Shideler presents the change by quoting agricultural journals, important figures, and propagandas that promoted business efficiency in farming. Culturally and socially, the rural world also went through urbanization. Shideler brings abundant evidence such as the urbanized clothing style, the popularization of radio and movie and the advent of cars.
Overall his argument about the urbanization of rural world is convincing, supported by both primary and secondary sources. In the very end, he concludes by stating that the rural-urban tension was dissolved by the end of the decade, and repeats his concerns about the transformation of America. Shideler writes with convincing and interesting arguments and uses abundant evidence to support them. He gives the readers a complete picture about the rural-urban tension in the twenties and doesn’t fail to acknowledge subtleties.
For instance, he admits that many of the causes of the tension were there long before the twenties but demonstrates that the contrast was sharper than ever in the twenties. His essay is insightful and assertive. He connects the rural resistance in the twenties with the earlier Populist movement and discusses the reason why they both have failed. However, one potential weakness is that Shideler is biased towards the rural point of view, perhaps due to the fact that the article was published in an agricultural urnal. The bias shows up in his essay, which isn’t appropriate.
Shideler says that the twenties was “one of the last large steps toward a point of no return for a heedless, exploitative culture”, and he calls the transformation a tragedy. He supports his view with many quotes from the rural critics and includes very few critics on the other side. He even dismisses those opposing critics, for example, he says “The Husbandman was an arrogant urban stride”. His personal opinion, regardless of correctness, weakened his essay in terms of objectivity. It is also largely irrelevant to his topic: as a whole, the essay is not arguing whether the transformation was a good thing or a bad thing.
Overall Shideler does an admirable job of explaining the ruralurban tension in the 1920s, but readers need to be alert of his bias. Shideler’s work can be recommended to anyone interested in an alternative perspective on the twenties: one of the rural people, who were lagging behind in a time of progress. His arguments are interesting and well supported by plenty of examples and evidence. The value of his piece is that it serves as a comprehensive study of the rural experience in the twenties, which is an important but perhaps neglected aspect of the Jazz Age.