BOOKS: New York and all that jazz

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The Independent Culture
TERRIBLE HONESTY: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s by Ann Douglas, Picador pounds 20

ONE New York evening in 1920 Scott Fitzgerald came across two drink-happy men getting into the lifts in the Biltmore Hotel, a skyscraper completed seven years before. So thrilled were the two men by the new lifts that they addressed each other as "Mr In" and "Mr Out". When the lift operator asked them which floor they wanted, Mr In said, "any floor", and Mr Out said, "top floor"; when the operator announced they had reached the top, Mr Out said: "Have another floor put on."

Manhattan in the Twenties was a demanding, nervy place. By the second half of that decade its long, slim island was already roaring with more cars than the whole of Europe put together. Ann Douglas's silver-clad brick of a book - 480 pages of closely argued history, cultural studies and literary criticism, plus another 100 of denser-still bibliographical essay - tries to make sense of this precocious bedlam. For in New York's forest of new buildings, its celebrity culture, its burgeoning radio, its Freud-influenced billboards, she discerns a new sensibility, "something like an egalitarian popular and mass culture, aggressively appropriating forms and ideas across race, class, and gender lines ... irreverent if not irreligious ... hostile to all moralising".

Douglas makes her argument crisply in the opening pages. Its core confidence in New York's uniqueness is very, well, New York. She teaches at Columbia University; somehow the long eulogy from the New York Times on the back cover ("one of the most amazing books on America ...") comes as less than a surprise. She can strain too hard to see all of modern culture being born on her favourite streets: did New York really invent the bestseller or newspaper gossip? A 17th-century Londoner might disagree.

Yet the New York described here does seem eerily contemporary. By 1920, little manufacturing went on in the city; instead it processed and packaged and promoted intangibles - stocks on Wall Street, information on the radio and in the papers. Manhattan was a centre of consumption, not production: everyone was buying or selling, a "sucker" or a "racketeer" in the widening slang of the day. And all this late-capitalist activity went on in increasingly post-modern surroundings: skyscrapers were decorated with Gothic gargoyles, Babylonian zigzags, motifs borrowed from any period or culture. Irony and pessimism were the voguish intellectual attitudes.

Douglas sees the origins of all this in a rejection of 19th-century America, with its female-led "middle- class piety, racial superiority and sexual repression". (Her last book, The Feminization of American Culture, was about this.) Twenties' Manhattan had a decidedly masculine thrust: Hemingway boasted that his prose was "so tight and so hard"; the New Yorker, founded in 1925, sought to replace what its first editor Harold Ross called "sissy" sentimentality and abstraction with exact, fact-checked description.

Douglas is deft and thorough at marshalling this kind of material behind her points. At times too thorough: like much American journalism - indeed like much of the New Yorker - she rarely uses synthesis or a single telling fact where four will do. Meanwhile, she forgets to answer broader questions. Why, for example, were New Yorkers so ready to accept Ross's love of the tangible? It could have been the instinctive rationalism of the great post-Enlightenment nation, or simply that immigrants wanted to learn everything about their new surroundings: Douglas does not give an opinion.

Yet amid all her exhausting cross-referencing and mini-profiling - the busy city itself in book form - calmer, more drawn-out themes do emerge. Douglas provocatively explores the influence of Freud and the First World War, both breaking the old certainties here as they did in Europe, but, in a younger society less careful of its past, also crystallising a new confidence. Disfunction and its therapy became fashionable; memories of the trenches were a source of first novels, not sleepless horror.

Douglas draws characters well. Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, a West Indian- born rival to the transatlantic flier Charles Lindbergh, trails gaudily across the closing pages, attempting a crossing to Africa and an assassination of Mussolini, then working as Haile Selassie's personal pilot. Black New Yorkers' transformation of Harlem from peaceful white immigrant backwater to the centre for a black Renaissance, alive with performing, writing, and rising real estate, is vividly done. Yet, despite all its claims for the later influence of Twenties' New York, the book notes transience too. "Defeat was built into the enterprise of black Manhattan," Douglas explains, for without political power - the number of black office-holders shrank during the decade - it was eternally vulnerable to hard times. The Wall Street Crash and the Depression did for much else as well. Indeed, seven decades later, with Pat Buchanan marching his 19th-century nativism across the heartland, Manhattan in the Twenties - and now - seems more a daring, diverse aberration than a model for the rest of America. There are still very few people living in skyscrapers.