Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 18 May 2020

Terrible Honesty by Ann Douglas

Ann Douglas is Parr Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature and Special Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and this book is a superb piece of cultural scholarship. I really don’t want to put potential readers off my suggesting that this weighty tome is in some way unapproachable – it most certainly isn’t – but it is a read that demands and commands your full attention and the proper engagement of your brain.

Douglas has subtitled her book ‘Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s’ and what sits at the heart of her analysis is the suggestion that New York in the 1920s can lay claim to being the first ‘world city’ and that it was here that the ‘modern’ culture we are still living in was forged. Although this time in New York has been the focus of critics many times before, Douglas’ book stands out as offering something a bit different, a bit more inventive and daring. The review of the book provided by the good people at Kirkus captures this concisely when they say that the author:

“…draws on familiar sources—memoirs by such Jazz Age novelists as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the works of Harlem Renaissance writers, biographies of all these figures, virtually every academic text ever written about the period—but puts them together in exciting new ways to create a portrait of New York that includes black and white artists, men and women, elite and popular culture, architecture and aviation.”

The phrase she uses as her title, ‘terrible honesty’, was coined by Raymond Chandler and refers to a frame of mind that marked out the transition from the structured, protective, overly optimistic, matriarchal Victorian culture of the pre-First World War American cultural scene to the ‘Moderns’ who were characterised by a willingness to stare reality squarely in the face. It was a move from Pollyanna-esque ‘glad games’ to Eliot’s ’Wasteland’.

There are some really fascinating insights in to the impact of Sigmund Freud’s writings on the collective American cultural mind and Douglas is also penetrating when it comes to the issue of racism. Never before had a city as big and vibrant as New York witnessed the simultaneous symbiosis of black and white cultural innovation while at the same time displaying and living with racism and separatism. This was a world that saw white people thrilled by black culture but still intent on segregating black people. A weird but ultimately creative mix. You’ll find here some of the best writing about the Harlem Renaissance that I have come across to date – literature and jazz music mingle to good effect.

If I was being absurdly picky and critical of the book I would have to say that there is a possible issue with repetition – both of some content and themes. I think this happens for two reasons: a desire to be as comprehensive as possible and the fact that cultural themes and expressions tend to be interwoven and disaggregating them isn’t always clean and easy.

I said at the beginning of this review that this is a formidable piece of academic research and to add an extra stamp of authority to the book the author has included a really impressive bibliographical essay at the end that would stand as a book in its own right. Wonderful stuff for anyone who wants to dig deeper.

The good news is that you’ll find copies of this in hard and paperback for silly money – no more than a fiver. What? Really? True.


Terry Potter

May 2020