Cultural and Political Origins of an Ambivalent Empire

Trans-War America: Cultural and Political Origins of an Ambivalent Empire, 1914-1945

Between 1914 and 1945, the United States engaged in two world wars and emerged as a modern nation and a major world power. American involvement in World War I was brief (1917–19) and left many yearning for the isolation of previous years. Yet despite some exclusionary immigration measures in the 1920s after a “Red Scare” of suspicion about foreign control over labor union activities, progress toward a more mobile and international perspective seemed unstoppable. A generation of American expatriates enjoyed European life thanks to a newly favorable currency exchange rate. African American soldiers and officers returned from WWI determined to see their rights in the army continue at home. And those workers who could not travel were inspired by the international Communist movement to agitate for fairer pay and conditions. After the stock market crashed in 1929 and the United States sank into the Great Depression, social tensions threatened the country’s stability for a decade, until Americans were united by World War II. The dominant literary aesthetic of these years is known as “modernism,” a response to the contradictions and pressures of contemporary life. In the same way that the country struggled with rapid modernization, modernist authors struggled to put a current face on traditional literature and to translate American themes and preoccupations into an international style.

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