Voices Of Modernism (1920s–1940s)


By the year 1900, America had grown to a population of almost 76 million people, largely through immigration, resulting in the creation of a veritable melting pot of racially and ethnically mixed Americans. At the dawn of the new century the roots of a brand new reformist movement began to sweep through the country. This movement had a strong association with the Populists and continued to grow as unrest mounted in response to an increasing concentration of power in a rapidly dwindling percentage of the population.

A national reform movement that would come to be known as Progressivism emerged, bringing with it advocates for municipal reform, women’s suffrage, temperance, state reform, immigration reform and many other social reforms. The need for such changes was often referred to as the Social Gospel. The Progressive movement was meant to cure many of the problems that society in America had begun to experience as a result of the rapid industrial growth that had marked the last quarter of the 19th century. By this time businesses and large cities had developed, an empire had been established overseas and the frontier had been tamed. Regardless, not all of the citizens in America were able to share in that prestige or wealth.

The idea of reform was certainly not new to the United States. Significant efforts had been made for change in the years following the Civil War during the First Reform Era and featured efforts to reform working conditions by social activists. The second reform era was established during the years of Reconstruction and continued until America entered World War I. The period was marked by the temperance movement in an effort to encourage moderation in the consumption of alcohol as well as a struggle for women’s rights.

There were also strong political overtones associate with Progressivism, including the desire to remove undue influence and corruption from government by taming the political machines and bosses while also encouraging more people to become involved in the political process. Overall, Progressivism enjoyed success, primarily due to publicity that was generated by writers who detailed the horrors associated with dangerous factory conditions, urban slums, child labor and poverty. These writers, known as muckrakers, did much to advance Progressivism. As a result of Progressivism, numerous goals were attained, including women’s suffrage, or the right for women to vote which was finally granted by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. According to the Populists, the United States could no longer afford the wrongdoing and corruption associated with what they branded as ‘bloated trusts.’ During this time, writers and philosophers emerged to bring a variety of injustices to light, including the slums of the inner cities, child labor and much more. In response to this sweeping movement, a record number of socialists began to register and appear at the ballot boxes.