In his 1931 Scribner's Magazine essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," F. Scott Fitzgerald, after admitting that not enough time had lapsed to make clear sense of the decade that had just passed, offered this observation on the 1920s: "The Jazz Age had had a wild youth and a heady middle age. ?. In the second phase such phenomena as sex and murder became more mature, if much more conventional. Middle age must be served and pajamas came to the beach to save fat thighs and flabby calves from competition with the one-piece bathing suit. Finally skirts came down and everything was concealed" (182). As a novel of the Roaring ?20s that was published on the verge of the Great Depression, Katharine Brush's Young Man of Manhattan, escapist fare in the form of a romance framed by a bustling portrait of New York, provides an almost nostalgic reflection on the recently-departed era, if not precisely the "grown-up," conventional version of the '20s on which Fitzgerald commented. In reviews, the novel is frequently praised for its realism, but just as important is the novel's palatably packaged "Lost Generation-lite" love story that assiduously documents the era of excess before the economic downturn.
To be sure, Brush's novel does cover some of the same territory as other Lost Generation novels of its time (of particularly useful comparison might be Fitzgerald's own 1925 The Great Gatsby), but it is far from advocating the type of radical rejection of the past about which earlier authors wrote. In general terms, Brush's characters do express disillusionment over the value of traditional Victorian morality, and the novel is ambivalent about traditional gender ideals, but ultimately Young Man of Manhattan tempers any rejection of tradition so strongly that its conclusion seems to reaffirm more conservative values.
Especially since her novel was published in January 1930, during the period when the era began to shift from the '20s boom to the '30s depression, the book's ultimate conservatism may have been synchronous with the public's remorse over the excess of the '20s while still providing a rollicking insider's take on the fast life of the Jazz Age. In other words, Brush published a richly appointed novel of the 1920s that suggested there was a happy ending to be found?around the time that the public may have realized that such a happy ending really was just a romantic fiction. This tension aligns with the transition Frank Luther Mott describes in Golden Multitudes: The Story of Bestsellers in the United States: "?[many novels on] best seller lists in the twenties ? represented, with various degrees of depth or shrillness, the revolt against the ancient mores" but readers in the thirties "were weary of strident rebellion, though they would tolerate bolder comment on sex and more criticism of intrenched [sic] ideas" than pre-1920s audiences (253). As a novel on the cusp of the decades, Young Man of Manhattan seems to derive its popularity from bridging that gap from strident rebellion to a more subdued criticism in popular fiction.
It is interesting to note that the print advertisements for the novel show signs of its attempt to position itself in the realm of the Lost Generation without diminishing its potential for popular appeal [see full text of advertisements in Assignment 2, item #9 above and selected images in supplementary materials below]. A Publishers' Weekly ad twice mentions Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms in sales comparisons during the week of February 1 (which is interesting itself, as Hemingway's novel similarly positions a love story in a highly immersive--though much more bleak--professional world, the story ends unhappily, and the novel does not appear on the annual bestseller list). An ad in the New York Times uses a quote from modernist T. S. Eliot to praise the novel, but clearly the ad's use of the quote amounts to nothing more than namedropping. One doubts that Eliot would actually find such a romantic novel as "entertaining" as the ad seems to suggest, but it is significant that the publishers relied on a figure such as Eliot to provide that (however distant) critical stamp. And last, a later Times ad heralds the book as a "brilliant novel of the younger generation." True, the book is about youngish newlyweds, and the novel is frequently praised for the use of the most up-to-date vernacular, but protagonist Toby McLean says himself that he is not a part of the generation that is associated with the most rebellious rejection of tradition. Speaking of a sixteen-year-old flapper named Puff, "This is what they meant, Toby told himself, when they talked about the Younger Generation. This blasé child with a stage mouth and the astounding sex-consciousness, was what all the shooting was about. Immature as she was in her desire to seem mature, her sophistication was undeniable" (108-109). Thus, the book is not so much a novel of the younger generation, as the one a decade or so older, interested in the goings on of youth and able to report on them, but ultimately not part of the Younger Generation itself. Puff, then, is the "one piece" in Fitzgerald's analogy; Ann and Toby are the possessors of "flabby calves and fat thighs."
Reviewers and readers did respond to Brush's ability to report on the 1920s; her own biography put her in an ideal position for doing so. Midway through the novel, Brush has one of her characters quip that "'It's a wise authoress who knows her own protagonist,'" and a comparison of Brush's biography [see Assignment 3 above] to the lives of the characters in this novel reveals that Brush would, indeed, consider herself among the wise (139). It is clear that Brush's own experiences helped shape the world of her hardworking, lavishly spending newspaper reporters who covered the sports and movie beats in the New York City of the 1920s. The realism with which Brush is able to imbue these publishing people's lives is often cited in reviews of the novel, and its quality as an "insider's look" into an occasionally glamorous lifestyle likely accounts for a good deal of the novel's bestselling appeal. Brush's own persona as a woman of glamour (albeit a reluctant one) seems to have been part of the novel's sales appeal as well. Images of Brush appear in many ads and reviews, highlighting the fact that she is of the set about which she writes. The photos of Brush in the press, in fact, get more glamorous as the novel's popularity grows [see Supplementary Materials below].
At least as influential in the novel's appeal is Brush's portrayal of the era itself. Young Man of Manhattan is an unabashed love letter to the spirit of New York in the 1920s, if not to every last detail of it. Her images of the city are glamorous and romanticized: "There were taxis, and girls' bare heads and ivory throats and flowered shoulders, dimly, fleetly glimpsed through taxi windows" (52); "A gaudy street. Electric letters glowed above its sidewalks in the evenings, and gentlemen in opera hats helped ladies with corsages to alight from limousines with grace and safety?.a nightly pageant, a Twentieth Century pageant, given to the hoot of horns" (207); and "He looked at New York. The billion stars in the piece of sky-slipped-down-to-earth that was New York" (112). Her images evoke a literary equivalent of the 1930s photographs of Manhattan by Samuel H. Gottscho, who according to documents promoting his Museum of the City of New York "The Mythic City" exhibition "rigorously edit[ed] out the city's?seamy side?[and] presented a dreamlike city of towers. His New York glowed with a glamorous sheen, as he cast his sharp eye on the city's various scales?from the vast metropolis captured in aerial views, to individual buildings and interiors" [see sample photo in Supplementary Materials item #1 and compare to the cover art for the novel].
Imbedded in Brush's portrayal of the city is the evidence of the economic boom of the 1920s, as well as the concurrent mechanization of the city and the spread of popular entertainment through new media. Brush seems almost hyperconscious of the practice of creating the novel's setting and atmosphere through frequent references to popular culture. She acknowledges the music of the era, citing song titles or lyrical excerpts from Howard DeSylva, Vincent Youmans, W. C. Handy, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Gus Kahn. Movie personalities Adolph Menjou, Charlie Chaplin, and Clara Bow get a mention, as do sports figures Harold "Red" Grange, Jack Dempsey, and Babe Ruth. Author Damon Runyan appears as a very minor character; Gertrude Stein is namedropped; and the main characters' bookshelf is populated with The Sun Also Rises, An American Tragedy, Aphrodite, and plays by Eugene O'Neill.
While Brush does use these references to situate the novel culturally, only once does she actually refer to one of the characters reading; far more frequently her characters are drinking. Revelry associated with the consumption of alcohol, including the speakeasy culture, thus figures prominently in the book. Although the main character Toby McLean does try to limit his consumption due to his tendency to misbehave when he overindulges, the novel largely celebrates the culture of drink, and seeks to bring the reader into full knowledge of the speakeasy (note the use of second person to enhance this effect): "This particular liquor emporium was situated in the basement of an office building built above the subway; you reached it via the subway stairs, descending them to the turn, where there was a closed door set in the wall. Subway-riders by the thousands passed this portal every day, and thought, if they noticed it at all, that there were tools inside, or brushes and brooms to sweep the steps, or perhaps a subway official, counting nickels" (126). Readers of this novel, however, are allowed in on the secret, and can participate voyeuristically in the decadent revolt against the Prohibition era.
Beyond these stylistic elements that place the novel firmly in the 1920s, though, are the two issues that Fitzgerald would likely criticize as conventionalizing Jazz Era rebellion but that the public seemed to find appealing: attitudes toward gender and marriage. Ann and Toby's reinterpretation of the institution of marriage signals the novel's concern with the topics. During their brief courtship, Ann tells Toby, "'for one thing?married people ought to go out sometimes with other people. Separately, I mean. They ought to have dates'" (35). Her open definition of marriage is certainly in line with a revised morality often associated with the 1920s, and it is important that the woman, not the man, of the couple makes the suggestion. Also significant, though, is the fact that they do not consider framing their relationship in any way other than marriage, a sign of the novel's underlying conservatism.
Of course, Ann's theory does not play out so well in reality, but the pain connected with Toby's eventual infidelity does not cause her to recant; rather, she seems determined to accept that the pain of indiscretion is part of the newly modernized marriage contract. After she learns that Toby has kissed another woman, she says "rather philosophically and rather cynically that of course this sort of thing was bound to happen now and then. ?We'll kiss other people. Both of us will. We're young, and we're attractive if we are married. And this is the age we live in. Of course it'll happen. If we're never any more seriously unfaithful to one another, we'll be lucky'" (156).
The center of conflict in Ann's experiment with marriage is Puff, the flapper figure who represents the "true" rebellion of the era. When Toby initially refuses to make contact with the young girl, she complains?in phrasing that sounds as if it could come from Gatsby: "'You're so damned married" (113). In a decidedly more romantic response, though, Toby relates that "'It's not that so much. I'm so damned in love, is the point'" (113). Toby, of course, refers to his love for Ann, who earlier in the novel is herself described in terms associated with the flapper figure: Her hair is "cut awfully short;" she drinks; she smokes (8). But these characteristics are nothing compared to Puff, who at sixteen had broken off two engagements because she "didn't believe in marriage, anyway?. She was fed up with a number of things. School. Night clubs, College boys" (109) and whose "ends of her ?windblown' bob were becalmed, they were stuck in thick gilt commas on her cheekbones, three to a check [sic]; and she was blushing brightly, fixedly, in circles" (150). Inasmuch as these descriptions work to define the image of the flapper, they signify the ways in which Ann is a generation beyond that youthful rebellion. Yes, she wears the haircut, but she works, too. She has talent, she is successful, and she struggles to balance the demands her profession puts on her with what she wishes to achieve in marriage.
Brush wastes no opportunity to develop the tension between Toby and Ann regarding her position as a professional. On the night they meet, Toby reads an article Ann wrote and "felt a little sad when he had finished. It was a little cruel, somehow, that she could write so well. Better than he. Much better. This story, done so fast to catch an imminent edition, was better than the best of his" (15). Despite his proclamation that "'I believe in individuals, Ann. You're one?if there ever was one?and I'd respect that. Always. I'd respect your work, and your time, and your right to do as you choose'" (30), their relationship becomes tumultuous when she leaves their honeymoon on assignment, when she earns more than he does, and when an acquaintance erroneously calls him "Mr. Vaughn," unaware that Ann kept her own last name. The gendered economic tension climaxes when Ann tells Toby that their apartment is, in fact, hers because her money went to pay all the bills they accrued in the first months of their marriage.
These events alone might lead one to consider Brush a proto-feminist in the way she champions Ann's professionalism, and the '20s were, after all, a decade that saw great social and economic gains for women. But this is not necessarily the case. For one, the novel is so steeped in romanticism that it seems unable to make any truly challenging social commentary. Take, for example, this early exchange between Ann and Toby: "Ann spoke at last, in a small voice, haltingly. ?You've known me exactly two hours.' ?Makes no difference,' Toby said. ?I know.' ?Things don't happen like that.' ?No. They don't. But this did.'" (28); or, in a similar vein: "They had known one another five days and fourteen hours. ?And,' Toby said, ?twenty minutes'" (33).
Brush continues this notion of the romantic through to the resolution the novel's conflicts by having Ann apologize for her remark about owning the apartment. This apology, however, is not terribly significant because--through a few weeks of Puritan work ethic put to the test--Toby has written a novel that will seemingly guarantee his formerly elusive economic status as provider. Brush does acknowledge the still-complicated issue of gender at the conclusion of the novel, but in a manner too akin to a "wink to the camera" to be completely sincere. In response to Ann's encouragement that Toby could write a novel to get back on his feet, he says, "'No, you're wrong. I couldn't write a novel?ever?. But Ann Vaughn's husband could'" (325).
So, perhaps what critics cited as "realism" was more about "specificity," and when observers noted brittle detachment as a quality of Brush's style, they overlooked the strong undercurrent of romance. But, these issues aside, the novel was the ninth best-seller of 1930, a feat especially impressive since it had appeared in its entirety in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post just weeks before being published for sale in book form, which according to critic Fanny Butcher traditionally "kills the sale of the book, because so many people already have read the story." But both Alice Hackett and John Tebbel note that the publishing industry did not feel an immediate hit from the depression. Hackett goes as far as to say that even though "October 20 [1929, the day of the stock market crash] brought this country to the brink of financial disaster?book sales were still booming" (139). Perhaps because Young Man of Manhattan had an entire calendar year to sell and because it was advertised heavily with its glamorous established author frequently foregrounded, its familiarity through serialization did not condemn it as had occurred to previous novels.
A final note on the bestselling status of Young Man of Manhattan: Just as the novel roars on in the decadent prosperity of the '20s, oblivious to the economic disaster to come, fledgling publishing house Farrar and Rinehart "turned its back to the ensuing depression with successive bestsellers and near bestsellers in the 30s, which together constituted one of the most astonishing records any house ever turned in during a period of hard times" (Tebbel 175). In an effort to reach segments of the fiction market that were previously untapped, Farrar and Rinehart introduced a reduced price version of Young Man of Manhattan only six months after its initial release. According to Tebbel, the decision was a positive and strategic one, not a desperate reaction to the Depression, and it was a success for Brush's novel and Mary Rinehart's The Door (431). Farrar and Rinehart's price-reduction strategy incited price wars that caused controversy in the publishing industry far greater than any associated with Brush's novel itself.
Brush, Katharine. Young Man of Manhattan. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1930.
Butcher, Fanny. rev of Young Man of Manhattan. Chicago Daily Tribune 11 Jan 1930: 11.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. "Echoes of the Jazz Age." Scribner's Magazine November 1931: 182.
Hackett, Alice Payne. 70 Years of Bestsellers: 1895 - 1965. New York: Bowker, 1967.
Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Bestsellers in the United States. New York: Bowker, 1947.
"The Mythic City: Photographs of New York by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1925-1940." Museum of the City of New York. Exhibition pamphlet.
Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States. vol 3. New York: Bowker, 1978.