1920s and 1930s Culture - Art, Music, and Literature
Frameworks for America's Past
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Georgia O'Keeffe -
Modernism in art

   Georgia O'Keeffe is among the most famous of the  American artists of the early and mid-1900s.  She was inspired by ideas about art and life that came to be called "Modernism." 

   Modernists wanted to break away from traditional ideas about art, music, and literature.  Painters, for example, wanted to create images inspired mainly by the artists' own feelings, perceptions, and creativity.

   Many of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings were based on urban (city) scenes, and the landscape of the Southwest region.  She is also famous for her paintings of flowers.

   You can find examples of her work by searching for images online with the terms Georgia O'Keeffe paintings.

   Click here to see a short video on YouTube about the life and art of Georgia O'Keeffe.


Aaron Copland -
new American music

   Aaron Copland is famous as a composer who helped create a new and distinctly American style of music.  His works, including Appalachian Spring, are often performed by orchestras even today.

   Copland knew many of the young artists of the 1920s, and tried creating new "modernist" styles of music.  He quickly discovered, however, that while people would buy weird looking paintings, not many would pay to listen to weird sounding music.

   By the 1930s Copland's music was changing.  He wrote music based on his sense of America's landscape, people, and culture.  The new sound was flowing, open, energetic, and even inspiring - very much like America itself.

   Click on the links in the box below for examples of his music.

Listen to Aaron Copland's music

   Click here for a famous example of music composed by Copland to express the vitality of American life.  He wrote it in 1942 for a modern ballet titled Rodeo.  This is from the final section of the music.

   Click here to listen to Aaron Copland's most famous composition, Appalachian Spring.  It was first performed in 1944.  This link jumps the playback directly to the part that is based musically on an old Shaker song, "Simple Gifts."

  Appalachian Spring was originally written for a modern ballet of the same name.  Click here to watch a scene from the ballet for which the music was composed.

   Click here to watch and hear Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man.  It was written in 1942, as America entered World War II.  No matter where in the world you are, when you hear this played you will know you are with people who share the American spirit.

George Gershwin -
an American musical genius

   George Gershwin was still a teenager in New York City when he sold his first song for five dollars in 1916.  By the mid-1920s he was composing music that remains popular today, including Rhapsody in Blue.

   Like other composers of that time, Gershwin tried new ideas and techniques.  There are jazz influences in many of his works, for example.  He is famous for the sophisticated music he composed for more than a dozen Broadway theater shows.

   George Gershwin wrote the music for Porgy and Bess, which is considered one of the truly great examples of American musical theater.  "I've Got Plenty of Nothing" is one well-known song from that show.

   Click on the links in the box below for examples of his music.

Listen to George Gershwin's music

   Click here to listen to Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin composed it in 1924.  It is performed today by orchestras all over the world.  This YouTube video sets the music to scenes of New York City.

   Click here to hear the music Gershwin wrote for the song "I've Got Plenty of Nothing," from
Porgy and Bess.  The 1935 opera is about life in a fictional African American neighborhood called Catfish Row in South Carolina.  This video clip is from a recent performance in England.


F. Scott Fitzgerald -
a writer for the Jazz Age

   F. Scott Fitzgerald is famous as a writer who captured in his stories the exciting but also unsettling ways American society was changing during the 1920s.

   His stories often had characters trying to create for themselves new or different lives.  Old expectations of social class, proper roles of women, and behavior were all shifting in the '20s.  Fitzgerald showed that these changes did not always bring people a happier life.

   Fitzgerald's most famous book was The Great Gatsby.  It did not sell very well at the time, but is now considered one of the great American novels.

Click here to see the trailer for the movie
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,
which is based on a Fitzgerald short story.

John Steinbeck -
a writer for hard times

   John Steinbeck was born and raised in California in the early 1900s.  He connected to the ideas of the Progressive Movement of that time, especially its concern for helping people at the bottom of society.

   Steinbeck's most famous book, The Grapes of Wrath, was written during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The novel tells the story of a farm family forced to leave their land because of a severe drought.  The drought was especially bad in the area around Oklahoma and Texas called the Dust Bowl. 

   Many thousands of farm families lost their land, went to California, and became migrant farm workers.  Steinbeck's story brought to life the hardships they faced, but also showed their strength of character.

This photo shows a farming town in Texas that was affected by the severe
drought that hit the Great Plains in the 1930s.  The worst hit area was called the
"Dust Bowl," because storms would blow huge amounts of dry topsoil into the air. 
Many families lost their farms when their crops died year after year.


This photo shows one of the thousands of farm families that went to California in
hope of finding work during the 1930s.  When they arrived, these families
found that there were very few full time jobs available.

Desperate families worked temporary jobs picking crops on big California
farms even at very low pay.  This photo shows tents set up by migrant farm
families while they worked in the fields you can see in the background.

The photo below shows a migrant family working on a farm in California.  They
were hired to pick peas.  Once the crop was picked, however, they had to move on to
find another farm that needed workers for a few days or a few weeks.

Click here to see a short YouTube video
that tells more about John Steinbeck
 and The Grapes of Wrath

O'Keeffe photo is public domain and courtesy Wikipedia.
Photos of the composers and writers, and those of the
migrant farm workers, are from the Library of Congress.
Some images have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2016 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.