A Tale of Two Twenties
With caseloads plummeting, masks coming off, and talk of a possible “Hot Vaxx Summer Redux,” there’s a sense that perhaps, finally, the largest global public health crisis in modern times may be winding down. A hundred years ago, the decline of another global pandemic—the so-called “Spanish” flu—helped pave the way for one of the most exuberant, pivotal decades of the 20th century. Are we heading into a similar period?
In his latest Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk, “Will the 2020s Roar like the 1920’s?,” Bill Woodward, an award-winning professor of American and Pacific Northwest history at Seattle Pacific University and a popular public lecturer, explores the parallels and differences that may emerge in our own post-pandemic 20s.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Humanities Washington: In your latest talk, “Will the 2020’s Roar Like the 1920’s?”, you identify a range of similarities between our present day and a hundred years ago. Why are you looking back a century?
Bill Woodward: I’ve always been fascinated by the 1920s, a decade that really launched our modern world. My renewed attention to this period was triggered by realizing that the last 100 years is bookended by global pandemics. The 1918-1920 “Spanish” flu was a worldwide catastrophe that in recent decades has returned to the radar screen of historians, who formerly had underplayed it in their preoccupation with the First World War. Percentage-wise, it was far deadlier than Covid, killing upwards of 5% of the world’s population.
Then, when I started looking at that earlier pandemic more closely, I was startled to discover a number of other parallels. The immediate aftermath of war and disease was disorienting and traumatic. Racial conflict erupted across the country. Domestic terrorism—targeted mail bomb attacks—hit many American cities. Some made scapegoats out of immigrants. President Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke; politics itself seemed paralyzed as well as polarized. Doesn’t this sound a little familiar?
And then came the dizzying social transformations of the “Roaring” 1920s. Automobile ownership exploded, creating a robust car culture. Radio, controlled by the government during the war, became a corporate-owned social manipulation tool to sell consumer goods and services via advertisements. The new mass media fostered the rise of celebrity “influencers” whose achievements and antics captivated millions. Breakthroughs in biomedical science, from insulin to vitamin C, confirmed confidence about the future. But many others felt deeply alienated from the new mass culture, fostering a clash between traditional and modern values in the “Jazz Age.”
The more deeply I dug into this era, the eerier it felt to find so many similarities. “Déjà vu all over again,” in the phrase of Yankee catcher-philosopher Yogi Berra.
How did the government response to the flu epidemic differ then and now? Did federal and state governments require masking, lockdowns, or other widespread containment measures?
First and second waves hit just before the Armistice in November 1918. The wartime context dictated a vastly different response: in the name of holding up morale, the federal government actually suppressed stories about the deadly outbreaks in cities and military camps. Plus epidemiological science was still young, so there was a lot of uncertainty and controversy at first. Some localities, on the other hand, recognizing the danger, mandated masks and locked down whole towns.
Let history caution us that there really is no “normal,” only transition.
There has been a strong split between the left and right in how much each side believes in the severity of the virus and how much we should be doing to curb its effects. Was there a similar split in the 1920s, or was the response from both political sides more unified?
There were divisions then, not just over what to do, but what the outbreak actually was. But those disputes were largely unrelated to political rivalries, and in any case, not so polarized as today. The primary partisan and policy controversies centered on how much the U.S., with the war won, should remain engaged in world affairs, versus returning to what would soon be called “isolationism.”
How did the Spanish flu finally end? How long did it take for society to return to a state of normalcy?
Like projections for Covid, after third and fourth waves in 1919 and 1920, influenza became endemic, and Americans learned to live with it. Renewed spikes would flare up in the 1950s and about every 15 years since. We now accept this “normal” level of influenza disease and deaths. And of course, most of us routinely get jabbed each fall with a freshly tailored vaccine to reduce our personal risk.
On the other hand, let history caution us that there really is no “normal,” only transition. Our lives always encounter disorienting change. What society coped with in the 1920s is what we must now come to grips with: for better or for worse, humanity gets through traumatic times, and with some intentionality and wisdom, the outcome can be for the better.
Given the similarities between then and now, are you anticipating a similar, jubilant decade after the pandemic subsides? Will we enjoy a “roaring” experience when this is all over?
Well, I do have a crystal ball, but I’m not letting on what I see! Seriously though, my talk is designed to encourage audiences to ponder this very question: in light of the parallels in the past, what historically informed judgments can be made about the future? I do believe that looking at aspects of the human experience in the past allows us to be instructed, empowered, and proactive in the present and actively shape what is coming in our own time.
For example, how should we reconcile differing priorities within our communities, especially with significant rifts in cultural values and perspectives? Is there any pathway to accommodation? One intriguing aspect of the 1920s is how separate Black and white communities, particularly in northern cities, could mingle in certain ways despite Jim Crow. Major League Baseball kept Blacks in separate Negro Leagues, but jazz clubs had a more racially-mixed clientele. Those tentative explorations across the racial divide might be instructive.
So I think that what we will deal with in the 2020s won’t be the same as a century ago, but we can draw insights. A basic insight that historical perspective gives is that “this too shall pass.” We’re not the only ones who have struggled to adapt to new circumstances. What we must come to grips with today is not the same as then, but there are evident parallels. There are rhythms to human experience. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney said it best: history doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it rhymes. For better or for worse, humanity gets through, and with some intentionality and wisdom, it can be for the better.
How does being a historian and professor of history shape how you are engaging with history?
I answer this question explicitly with my students. Some of them, sadly, still suffer from seeing history as memorizing names and dates. More recently, high school history teachers have focused on the “how” of historical study: evaluating primary evidence, à la crime shows like CSI. That’s important—historians are detectives. As in a typical TV episode, our reconstruction of a past incident seems settled in the first 20 minutes, but that first conclusion turns out to be wrong, so we have to go back to study the evidence anew. Sometimes we don’t get it right the first time. History doesn’t change, yet in a way it does, as we pursue deeper understanding.
But that “forensic” mindset is only the first step. Another key gift of history is developing empathy for The Other—a capacity essential to being human. To escape the provincial enclaves of contemporary culture, we can travel back in time to encounter very different people on their own terms on their own turf. In that sense, the past is a foreign country. We should try to understand, though not excuse, incomprehensibly unjust or inaccurate attitudes of people in the past. That effort drives us to a humbler understanding of ourselves. I forewarn my students that their grandchildren will demand to know why early 21st century people believed and acted in such baffling ways!
You have said that a “non-ideological awareness” of history is essential. What do you mean by this?
Non-ideological means not bringing my particular perspectives to cherry-pick the past to prove my point. Everybody does this, but especially those with intensity in their political views. I see it on both the right and the left. It happens with people who are becoming aware of flawed characteristics of iconic people in the past. There’s a sense of disillusionment because that person doesn’t fit today’s picture of what an honored person ought to be. We should just let people be who they were. They were flawed. All humans are flawed. They were people of their time, as are we. When we’re very aware of their blind spots because they don’t live up to the values we cherish, we risk becoming less aware of our own blind spots. This does not mean glossing over the reality, but it doesn’t mean feeling smug, either, as if we alone know what’s best. History best serves us when we engage it in its context with honesty, empathy, and humility.
Check out Bill Woodward’s talk, Will the 2020s Roar Like the 1920s?, online and in-person around the state. Find the next date.
Frances S. Lee is an essayist and proud alum of the Cultural Studies program at UW Bothell. They were a 2020-21 Hugo House Fellow and are currently a Ministry Fellow at Harvard Divinity School.
- Category: Interview
- Tags: 1920s, American history, COVID, History