American Studies | U.S. Movements & Institutions / Topic: New York, NY: The Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance
A201 | 15256 | Clark Barwick

(3 cr. hrs.)

M/W 5:00-7:00 p.m.
Class meets second eight weeks only
Class carries COLL A&H distribution credit

Instructor Email:

By most popular accounts, New York City was an exhilarating place to
be during the 1920s. As scholar Ann Douglas argues, this was the
period when America became “modern,” and such a shift was largely
driven by developments occurring in and around the five boroughs.
The population of New York doubled between 1910 and 1930, and the
way that New Yorkers thought, dressed, drank, and danced set the
tone for the rest of the country. It was during this period that the
city’s print culture exploded, and this gave voice to an up-and-
coming generation of writers who were determined to challenge
America’s values. Museums opened up all over Manhattan and Brooklyn,
and galleries began to feature “modern art,” which rattled the
status quo. New York City’s theatre scene enjoyed its heyday during
this decade, and many of its stars, who were among America’s
emergent celebrities, successfully made the transition from stage to
cinema. Jazz, which was played in Prohibition-era clubs, captured
America’s imagination, and early compositions were recorded in the
city’s first music studios. Even the city began to look different:
the empire State Building appeared on New York City’s skyline in
1931; Central park underwent extensive renovation; and streets such
as Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue first developed the reputations
that they hold today in American culture.

What was it about this particular historical moment that sparked
such rapid innovation and change? During the 1920s and 1930s, New
York was a place of constant movement: people of various
ethnicities, sexual identities, nationalities, religions, and
classes were increasingly interacting with, reacting to, and
influencing each other. This exchange, which was accelerated by
intellectual, technological, and political forces, prompted a new
wave of ideas and trends. However, traditional historical narratives
tend to conveniently remember this era as fragmented and
oppositional: a white, affluent “Jazz Age” that occurred in lower
Manhattan, and a black, exotic “Harlem Renaissance” that unfolded
north of Central Park. In our examination of the city, we will
consider how both terms are not only misnomers but are also
artificial—what happens when we read various cultural texts in
conversation with one another? How do novels and paintings alter the
way that we understand newspaper articles and political speeches?
What can photographs tell us about New York that we don’t find in
written accounts? How did jazz inform New York City’s architecture?
Ultimately, how do these questions change the way that we define
terms such as “new York,” “modern,” and “America”?

This course is not meant to be a comprehensive history of New York
City. Rather, our focus will be on analyzing representation—how
different participants recorded (and imagined) their experiences. We
will also push ourselves to relate 1920s and 1930s New York to our
own time period. What do these earlier decades anticipate, and how
has the United States continued to change? Since our class is
designed to be interdisciplinary, we will take full advantage of the
multimedia resources available at I.U.