Ann Douglas's Book on New York in the 1920s Gets Rave Reviews

Photograph: Ann Douglas.

Ann Douglas's book about the explosive cultural growth of New York City in the 1920s has exploded on the national media scene this spring.

And the Columbia professor of English and comparative literature herself has been the subject of profiles in Mirabella, The New York Times and other prestigious publications.

Her book, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), centers on the literary giants at the Algonquin roundtable and spirals outward, encompassing the worlds of advertising, popular music, film, and politics set against a background of a prospering American economy, the paralysis of war-ravaged Europe, Prohibition and the appearance of psychoanalysis. All these factors--and the rising skyline--made New York City a cultural beacon for the world, Douglas says.

She spent 15 years researching her book, writing three drafts, and developing a narrative with mini-biographies of 120 of the most influential personalities in New York City: founding New Yorker editor Harold Ross, Mayor Jimmy Walker, entertainers Josephine Baker, Al Jolson and Fannie Brice, and Philip A. Payton Jr., who led the black infiltration and eventual capture of Harlem. "New York become for many people important; as an experience it was, often for the same people, essential," she writes. Although the 1920s were heady, consequences were severe as the boom of the '20s gave way to the Depression of the '30s.

She borrows the term "terrible honesty" from Raymond Chandler, who praised the corrosive reality of '20s writers who denounced false idealism; "mongrel" comes from Dorothy Parker's hypothetical title for a never-written autobiography about her mixed Wasp and Jewish heritage which Douglas applies to the public "mating" of black and white culture.

Newsday, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times and other papers around the country carried rave reviews.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Arnold Rampersad, a former colleague of Douglas' and now Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and director of American studies and Afro-American studies at Princeton, said: "Terrible Honesty, is, at its most significant level, a densely packed psychological study of the United States--not simply in the '20s but also before and after that decade; hence her stress on the existence of such a thing as a national psyche. As the finest works of history often do, this book fairly resonates with provocative implications for our own time."


Columbia University Record -- May 26, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 30