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Unit information: The Birth of Modern America: The United States, 1917-29 (Level C Special Topic) in 2016/17

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Unit name The Birth of Modern America: The United States, 1917-29 (Level C Special Topic)
Unit code HIST14030
Credit points 20
Level of study C/4
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Coates
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Between the US entry into World War One in 1917 and the ‘Great [stock market] Crash’ of 1929, consumerism, popular culture and mechanization modernized the American dream. Contemporaries were convinced that they were living through an era of profound social and cultural and subsequent commentators have often claimed that the (global) foundations of modern living were laid and that the essential features of mass popular culture emerged during this period. Drawing extensively on contemporary sources (including novels), this unit’s overall goal is to acquire an intimate knowledge of the period’s modernity by viewing it from a wide range of perspectives - social, cultural, political, and literary - and as well as from the standpoints of male and female, white and black, Anglo-American and immigrant. A more specific objective is to assess the claim that the USA in the 1920s witnessed the world premiere of the way we live now.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit students should have:

  • identified, analysed, and deepened their understanding of the significance of key themes in the social and cultural history of the United States during the 1917-29 period
  • understood the historiographical debates that surround the topic
  • learned how to work with primary sources
  • developed their skills in contributing to and learning from discussion in a small-group environment

Teaching details

Weekly 2-hour seminar Access to tutorial consultation with unit tutor in office hours

Assessment Details

2-hour unseen written examination (summative, 100%)

The examination will assess students’ understanding of key themes in the social and cultural history of the United States during the 1917-29 period, the related historiography as developed during their reading and participation in / learning from small group seminars, and relevant primary sources. Further assessment of their handling of the relevant primary sources will be provided by the co-requisite Special Topic Project (HIST 13003).

Reading and References

Set Primary Texts Include:

Frederick Allen, Only Yesterday (1931)

R & S. Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (1929)

Harold Stearns, Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans (1922)

Preston Slosson, The Great Crusade and After (1930)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925)

Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922)

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Carl Van Vechten, Nigger Heaven (1926)

Key secondary reading:

Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper; American Culture & Society in the 1920s (1995)

Stanley Coben, Rebellion against Victorianism (1991)

Roderick Nash, The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930 (1970)

Nathan Miller, New World Coming: 1920s & the Making of Modern America (2004)

Gilman Ostrander, American Civilization in the First Machine Age (1970)

David Goldberg, Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s (1999)