It is a crowded, smoky room. Strongly rhythmic music plays, couples dance, dress is casual and revealing. Nearly everyone is drinking--beer or wine, gin or whiskey--and the distinct scent of marijuana hangs in the air. The foregoing scene might have happened in any of the vice districts in America at the turn of the century, such as Storyville in New Orleans or the Barbary Coast in San Francisco. But it might have occurred just as easily today, not in an underworld dive, but in the living rooms of ordinary people, in cities large and small all around America. What was once relegated to the red light district is now common on Main Street.
In this provocative and highly original look at America, James Lincoln Collier asks a simple question: how did we get from Storyville to Main Street? How did the United States turn from a social code in which self-restraint was a cardinal virtue to one in which self-gratification was the norm? To answer this question, he traces the gradual decline of Victorian values and the concomitant rise of selfishness in our country, in a book filled with colorful history: the early dance crazes (the Fox Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Texas Tommy); Irene and Vernon Castle, whose austere grace drained the sexuality out of dancing and made it acceptable to middle class America; the great radio shows of the 1930s (Amos 'n' Andy, Charlie Chan, The Shadow); and the great brothels of the Victorian age. But we also see the isolation of life in big cities, the great influx of immigrants, and the spread of industrialization. Collier shows that with the unprecedented blocks of free time created by industrialization, the entertainment industry mushroomed, and soon not only immigrants but the middle class began to drink and dance in public, and women began to smoke and dress in sexually revealing clothes. Indeed, by the late 1920s, the majority of Americans were devoted to movies, popular music, dancing, and the entertainment industry in general--they were preoccupied with having fun. If the Depression slowed the process down somewhat, Collier shows how the affluence after World War Two let Americans indulge themselves as never before, how the popularity of television has contributed to the fragmentation of society (watching TV, he says, is essentially a way of disengaging the self from others), and how Beat Generation writers such as Ginsberg and Kerouac and the Hippie movement of the '60s promoted self-indulgence as a virtue. Until the 1970s, however, the rise of selfishness was gradual, but with the incredible affluence of those years, and the disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate, the "me generation" was born, leading to the corporate takeover, junk-bond mentality of the 1980s.
The Rise of Selfishness in America is a fascinating social history as well as a personal meditation on what made Americans the way we are today. But more importantly, it is a passionate cri de coeur for change, for a new birth of selflessness in our society. It will appeal to anyone disturbed by the excesses of the 1980s.