The Flapper and the Flâneur:
Visuality, Mobility and the “Kinaesthetic” Subject in the Early Twentieth Century American Press (1920-1930)

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2014, Volume 13, Issue 2


Chani Marchiselli
Saint Anselm College


The figure of the flapper emerges in the early twentieth century press as a jazzed-up kinetic counterpoint to Charles Baudelaire’s wandering urban flâneur. Feminist theorists and cultural historians often contend that an unprecendented visibility produced the modern feminine subject (see Berger, Hansen, and Conor). In the popular literature and film of the early twentieth century, the figure of the flapper offers one example of this novel subjectivity. She appears in silent films that warn about the presence of women in the urban scene (Conor 34), in works of literature as the debauched heroine of the jazz age (Prigozy 43), and in the popular print media of the day, under editorials and opinion pieces with titles like “Flapper Americana Novissima” (Hall 771). The flapper on the street also was subject to a kind of tongue-and-cheek flânerie. Social commentators frequently describe her as one moving part in the urban spectacle. Descriptions of the “new woman,” however, point to another subjective experience of urban modernity, one constituted by auditory and kinetic sensibilities – often through new music and dance cultures – as much as in sight and spectacle. Hence, articles in the popular press about the “Flapper Americana Novissima,” illustrate the limits of both flânerie as a practice, and the flâneur as a stand in for the subject of urban modernity in America.


The Flapper and the Flâneur

Zelda Sayre’s marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920 set the stage for his prolific career, and for many popular narratives formulated around the figure of the flapper. Sayre’s notorious antics, often showy acts of defiance, provided fodder for Fitzgerald’s accounts of the jazz age. Fellow debutante Virginia Foster Durr recalls the spectacle of Sayre at a debutante ball in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919:

Zelda was like a vision of beauty dancing by. She was funny, amusing, the most popular girl; envied by all others, worshipped and adored, besieged by all the boys. But she did try to shock. At a dance she pinned mistletoe to the back of her skirt, as if to challenge the young men to kiss her bottom. (qtd. in Cline 36)

For Fitzgerald, the flapper came to represent the perils of American modernity, and, in particular, the moral bankruptcy of image and spectacle. Sayre’s behavior at the Christmas dance, however, demonstrates her ambivalence about this visibilty and suggests a subjective experience grounded in new kinetics as well.

The experience of modernity often has been imagined in relation to sight alone and thus to certain Western and arguably masculine episteme: positivism, objectivism, rationalism. In contrast to the modern woman constituted through spectacle, Baudelaire’s strolling man of leisure stands in for the masculine subject of urban modernity in the West. The figure of the masculine flâneur surfaces in nineteenth century literature as one who "goes botanizing on the asphalt": a connoisseur of commodities and people, a fickle window shopper and most significantly, an urban scientist who stands remote from the objects of his observation (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire 36). His roving look both spectacularizes and fortifies against the "jostling" and amorphous crowds of the city. In Benjamin's essays, the flâneur figures as a shock-absorbent, impervious to most sensory affronts. Benjamin writes: "Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man 'a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’" (Illuminations 175). That "kaleidoscope" contains, in its tunnel vision, the ''peripatetic" fragments of the urban spectacle. The flânuer's defense against constant visual assault, the “shock” of urban modernity, is a look that delimits and moves (Shields 93). In this way, flânerie, as Benjamin describes it, means to guard against the liminalities of the crowd, to sustain through remote observation and evasive mobility, the cogent ego-boundaries of the Western, masculine subject. The flâneur avoids bleeding into the urban masses by scouring those crowds. A certain kind of visual mastery becomes the means by which this subject survives the spectacular conditions of modernity, and, conversely, those conditions are said to generate this new and specifically modern subjectivity.

Cultural historian Janet Wolff, however, argues that modernity in the West has been defined almost exclusively through the experiences of a certain class of professional men. She writes:  “it was, for the most part, male sociologists and modern critics who have identified the features of modern city life” (23). Wolff points out that writers continue to place the flâneur at the center of “modern city life,” and thus to imagine flânerie as the primary mode of engagement with the urban scene. Film historian Anke Gleber attempts to redress that absence when she suggests the possibility of the flâneuse, a feminine subject who also embraces the visual pleasures of modernity. Unlike the flâneur, however, the flâneuse appears almost entirely under cover of darkness, in theaters, or in some cases, as a window shopper whose gendered consumerism legitimates her presence on the street (Gleber 187). Hence, the flâneuse cannot achieve the same sort of visual mastery of the urban scene because gender limits her entitlement to look, as well as her access to spectacle. As Wolff explains, “For women in the city negotiating the geography and architecture of public space in the 20th century, the role of the flâneuse remained unavailable” (24).

Although flânerie may exclude “women in the city,” among others, the figure of the flapper points to an alternative experience of modernity. Film scholar Lori Landay describes the dancing flapper as the “kinaesthetic subject” of the silent screen. Rather than a woman constituted entirely through narcissistic and “self-commodifying” spectacle, Landay claims that the “kinaesthetic” flapper affects a kinetic, if playful, mastery of space – screen and street. Similar, perhaps, to the prankster Zelda Sayre, the “kinaesthetic” subject of film responds to the gaze of the “kinescope,” but she also dances through the frame. Hence, Landay writes that the flapper “transcends the limited subjectivity of self-commodifiction” and instead “embodies the kinetic powers and pleasures...of the modern body in motion” (223-224).

The cinema and its effects often have been understood as primary to the formation of the modern subject. Like Gleber, Landay culls her examples from the social spaces of the cinema and considers the visual representations on screen. Until the start of the Second World War, however, dancehalls and cabarets far outnumbered cinemas. In fact, dancehalls offered the most popular and accessible leisure activity for urban dwellers (see Erenburg), and women participated in nearly equal numbers (see Peiss). Arguably, then, the spaces of social dance contributed as significantly as cinema to the formation of the modern American subject.  Presumably, Landay’s filmic flapper dances not only for the camera’s gaze, but to the unheard sounds of jazz music. The flapper who emerges in the early twentieth century press similarly appears to master the street, if not the screen, with a novel set of kinetic and auditory sensibilities.

Much of the writing below illustrates the sociological flânerie described by Wolff and others. Here, wandering observers attempt to master the urban scene with looks that delimit and move. Many even affect a tone of pseudo-scientific remove, imagining the young woman on the street as foreign species. Writers often look for a name or scientific category into which the flapper might be placed, or diagnose her vanity, narcissicism, and attachment to commodity forms. In many instances, however, her presence also seems to unsettle assumptions about how well visuality alone absorbs or masters the “shock” of the street. Because she remains opaque, despite her constant and various forms of exposure, the flapper often defies attempts to render the street, and her appearance there, any more intelligible. Between the lines, or perhaps, in the refrain, these articles also point to the flapper’s new kineasthetics, and its attendant forms of knowledge about the urban scene.

The Inscrutable Spectacle

The flapper’s “appearing acts” (see Conor), invited pseudo-scientific commentary from a host of urban detectives, many of whom vied to make sense of her revealing get-ups. M.B. Levick's 1925 New York Times article "Our Paint and Powder Bills Scrutinized," satirizes the habits of what she calls the "peripatetic throng" outside the New York Public Library. Clearly, the site of observation is an ironic gesture; Levick describes a "throng" of rouged women who pass the library stairs with their faces buried not in books, but powder compacts. Their tiny mirrors and "swinging vanity cases" point to the narcissism and artifice of which the modern woman often was accused. More to the point, a nearly indistinct mass of women pass up literary knowledge for artificial self-reflection. From the "stoic's perch" Levick concedes, tongue-in-cheek, that to explain the sudden and exponential increase in cosmetics sales "requires deep insight into the feminine heart, knowledge of applied psychology and...familiarity with the material phases of present-day civilization." Her feint makes clear that topics so trivial might not, in fact, merit the “cumulated knowledge of science and philosophy,” precisely that contained in the library itself.

Nonetheless, Levick sets out to describe and explain, through observation and reason, the public spectacle of “modern" femininity and its relation to the commodity form. She implores the reader to look as well:

Watch the crowd passing the library, perhaps it holds suggestions. Are lips still ruby red as in the ballads? They are smiling just above gray furs…Lips and cheeks as near as possible to the specifications for the heroine of a fairy tale, plus a touch of modernity extending in its extreme to an almost Chinese sophistication…nine muses pass, gone shopping with their vanity cases swinging and then after them a tenth, a little dabbing, another dab as she goes. You will know her for the muse of jazz.

In late industrial era New York, it seems that young white women looked both exotic and indistinct (Shields 62). Entry into the public certainly made their appearance disconcerting to some, although "little shop girls," typists, and marching "suffragists" already had joined the figure of the prostitute. In this case, however, the "touch of modernity" that marks the feminine passer-by comes from neither the brothel nor the women's movement. The most sophisticated of the "made-up" women, Levick writes, look "almost Chinese." Here, the author invokes, if not its specific objects or locales, the logics of popular Orientalism. 
From the "philosopher's perch," Levick describes the modern woman as an exotic, who in "extreme" instances takes on the signs of racial difference. Levick’s invocation of makeup's "Chinese sophistication" points to that trend: stars like Anna May Wong or Valentino made certain "extreme" makeup fashionable. Of particular significance was a rash of “Orientalist” films, most of which take place in what Edward Said describes as the "imaginative geography" of post colonialism. Perhaps, like the woman of Ingres's Le Grande Odalisque, the flapper's figure can be eyed without consequence precisely because of her strange accoutrement and newly foreign setting; to render her exotic negates the initial trouble of looking at white bourgeois women in public. Levick's gleeful ogling certainly seems to pick up the qualities of that Western masculine gaze, with its attendant "othering" and pleasurable projections. Moreover, Levick’s exoticized descriptions point to both the racial approriations of jazz age fashion, and to how those appropriations made women even more likely to be seen as indistinct, part of the urban masses against which flânerie guards (for further discussion on the indistinct masses, see Huyssen). 
The new “look” also signified a novel attitude of sexual frankness. In his idiosyncratic history Only Yesterday (1931), Frederick Lewis Allen writes in breathless tones about the “first class revolt” of the post war era: “the most conspicuous sign of what was taking place,” he writes, “was the immense change in women’s dress and apperance” (85). Indeed, not only were women visible in public, they were increasingly exposed. For Allen, the flapper look functioned as sign and act of the “revolution of morals and manners” that came to define modernity in America. Short skirts shirked the coy modesty that designed the previous decade’s high collars; fashion admitted to the public limbs and necklines. These newly exposed bodies also seemed to promise a less opaque femininity. In public spectacle, the otherwise inscrutable feminine subject finally might appear intelligible.

In many instances, however, high skirts and flagrantly "artificial" cosmetics – honest only in that they do not mimic "nature" but confess to application – were understood as evidence of a persistent womanly ruse. Bruce Bliven's famous article “Flapper Jane," published in the New Republic in 1925, details what he intermittently calls the "New Nakedness," the "Great Disrobing Movement," and the "Era of Undressing." Here, Bliven ponders what precisely short dresses and "abbreviated" undergarments might reveal about modern moral order and the new woman’s place in it. His various titles for the moment (the "Era of Undressing" et. al) suggest, however facetiously, that feminine revelation could define the new century. The probably fictional "Jane" explains the logics of her exposure:  "In a way, it’s just honesty. Women have come down off the pedestal lately. They are tired of this mysterious-feminine-charm stuff."

Nonetheless, Bliven means to expose "Jane" for whatever lies beneath the flapper accoutrement. He asks, for instance: "how wild is Jane?" "Do the morals go with the clothes? Or the clothes with the morals?”  The girl seems to evade definitive answers. "Flapper Jane" is "a bundle of contradictions," at once artificial, "a natural," forthcoming and coy. Bliven reports, for instance, that Jane is "heavily made-up, not to imitate nature, but for an altogether artificial effect—pallor mortis, poisonously scarlet lips, richly ringed eyes." He claims that her intention is to appear, "debauched," rather than merely "diabetic” (65). Flapper Jane’s good looks are at once the products of a diseased cosmetic and a certain "natural," athletic, grace.

More than makeup or mobility, Bliven's article puzzles over Jane's clothes and shorn locks, both of which he also describes as "abbreviated" (66) "The corset is as dead as a dodo's grandfather," he reports, and even stockings “seem optional during warmer months” (66). Bliven explains that, in any case, the latter merely "duplicate the color and texture of Jane's own sunburned legs" so effectively that "few expert boulevardiers can tell the difference" (66). Covered legs tease the spectator; the silk imitates, in this case, the flapper's sunburned skin. Jane's stockings mislead the "expert boulevardier" whose command of the street hinges on his visual assessment. The scene on the street, then, reads like a cartoon burlesque: high skirts flirt with exposure while legs feign nudity. Even a seasoned urban ogler cannot tell the difference between "natural" and affected charms. Another critic describes the flapper's skirt in motion like a series of similarly disconcerting cinematic jolts: "as she walked, it gave something of what physiological psychologists call a flicker effect" (Hall 772). Like a filmic projection, the flapper's movement disorients the gaze even as it "puts on a show." "Jane's" exposures (the knee, her psyche?) are editing tricks that obscure more than they reveal; in this way, public visibility renders the feminine object as distant and curiously bisected as always, but seems to undermine the acts of flanerie.

"Jane's" stocking ruse is only exacerbated by her fashionable dress: "cut low where it might be high, and vice versa" (Bliven 67). Rather than exposing the girl as it seems to promise, the dress behaves with similar and unexpected coyness. "The idea," Bliven explains, "is that when she walks in a bit of a breeze, you shall now and then observe the knee, but always in an accidental, Venus-surprised-at-the-beach sort of way" (67). However forthright or naked flapper “Jane” and her gestures may appear, her wildness merely postures; it affords the man in the street no more insight or opportunity than at other times. In response to his own question, Bliven gives the reader what is clearly a disappointed answer: "it is safe to say that as regards the wildness of youth there is more smoke than there is fire" (67). What appears as revelatory (the short skirt, for instance) here shrouds a quintessential moral mystery (woman). In other words, and despite her insistence that women are "tired of this mysterious-feminine-charm stuff," the girl remains as unintelligible as always (67).

Appropriately, perhaps, the age of nascent psychoanalysis produced such literal – if ultimately opaque – admissions of the feminine body. The flapper's exposed limbs operate in some arguments like a confession that promises to liberate the psyche from repressive constraints. Again, however, attempts to render the feminine “intelligible” through the logics of sight and applications of science often appear to fail.  In his "Flapper Americana Novissima," for instance, G. Stanley Hall, the "father" of American psychoanalysis, is exuberant about the flapper's revelations. He imagines her new "liberties," as possible precedents for what he calls a "new and better womanhood" (772). Hall writes:

What reversal of ancient and traditional mores it would be if the flapper, long repressed by so many taboos, were now to become the pioneer and leader of her sex to a new dispensation, and to give the world its very best illustration of the trite but pregnant slogan: Das ewig Weibliche sieht uns hinan. She has already set fashions in attire and manners, some of which her elders have copied, and have found not only sensible, but rejuvenating. (772)

Hall cites the the final sentence in "Chorus Mysticus" (at the end of Faust) in which Goethe posits the "eternal feminine" – a maternal trope – as that which causes man to strive for greater causes, progress, moral uplift. The eternal feminine draws us onward, or in this case, the "new woman" replaces the suffragist as both moral bastion and image of progress. Unfettered by inhibitions, and uncoiled from decades of crinoline and pantaloon, the modern girl here approaches something like psycho-social transparency. Hall assures his readers that "underneath her mannish ways, which she sometimes affects,” she really “vaunts her femininity" (772). In turn, her "sex" finally finds its "sense," that "rejuvenating" truthfulness expressed in bodily exposure and forthright manners (772). The "new and better womanhood" is transparent and intelligible—a sign of progress through revelation (772). For Hall, then, the flapper embodies what psychoanalysis hopes to accomplish: she sheds light on the "eternal feminine," and subjects her historically "repressed" and consequently hysterical psyche to a rationalist discourse. Suddenly "sensible," woman is reborn.

Indeed, Hall’s cheeky send up of Linnean taxonomy imagines the Flapper as a newly identified species and the legitimate target of scientific speculation precisely for her peculiar, alien, and unknown qualities. Like a good scientist, he sets out first to describe and classify the “modern" girl. He scours the libraries for books on "feminine pubescence," and finds, to his shock, only literature, all of which he deems "sentimental" and "unscientific" (771). "The world," he claims, "has not yet found the right designation for this unique product of civilization" (771). To this end, his argument begins with an etymological survey meant to give the girl a proper name. Certain European cultures, Hall reports, "were a century ahead of us in naming this fascinating stage in life." From continental slang he cites the German backfisch and the French tendron, which refer to, respectively, a fish prepared but not yet baked and, a vegetable shoot, "in the gristle stage," whose organs remain “undifferentiated” (772).  Both terms invoke what Freud describes as the "pre-genital" stage of healthy, teleological development and further articulate a sense of the amorphous, a "gristly" lack of cogent form and ego-boundary so often associated with the feminine subject. In this way and as descriptions of a specifically feminine and modern coming-of-age, tendron and backfisch seem to echo descriptions of indistinct and boundless "masses," both the crowds of urban modernity and the consuming woman (Huyssen). In this case, the girl seems to embody Europe's ackward adolescence, manifest as a specifically American subject, at once savvy and naive for her malleability. More significantly, perhaps, Hall's use of these terms reconfigures the threat of lost ego – the liminalities against which the flâneur guards with his mobile and disengaged ogling – as a developmental stage specific to girls.

Ultimately, Hall rejects European diagnoses in favor of what he calls the "genius of American slangauge" (772). "Flapper" has "the advantage of a moral," he argues, in that it refers to an adolescent bird whose undeveloped wings forebode "what would happen if the young bird really ventured to trust itself" (772). The term, then, admonishes a child's anxious desire for liberty. In the context of early twentieth century America, the female fledgling that falls from the nest is worse than precocious: she has a clerical job on Wall Street. Thus, Hall chooses the word that pronounces most literally cultural anxiety about the "empty nest." For the "father" of American psychoanalysis, therein lies the "moral advantage" of the term. "Flapper," unlike tendron or backfisch, warns against women's precocious participation in public life. In the wake of the suffrage movement, the adoption of such a term further demonstrates that the "Americana Novissima" variety of the species posed an affront to feminine domesticity precisely for her visibility, which signaled her encroachment on public culture.

Hall’s article illustrates the ways in which the male “gaze” might be linked to a rationalist/scientific discourse and, again, the degree to which that ogling, “scientific” or otherwise, fails to render the feminine object any more intelligible. Arguably, Hall reveals less about the “modern woman” than he does about his own sense of alienation in the new urban scene and, in contrast, how the flapper’s mobility puts her at ease. Hall reports one telling incident, as follows:

First, on the street. The other day I found myself walking behind a girl who must have been approaching sweet sixteen. She held to the middle of the broad sidewalk…'Howdy Billy’ she called; and ‘Hello boys,’ was her greeting to three more a little later. Soon she turned on her heel and wandered back, so that I had to meet her. A glance at her comely, happy, innocent and vividly tinted face, as I swerved to one side that she might keep the middle of the walk…I stepped to the gutter and removed my hat as if apologizing for trespassing on preserves that belonged to her…Sheer accident had thus brought me within the range of the very specimen I had sought. But a deep instinct told me that I could never by any possible means hope to get into any kind of personal rapport with her. (772)

Here, Hall hardly masks what reads as physical intimidation with the imperious remove of scientific language: “If I should try to cultivate her, she would draw back into her shell; and to cultivate me would be the very last of her desires” (772). His “Flapper Americana” commands the space on the street. In Hall’s account, she seems to deploy her momentum and visibility as a means to dominate space. Certainly, her meandering gait mimics the entitled mobility of masculine flânerie. Both Hall and Bliven insist that the flapper only feigns this public savvy, but their descriptions suggest that her movements on the streets embody auditory and kinetic sensibilities. Bliven claims that "her walk duplicates the swagger supposed by innocent America to go with the female half of a Paris Apache dance," a set of stylized movements often performed in cabarets and to jazz accompaniment. Her “swagger,” of course, indicates her unprecedented self-assurance on the urban scene; even as a deliberate affect, the flappers swinging gait points to an unnerving and new kind of self-possession.

Hall similarly suggests that while the flapper “was out to see the world, and incidentally, to be seen of it,” some other sensibility informs her “swagger and superior” stride. Again, his description points to a type of movement that embodies social and musical sensibilities. In fact, he writes: “Let us turn our attention to dancing on which the flapper dotes as probably never before…she dances at noon and at recess in the school gymnasium; and if not in the school, at the restaurants between courses, or in the recreation rooms in factories and stores” (773). In these instances, the dancing body escapes the disciplinary conformities required by the factory or the classroom. Practiced knowledge of the intimate “toddle,” for instance, helps her to mitigate crowded conditions. As Hall argues, “the ‘toddle’ creates the maximum of motion in the minimum of space” (773). Moreover, the ability to start and stop abruptly, to turn quickly, or to avoid collision, navigational strategies necessary to the conditions of urban modernity, indicate a body informed by new kinetic sensibilities. Hall explicitly describes those sensibilities as embodied and affective. He insists, for instance that “[the flapper] has a keen sense of ragtime and ‘syncopation to the thirty second note,’ her nerves are uniquely toned to jazz, with its shocks and discords…its heterogeneous tempos” (773, emphasis mine).

Benjamin imagines the “shock” of urban modernity in terms of visual assaults and flashes, present in the urban streets and, eventually, at the cinema. For the “father” of American psychoanalysis, the “shock” of the new also includes urban noises, and the specifically American musical styles that made art from those conditions. In his Swinging the Machine: African-American Culture Between the Wars, cultural historian Joel Dinerstein illustrates the ways in which African-American music and dance forms created new aesthetics from the workings of the modern machine: the factory, the railroad, the radio, etc. Tap and swing, for instance, embodied the frenetic pace of modernity and reinvented the disciplinary monotonies of machine labor. Dinerstien also points out that in popular and academic literature, jazz and jazz-influenced pop music often was understood as the cultural soundtrack of urban mobility. In response, early twentieth century music critics sometimes denounced the ways in which the syncopation and discord of ragtime and jazz music echoed the kinetics and calamity of modern life (see Ogren).

For these reasons, among others, much of the controversy surrounding the figure of the flapper involved cultural fears about literal and figurative miscegenation. Hall and others illustrate not only a discomfort with white women’s presence on the streets and in American public life, but concern about the widespread adoption of kinetic styles associated with black and working-class music and dance. Indeed, the new sense of time and pace afforded the figure of the flapper certain navigational abilities that challenged white bourgeois gender expectations. These sensibilities, however imagined or appropriated, allowed the flapper to navigate more effectively than the American flâneur

Jazz affect also generated a panic audible in other forms of popular literature. Like complaints about rock or rap, the jazz panic focused almost exclusively on wanton women. Again, however, descriptions of these jazz figures point back to the unsettling emergence of an auditory and kinetic sensibility. In 1927, for instance, The Ladies Home Journal launched a multiple-article campaign against jazz with an exposé written by New York City’s Chief Magistrate. Here, Judge William McAdoo recounts “case after case” in which exposure to the “syncopated riot” in the dance halls and the city streets made delinquents of girls from otherwise “superior homes” (22). “He is especially concerned about girls who go wrong,” the Journal explains, “for he declares that in the age of jazz, with dance halls luring from the home, with ‘petting’ the vogue, the present generation is in far greater danger than their mothers or grandmothers ever were” (22).

Appropriately, then, McAdoo’s essay, “The Frightful Pace of Modern Jazz,” begins with the spectacular story of a matricide. He writes: When newspapers reported under sensational headlines that a young girl – sixteen years of age, pretty and physically alluring – had killed her own mother in a Far Western city because her mother had opposed her staying out late at night in cabarets and dance halls, a wave of shocked horror swept over the country" (22). The trouble starts with lax parenting. Judge McAdoo points out that the “slatternly” mother “overindulged” and thus precipitated her own murder. Authorities recover the girl’s diary, investigative perusal of which makes clear that jazz, in part, caused the delinquent behavior. The judge describes the diary as a “crude and illiterate [account of] the adventures of a young girl going the pace of jazz” (22, emphasis mine). As much as poor parenting, the “pace of jazz” produces a moral and physical condition. As the judge suggests, negligent mothers will find their daughters “petted and wayward, led astray by fast friends” (23). McAdoo’s arguments suggest that jazz music transforms the cultural and technological speed of modernity into physical and psychic affect. The new “pace” then makes for the ability to navigate modern conditions not only to “keep up with the times” but also to keep time with the syncopated “jolts” of the urban streets.  

Moreover, the syncopated sense of time and space associated with jazz music also came with its own forms of knowledge. McAdoo reports that at school, the delinquent girl “could not locate the capitals of two states, but before she was sixteen she could find every night club in the city where she lived” (23). Her knowledge of geography, then, was not literary, but physical, a result of kinetic explorations and nighttime intrigue. As McAdoo explains, “she had only a smattering knowledge of multiplication tables, but came early to evaluate money, developing a canny sense for bargain sales of dresses and fineries and for extracting gifts from men” (23). Though the judge clearly intends to demonstrate through comparison her conditioned amorality, it seems that the young woman developed another way of knowing: the pace of jazz made her “streetwise,” able to navigate the city, its commerce and its population of strangers – leering gentlemen – perhaps better than the perpetually distant flâneur. Unlike the masculine wanderer of European modernity, the flapper knows the city, knows where she is going, sets her stride to its pace, to the pace of its commerce. Her formal education suffers, but the girl is streetwise. As Judge McAdoo writes: “when she was sixteen years old she was as sophisticated as any of the hard faced elderly women she met at the nightclubs” (23).

Indeed, hardened attitudes and a general sense of ennui often permeate descriptions of the “Flapper Americana.” Popular accounts sometimes registered the flapper’s knowing-ness as a symptom of jazz exposure. Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920) announced the degeneracy of "popular daughters" from otherwise respectable families: "just try to find the P.D. [popular daughter between dances, just try to find her…deep in an atmosphere of jungle music and the questioning of moral codes" (45).  For Fitzgerald, "jungle music," resounded with precisely the dangerous public into which girls vanished and offered those same girls a refuge from the prescriptive expectations of their class. These transgressions also suggested to some critics the end of an essential innocence – one previously predicated on women’s moral quarantine within the bourgeois household. In This Side of Paradise, "popular daughters" resurface on the street and suddenly, tragically, "in the know." Fitzgerald writes, "Amory saw girls doing things that even in his memory would have been impossible: eating three-o'clock, after-dance suppers in impossible cafes, talking of every side of life with an air half of earnestness, half of mockery, yet with a furtive excitement that Amory considered stood for a real moral let-down" (52). Fitzgerald's male protagonists often embody upper class ennui, but the author imagines world weariness – the "real moral let down" – as a specifically feminine malady (Turnbull 259). That “moral let down” echoes the dashed hopes of finding the “eternal feminine,” the ideal woman whose opacity preserves her propensity for moral uplift. Similar to McAdoo’s complaints about “slatternly” mothers, and Hall’s invocation of “Chorus Mysticus,” Fitzgerald’s flapper remains unintelligible – despite Amory’s witness to the “impossible” settings and events. Instead, the figure of the flapper supplants women’s presumed moral knowledge and its attendant burdens with knowingness; she is street-wizened as a result of her movement in public, her shameless contact with the urban scene, and of course, her nerves attuned to the “jolts and starts” of jazz.


The jazz age may conjure the spectacle of Gatsby’s mansion, but the term jazz age also describes an era of auditory and kinetic sensibility.  After his death in 1940, Zelda Fitzgerald explained her husband’s specific talent for representation. She writes that he "seized from the nebulous of civilization, the essence of a girl able to survive the new" (709, emphasis mine). If Benjamin’s flâneur exemplifies a rationalist and, arguably, masculine, Western response to the conditions of urban modernity, one that absorbs the shocks and “peripatetic fragments” of the new urban spectacle, then the figure of the flapper as she emerges in popular and literary fiction, and as a subject peculiar to modern conditions, suggests other means by which to absorb the “shock.” In so doing, the flapper points to both the limits of flânerie, as means to master the urban scene, and to the figure of the flâneur, as a metaphor for urban modernity in America.

Works Cited

Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2000.

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York, NY: Verso Editions, 1989.

---. Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Random House, 2007.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Bliven, Bruce. “Flapper Jane.” The New Republic September 1925: 65-67.

Cline, Sally. Zelda Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Arcade Publishing, 2004.

Conor, Liz. The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

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