S&T researcher to study the American flapper at Harvard

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On October 20, 2008

Dr. Kate Drowne, an associate professor of English and technical communication at Missouri University of Science and Technology, has recently been granted a non-residential fellowship at Harvard University to extend her research on the flapper figure in American literature.

Drowne intends to study novels and periodical fiction from the 1920s to illustrate the characteristics of the flapper. “Dozens of American writers of the 1920s used her in their novels and short stories to epitomize the tenor of the times and to capture the radical changes that traditional manners and morals underwent during the years following the World War I,” says Drowne, who is working on her third book about 1920s culture. “The flapper characters demonstrated to a generation of women how they should and should not behave, and examining this literature reveals a world of competing pressures and expectations that real women of the 1920s struggled to navigate.”

The non-residential fellowship with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African-American and African Studies will allow Drowne access to the extensive and exclusive Harvard library, where she hopes to dig up rare sources of 1920s literature.

The 1920s is commonly considered the first modern era. Popular culture became nationalized through radios, movies, mass-circulation magazines, and the rise of the automobile. Flapper characters became common in motion pictures and advertisements, as well as in the literature of the day. Visual representations of the flapper, including flapper cartoons on the covers of Life magazine, appeared everywhere.

Public opinion about the flapper was widely varied during her existence. “She was viewed by some as a perfect role model for the new woman, free of old fashioned Victorian ideals, and by others as a harbinger of disaster, signaling the destruction of the nation,” Drowne says. “Still others thought that the flapper was just going through a phase, and would eventually settle into more traditional female roles.”

Characters like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Anita Loos’ Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes allow readers today to understand how women thought and behaved. Drowne thinks novels show a more complete picture of the character and her thoughts than modern movies. Marilyn Monroe’s character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is very superficial, but in the book, Loos gives a glimpse of the woman behind the facade.

The American flapper is a snapshot of some women between World War I and the Great Depression. “She was thought of as flighty and frivolous by so many that she began to disappear from American fiction as the Great Depression deepened in the 1930s,” says Drowne. “Yet despite her disappearance, the indelible memory of her bobbed hair, short skirts, and irreverent nature still remains with us today.”

Though she lost much of her appeal as the country began to face serious economic issues, the controversial and rebellious flapper made it acceptable for women to play a more prominent role in society, according to Drowne.
Drowne is the author of Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933 and co-author of American Popular Culture Through History: The 1920s. Drowne will spend several months over the next year on her research at Harvard. She intends to complete her new book, The Flapper in American Literature of the Jazz Age, by the fall of 2010.

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