Students are getting their essays back. Many are surprised, some appalled, to find them heavily annotated, perhaps harshly graded. I explain that that’s what I’m paid for and that I pencil over Masters’ theses and established authors’ manuscripts in the same way. Queries about meaning and organization (is this paragraph in the right place?), correction of grammar, syntax, and usage; rigorous excision of padding, jargon, irrelevance. Are you saying what you mean? Will you convince the reader?

Once they see how it’s done, students will criticize and edit each other’s work. It helps them think about their own.

Subject matter: The United States got into World War I late and left early, when Congress rejected Wilson’s plans to reshape the world. More Americans were affected by other issues: votes for women; prohibition; xenophobia, racism, and isolationism. Sadly, perhaps, these issues were linked: some suffrage campaigners were militant members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; some claimed that white, native-born, educated women’s votes would combat the political influence of immigrants, blacks… Cities, industries, and inequities continued to grow.

Despite (or because of?) the issues, the Twenties roared. New music and dances, fast cars, new opportunities for women (at least if they were young and middle class). New ways to make money fast: bootlegging on the one hand, the stock market on (perhaps) the other.

Then the deluge. My students didn’t survive the Great Depression, but their families did. Memories can be recalled. My grandfathers were lucky: they had safe government jobs (mailman, mechanic). But my parents remained unnecessarily frugal in some ways throughout their lives. My wife’s ancestors remembered taking extra sandwiches to school for less lucky kids. Many families can recall grimmer memories.

New lifestyles and literature were developing, especially on the West Coast. Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles was a new sort of American city, dedicated to the automobile and suburbia. Some students will watch Bogart in The Big Sleep, as well as reading the book. LA noir: the darkness and the glitter are in the movie, but even more in Chandler’s language. Threatened with a powerful gangster, a small-time hood asks “What would I be to Eddie Mars?” “Not even a memory,” the detective replies.

David R Jones is sometimes accused of living in the past.

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