The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia

Image of The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia
Release Date: 
March 21, 2016
Reviewed by: 

New York City was the center of the world in the 1940s, according to author David Reid. He builds his case looking at the political and social scene of the decade. While the rest of the world was in pains from World War II, New York was flourishing and benefitting from the influx of European exiles (Einstein, Toscanini, Brecht, etc.).

Culturally, the rest of New York was reaping intellectual and artistic oats being sewn by the latest graduates from the New School, wherein philosophers and artists, among other faculty, were encouraging cultural exploration through lectures and museum attendance. The public numbers rose dramatically at the various fine arts museums, and the same patrons who once felt these institutions were too highbrow were now feeling educated and encouraged by the New School beliefs.

The various sections in this book talk about broad ideas, and each chapter is an illuminative look, spotlighting a portion of the bigger idea. Reid sets the stage with his prologue on Franklin D. Roosevelt as, ailing, he tours the country to refute Republican claims about his health (he died six months later). Roosevelt’s procession moves him through Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan—those very places that would become central to architecture, cinema, publishing, theater, radio, and the beginning of television. Greenwich Village would fill with radicals and intellectuals, refugees from Europe, publishing in small journals and presses, creating sophisticated and culturally important tracts and denunciations about foreign governments, and calls to a new America.

The most interesting sections of this book are those on New York as a City of Refuge and what was brought into the country by the exiles and emigres, as well as how the city received them.

The third section of the book is equally fascinating and will be of great importance to scholars looking to examine the literary scene of the 1940s—from books on the front lines, libraries, and Grub Street to the writing culture and its gods.

History fans of World War II or of New York may find this tome a bit too complex. The book is not a light read nor is it always easy to follow. With complex sentence structures and a depth of ideas, the average reader looking for a layman’s book on New York City during the 1940s would do better elsewhere; however, scholars will want to add The Brazen Age to their shelves. The book needn’t be read cover to cover, but can be dived into by section, depending on the reader’s interest.

This is an excellent resource, filled with details from primary sources and plenty of secondary source discussion—a fantastic example of what scholarly conversation should look like—with an interdisciplinary scope that gives a fuller view of New York during the 1940s. There are footnotes, endnotes, and an index.

While Reid is thorough in his research, this book is one of those historical tour de forces that is everything but the kitchen sink in his exploration and analysis of the time. Filled with detail, The Brazen Age might overwhelm the average reader in terms of content, but underwhelmed by the writing style—this is a study, not a work of casual nonfiction.