Fracture: Life and culture in the West 1918–1938
Atlantic Books, $29.99 pb, 494 pp, 9780857892201
In 1915 a young Englishman was repatriated from the Western front to Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital in Scotland. Traumatised and disillusioned, he would write the best-known anthem of his doomed generation. Wilfred Owen's horror was replicated across the war zones of the twentieth century. Shell shock, epitomising the catastrophic new relationship between man and machine, is Philipp Blom's unifying metaphor in Fracture: Life and culture in the West 1918–1938, a popular history of the interwar years (1918–38).
Fracture begins with an episode linking US events to the wider Western world, signalling that this is the story of the West, not just Europe. In 1920 Mamie Smith created history as the first black artist to make a blues recording. For Blom, this event was not just about race. Smith sang of unadorned emotion, bringing popular culture into the mainstream. Jazz was the iconic release from the confines of the pre-war world, and just one of transnational imports that ushered in the era of American supremacy. The following year links the rebellion of the Kronstadt sailors, brutally suppressed by Lenin, with the labour strife splitting the United States and fatally weakening the American workers unions. Edwin Hubble's identification in 1923 of a cepheid variable star in the galaxy of Andromeda provided data that would galvanise German physicist Werner Heisenberg to formulate quantum mechanics.