Jazz was, as a generic mode and organizational device, crucially misunderstood by some early twentieth century audiences, so much so that it became itself a genre built upon the manufacture of misunderstanding. Edith Wharton and Theodor Adorno, disparate figures in literary history, are linked here through their criticisms of jazz culture, as both strive to appraise jazz’s corrosion of the artistic form (be that form literary, musical, or otherwise). Such popular misapprehension becomes, over the course an additional hundred years, a deeply entrenched and dogmatic acceptance of form: jazz is not only best understood as form, but, in fact, may only be definitively understood as such, following Paul Whiteman’s famous statement that jazz is “not the thing said, but the manner of saying it.” Focusing, then, not on the “thing” — that is, jazz music in specific — but the “manner of saying it,” or its stylistic properties, Wharton and Adorno’s critiques of jazz culture connect to a woman who was, in the early 1920s, both a living instantiation and emblem of it: Olive Thomas. Thomas embodied the jazz aesthetic in her public character and in her personal life; she was “the first flapper,” but far from the last, becoming an ultimately replaceable figure conscripted for use in the programs of both jazz and modernity, and helping furthermore to found a tradition of such generic replacement for women like her.


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pp. 99-118
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